The North American P-51 Mustang
P-51 Mustang at Reno 2012
2012 Unlimited Gold Racers
story and photos by Curtis Fowles

It has been three years since the last Sunday Breitling Gold Unlimited Final at Reno. 2010 was cancelled because of very high winds and 2011 was cancelled after the crash of Jimmy Leeward. Plenty of pressure on everyone to have a Breitling Gold Final this year. The pilots and crew worked extremely hard to bring some very fast racers to Reno in 2012. The Reno Air Race Association has pulled off a miracle as many said it was over for good after 2011.

Needless to say, the fans were hungry for some loud and screaming V-12s and massive radials flying ovals in the desert.

The favorite and fastest qualifier was Steven Hinton in #7 Strega. Team Strega has a great run of winning at Reno posting speeds over 490 mph consistently. They are nearly impossible to beat unless they break or beat themselves. Rare Bear was flying during the summer more than a month before the races. Now that is a miracle. For the last several years, the Bear's first flights were either during qualifying or just before the races started. Hats off to Team Rare Bear for being prepped and ready to go this year. Stewart Dawson is now the pilot of Rare Bear taking over for past champion John Penny - tough shoes to fill.

Rod Lewis also brought the past winning Sea Fury "September Fury" and has a great stick at the controls, Robert "Hoot" Gibson. Team September Fury looked great all week and was eager to make up for the blown engine in qualifying last year. Rod Lewis' two top racers battled during the week more than once.

A very welcome surprise this year was the sound and speed of #38, Thom Richard's "Precious Metal". The highly modified racer uses the Rolls Royce Griffon V-12 with contra-rotating props. They have that Griffon sounding and running outstanding. Richard also had work done to the props and some new paint. Even after a disappointing finish on Sunday, Team Precious Metal deserves congratulations. They showed that the Griffon can compete for the podium.

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The biggest disappointment has to be for Team Furias. Furias was looking awesome and sounding just as good early in the week. After take off for qualifying on Tuesday, pilot Matt Jackson reported a gear malfunction. He got the mains to retract ok, but the tail wheel was hanging out part way. No harm (for now), just drag so he dove onto the course and put up some good times in the 460 mph range with that tail gear hanging out. After qualifying it was time to get the gear down. With the gear handle down, "3 green" was not heard from Jackson.

He could not get all 3 gear lights to show down and locked. The safety pilot came in close for a look and gave a thumbs up to a visual inspection. Upon landing, the right gear collapsed, sending the prop and right wing to the pavement. Jackson held it straight for a long as his rudder would let him, but the beautiful red Sea Fury skidding into the dirt on the right side of runway 32 where it came to rest. Their week is over.

That is a real shame because the team has worked very hard to get to Reno and the aircraft looked and sounded beautiful. We certainly hope to see this one back next year.

With Furias out, Strega who qualified fastest will only have to contend with Rare Bear, September Fury and the unknown speed of Precious Metal. But of course, the Buick (Dreadnought) is just cruising around at 455 mph waiting for the spoils of blown race motors ahead.

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September Fury was breaking in a new race motor and they certainly did not want a repeat of last year. Hoot flew set power each day, bumping it up as things progressed smoothly. By Friday Hoot was taking aim at his teammate Dawson in Rare Bear. Gibson started 5th (last) in the Friday Heat. He put on a show and eventually passed Rare Bear and finished 2nd in the heat.

In the Saturday Gold Heat, Rare Bear got a great start as the Bearcat is much faster accelerating than the P-51 Strega. Dawson passed Hoot quickly and the Bear was close to Strega until the V-12 of Strega finished winding up and at about pylon 6, Steven Hinton was a half a pylon ahead of everyone. The Bear needed to keep it up because Hoot was fast approaching. Drama was brewing in the pits as the two Rod Lewis teammates were going at it on the course - again. September Fury had already passed the Bear on Friday and put a "kill" sticker on the side of the Sea Fury - the fun has begun.

As Rare Bear and September Fury go at it on Saturday, Steven Hinton is out in clean but choppy air increasing his lead each lap until the power comes back a bit. Hoot Gibson finally gets a burst of speed needed to pass Rare Bear ... Kill #2! Thom Richard ran a good race with Dennis Sanders on his wing. Sanders finished only a half second behind Richard. WOW! Great racing on Saturday!

As Sunday approaches, the weather is near perfect, with afternoon winds between 15 and 20 kts. Strega is at the pole, then September Fury, Rare Bear, Precious Metal, Dreadnought, Miss America and Sawbones.

Again, as they come down the chute and start the race, Dawson in Rare Bear pulls out and guns for Strega. He gets close, but again as the Merlin winds up, Strega says good bye to the field and we have a race for 2nd place. If Steven Hinton flies a good line (as he almost always does) and the Merlin holds together, nobody can catch him. Hoot did not like the Bear passing him at the start so he takes a low, tight and steady line to catch the Bear. As it turns out, the Bear cut pylon #4 on lap #4 and later pulled out and DNF, but landed safely. They still have had some ignition gremlins. Hoot takes 2nd place and ya, you guessed it, #3 Rare Bear Kill sticker was applied!

Thom Richard pulled out after lap #3 because he lost a gear door - something that does not happen much. He also landed safely.

Breitling Unlimited Gold Final:

Congrats to Tiger Destefani, owner of Strega and to Steven Hinton, pilot of Strega, to L.D. Hughes, Crew Chief and all the Strega Crew members! What an incredible run of winning at Reno!

Talk is that Strega will be retired from air racing before next year. But can you imagine that Tiger would not bring his Strega to win the 50th Anniversary of the Reno Air Races? ... he has all winter to think that over.

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