A teen-ager with a cigarette fixed to his lip walked alongside the elderly World War II fighter plane and called out: "Hey, who owns this thing?"
"No. 3," said a voice from the aircraft's innards.
"Where's he from?" someone else asked.
"No. 4," the voice said.
October 1, 1972
"Why do people do crazy things like this?" the teener muttered.
"No. 16," answered the voice.
A spectator who couldn't bear to watch the young man's puzzlement pointed helpfully to a blackboard posted alongside the old P-51 Mustang. On the board was chalked "40 Answers to Dumb Questions." No. 3 was "Gunther Balz." No. 4 was "Kalamazoo, Mich." No. 16 was "Honi soit qui mal y pense," which another bystander helpfully translated as "Don't bother the monkeys when they're trying to get Gunther's plane in shape."
The scene of these arcane rites was one of those parched and abandoned Air Force bases scarring the Western desert with bomber-length runways that surely must baffle scientists on Uranus and Pluto. The occasion was the ninth annual running (or flying) of the resurrected Reno National Championship Air Races—for propeller aircraft only—an event reviving a sport that was moribund from 1949 to 1964 because it was killing off pilots and spectators alike. Now, thanks to a tough lawyer and air-racing enthusiast named Stanley Brown and some equally inspired colleagues, the races were alive and kicking and roaring and coughing and splatting at a decibel level even higher than the Lexington Avenue subway. For three days the racers turned the gambling-and-marrying town of Reno into the world capital of interrupted conversations, and the old air base north of town into a farrago of din and flash.
There were planes in forest green and soda-pop orange and lemon-peel yellow, and stripes and crescents and swirls and checks, and even a few in camouflage paint to heighten nostalgia. The aircraft ranged in size from tiny Formula I racers that looked like airplane models up to "the big iron," World War II-type fighters that race in the spectacular Unlimited Class. There was even one sleek little blue-and-white gull-winged racer dubbed Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which figures.
Gunther Balz, No. 3 on the Dumb-Answer board, is a 40-year-old manufacturer and oenophile and self-described "half-fast" inventor whose own racing P-51 bears a nonflashy coat of gunmetal resin to hide the rivets. The tall, blue-eyed Balz, a graduate of MIT, is so intimidated by speed that he drives a tiny Honda automobile (top speed, 65 mph) and suffers nervous indigestion every time he races his Roto-Finish Special, named after his company back home in Kalamazoo (and nicknamed by his competitors "Old Roto-Rooter").
There is no simple explanation of what a respectable buinessman and patent holder like Gunther Balz is doing in a zany sport like Unlimited air racing. "Gee, I wish I knew," Balz says in the ingenuous manner that serves to conceal his erudition and sometimes to psych his opponents into taking him too lightly. "For years I resisted flying. I said, I'm not gonna break my neck. Then my dad took it up in his mid-50s, and he said, 'Gunther, as long as I've got this airplane, why don't you learn to fly it?' In the air, I had two immediate reactions: I was scared, and I was enjoying myself. So I bought a racing plane, and then I bought another. I'm still scared right up till I get buckled into the cockpit, and after every race I have a little ritual. I jump out of the plane as fast as I can, and I practically faint from sheer terror at what I've done. But I'm still enjoying myself. Is that normal? I don't know. When I figure it out, I'll put the answer on the chalkboard."
If Gunther Balz sounds a trifle, uh, different, then consider some of the other 100 or so pilots who raced at Reno for $81,000 in purses. Since there are hardly any legitimate air races left (Reno's was the only major event for Unlimiteds this year), one no longer sees the greasy, red-eyed professionals who, in Novelist William Faulkner's words, "...wanted just enough money to live, to get to the next place to race again." Nowadays an air racer must have an outside income, like Cliff Cummins, M.D., of Riverside, Calif., who drives a souped-up P-51, wears Lederhosen on the flight line and looks like a young Harpo Marx, right down to—or up to—his hairdo. He also is a noted radiologist.
Then there are "Bearcat Fats," a 270-pound investor named John Church who races an immaculate, navy blue F8F-2 Bearcat; and "Mr. X," a major airline's chief pilot who flies somebody else's racer and hopes to God his company does not find out; and Howie Keefe, a 51-year-old Los Angeles advertising executive who still wears his Navy cap bearing scrambled eggs and gold pilot's wings; and Jack Sliker of Wadley, Ga., who crop-dusts all year to save up for the races, sometimes has to be advanced gasoline money for the trip home, and whose on-the-ground crew is said to consist of a crescent wrench jammed into his back pocket.
"Normal human beings?" says the race director, Jerry Duty. "No, they're not normal human beings or they wouldn't be here. But who likes normal human beings?"
Partly as a result of Duty's proficiency and partly as a result of meticulous planning by Chief Judge Stan Brown and his staff of hyperenergetic businessmen, the Reno races rang up eight consecutive years without a fatality or injury. "We've had our Maydays," Duty said, "but—knock wood—we've brought 'em all back alive every year." But this year he didn't knock wood hard enough.
The first heat of the Unlimited races brought a baleful omen. Howie Keefe, in his Miss America, began a routine pass over the top of Lyle Shelton, a DC-8 pilot from Cypress, Calif. flying a beautiful purple-and-white F8F Bearcat, The Phast Phoenix. Just as Keefe's red-white-and-blue Mustang lapped onto the Bearcat at something over 400 mph, Shelton began to climb into him; the result was a near collision that had the crowd gasping. "Oh, they missed by two, three feet," Jerry Duty said, his eyes blazing with anger. "It adds spice to the races, but it's the kind of spice we can do without." At a meeting later, Duty reminded all the pilots at the top of his lungs: "Don't move into any space you haven't cleared or you'll do your racing someplace else." The message was received.
The winner of the first Unlimited heat was the undisputed super-plane of the Reno races—and, indeed, the fastest propeller-driven aircraft in the world—Conquest I, a highly refurbished F8F Bearcat that once was clocked at 483.041 mph. Its owner, a Mach 3 test pilot named Darryl Greenamyer, was sitting out this year's races as a result of several unappreciated feats of dangerous derring-do while winning last year's event. Greenamyer's Bearcat had appeared in the Reno races eight times and won seven (losing only in 1970 when the wheels refused to retract), and this year it was being flown ferociously by a dashing NASA pilot named Richard Laidley, who is a Ph.D. in geology on the side. After experts watched rookie Laidley warm up in spine-tingling rides at pylon heights, word went out around the field: "Conquest I absolutely can't lose." Said Jerry Duty: "Darryl's gonna have his revenge."
Gunther Balz, wearing a Dave Wottletype fatigue cap and suffering from his usual vapors, won the other Unlimited heat race at a speed of 395.590, which was eight mph slower than Dr. Laidley's time. So the eventual winner seemed more than ever foreordained, at least to everyone but Balz. But then Balz knew something. The sly wine collector had been indulging in a classic technique of racing—sandbagging.
"Last year I qualified at 419 miles an hour," Balz explained later, "and that's still the National Air Race qualifying record. But my speed told everybody how fast my plane was and who to beat in the finals, and they went out and did it. This year I held my qualifying speed way down—393.75—and I never used more than 90% throttle when I won my heat race at 395.59. Even at that, I tore about four feet of surface off the fuselage. There's a lot of G forces out there. It's scary."
The day before the big race, which was the grand finale of the meeting, a smarmy-looking mechanic explained to a group of insiders on the apron, "Laidley can't be beat."
"Anybody can be beaten," Gunther Balz said quietly, and cycled away to oversee repairs on his skinned airplane. Somebody said in his wake, "Maybe we should make that Stupid Answer No. 41."
The night before the Unlimited finals, Balz hardly slept. "I knew I was gonna finish first or last," he said later. "I was gonna win that race or I was gonna blow the engine to pieces. It was unsettling." Out on the ramp early the next morning, he described his feelings to another pilot, Bob Mitchem, an AT-6 champion who was stepping up to Unlimiteds himself. "Bob," Balz said, "it's got to be everything or nothing."
"It's only a race, Gunther," Mitchem answered. "You don't have to go all out all the way."
"The hell you don't," Balz snapped. "There's only one way to beat the world's fastest airplane, and that's flat-out from start to finish."
Then, under a searing sun and a powder blue sky dusted with light puffs of cloud, bad vibes set in. In the AT-6 event a plane jumped the flag on a standing start, swerved into the stream of other racers and almost forced one of them into the jammed grandstands at full throttle. "That's the closest to a major tragedy I've ever seen," said a quaking race official. A few minutes later three automobiles and a camper drove blithely down the airport runway, apparently having blundered onto the course via a back road. And just after noon the unblemished record of the Reno races went up in a deadly puff of black, oily smoke.
Sports Biplane Pilot H. E. (Tommy) Thomas, an affable airplane sales executive from Sacramento, was flying straight and level down the back course when—without warning or apparent reason—he crashed nose first at full power. A helicopter was at the scene in seconds, but the first words over the radio were, "Call the coroner."
Back in the hangar putting finishing touches to his plane, Gunther Balz heard about the crash and felt violently sick to his stomach. "I began looking around for an excuse not to fly," he said later. "Anything—a tiny leak, a crack in the canopy, anything, but there was nothing. I had to fly."
The Unlimited racers—three P-51 Mustangs, two F8F Bearcats, a Hawker Sea Fury and Bob Mitchem's Goodyear-built Corsair, each of them representing about a $100,000 investment—followed a pace Mustang far out over the Sierra Nevadas and then came winging toward the line for a flying start. Dr. Dick Laidley and his aluminum-colored Conquest I were on the pole, tucked tightly against the pace plane. Balz took up a position slightly above and behind. When the starter turned them loose, "Old Roto-Rooter" fell back into third place, a victim of the relatively slow starting speed of about 350. "She doesn't like to fly that slow," Balz explained later. "The engine was gurgling and sputtering and complaining. But I couldn't just advance full throttle—that would have sent a rod flying through the fuselage. So it took me a mile or so to get up a head of speed gradually. When I finally got moving, I could see Laidley down low in the lead, and Lyle Shelton running second in his Bearcat. I wasn't on full throttle, and I was still keeping pace with them, so I figured I was in pretty good shape."
But he also remained frightened. He still wanted an excuse to drop out and he found a good one in only the second lap of the eight-lap (76-mile) race. His water-pressure indicator fell sharply, and the heat gauge began going up. The water-methanol mixture cools the engine and also provides extra power through injection, and without it a racer has absolutely no chance. "I was relieved," Balz said. "I said to myself, 'That's what you've been looking for. Now you don't have to race.'
"But just for the hell of it—I'll never know why, except that I wanted that trophy in the worst damned way—I began advancing the throttle, and the crazy thing responded. The whole plane just jumped. It felt great. All my dials were past the red lines, and I said to myself, "Let's go!' And I went absolutely wide open."
From the ground the race had appeared to be running routinely through the first two laps. Laidley was flying a perfect course at pylon height; Shelton was a few seconds behind and slightly higher, and Balz was hanging up in third position at the abnormally high altitude of 500 feet.
The first indication of any deviation from the script came when Roto-Finish Special roared past Phast Phoenix right in front of the main stands on the third lap and then began making a run at the leader.
Screaming into the fourth lap, the intrepid Dr. Laidley made his only mistake of a perfect race: He took pylon No. 1 a few yards wide. Balz made a perfect turn and closed ground.
In the middle of the backstretch on the 9.5-mile course, Balz flew right over the top of Laidley and took the lead. The race announcer reacted with consternation. "Will that Rolls-Royce engine take the pressure that Balz is putting to it?" he cried over the P.A. system.
Up in the air with four laps to go, Gunther Balz was equally concerned about the engine and his wildly spinning instruments. Briefly he thought, "Boy, that's the first time Laidley's ever been passed. I'll bet he can't believe it." But the race was only half over, and Balz was squeezing 3,300 hp out of a 27-year-old engine built to put out 1,400. At any second, it could seize up—or blow up.
For all this show of power, Laidley and the world's fastest prop plane were far from finished. The gritty NASA test pilot, a soft-spoken gentlemanly soul on the ground but a wild competitor in the air, accomplished what most of the spectators and judges thought was impossible and certainly unwise: he lowered his altitude. Race rules call for a minimum altitude of pylon height—45 feet—but Laidley repeatedly dropped his port wing tip to within inches of the parched desert sand as he churned about the pylons. His progress on the back course could be followed by the long ribbon of dust he was raising—at speeds around 450 mph—and judges and spectators were aghast.
A radio message crackled out to Conquest I: "Watch the low flying." Laidley picked some more flowering sage with his wing tip and the message was repeated. By now the crowd was standing up, amazed and a little unnerved by the bold ride of the second-place pilot, and the judges came within an ace of black-flagging him.
But for all the ground he saved, Laidley was gaining nothing on Gunther Balz. The P-51 was turning laps at 430, reaching 460 in the straights, opening the gap, and there was no doubt whatever that it was going to finish as predicted—first or last. On the ramp a mixed group of P-51 drivers and mechanics and owners and wives, exhilarated by the prospect of an end to Conquest I's relentless reign, whooped and hollered and jumped up and down, and when Balz flashed past the checkered flag to begin his safety lap, the crowd noise seemed louder than the airplanes.
At that dramatic point Gunther Balz and his gray Mustang vanished. "Where'd he go?" people shouted. Binoculars were aimed all over the abandoned air base, but the Mustang was gone. "It crashed! It crashed!" a hysterical woman shouted, and necks were craned to find the telltale puff of smoke rising from the desert.
But then "Old Roto-Rooter" came into sight, not in the air but on the ground, chugging slowly along one of the runways on the far side of the huge air base, about three miles from the grandstands. The ancient warplane took forever to lurch and squeal its way to the winner's circle, where Balz jerked the canopy open and told his crew chief, Dwight Thorn, "I love ya, I love ya," and then added in a lower voice: "We just made it, boy."
"Where'd you disappear to?" somebody asked, and Balz explained that the plane was simply exhausted—"It couldn't have raced another half mile"—and that he had dumped it, "downwind and dirty," on the first runway he saw after the checkered flag. He didn't seem surprised to learn that his speed, 416.160 mph, was a new national Unlimited championship record or that Laidley himself had turned a near-record 413.175 (but was later disqualified for his low ride, giving second place to Lyle Shelton and third to Howie Keefe).
Still wearing his wottle hat, the winner and world-class worrier climbed out on a wing of his P-51 and slid to the ground. A woman ran up and said, "Hey, Mr. Balz, I bet on you. Here, you can have my winnings." She handed over 30 cents, bringing Balz' total purse to $12,500.30.
Off to one side, Dr. Dick Laidley was catching his breath in the shadow of Conquest I, his salt-and-pepper hair wringing wet from cockpit heat and total effort. Balz strode over and asked, "What happened?"
"Nothing," Laidley said, smiling wanly.
"Come on," Balz said. "What happened?"
"Nothing happened," Laidley repeated firmly. "You went faster, that's all."
Balz turned away, signed more autographs, shook more hands, exchanged expertise with a few of his competitors and headed back to his camper half a mile down the ramp. En route, he suddenly realized he had forgotten his traditional post-race ritual. He had not found time to be scared.