Adrenaline junkies: first New Zealand team at Reno Air Races inspired by racing legend Burt Munro

Members of the Full Noise team heading to Reno, from left, Paula Theodore, JEM Aviation director Jay McIntyre and pilot ...

Members of the Full Noise team heading to Reno, from left, Paula Theodore, JEM Aviation director Jay McIntyre and pilot and team leader Graeme Frew.

Air racing is the fastest motorsport in the world. For the first time ever, a New Zealand team is heading to the famous Reno Air Races to compete. Reporter Oliver Lewis finds out more.

In two months, tens of thousands of people will look to the skies over Nevada and see a Soviet fighter plane streak past, travelling at more than 600kmh over the arid Reno desert.

The Yak-3 will turn, banking around the course at the Reno Air Races, and reveal a number painted on its wing: 35, done in distinctive black font on a circular, yellow background.

For most Americans sweltering in the 30 degree Celsius heat the number will mean nothing, but any New Zealander in the crowd might look skyward with a glimpse of recognition.

Because the first Kiwi team ever to race at the world-famous event chose it for a reason: as a homage to the pioneering motorcyclist and land-speed record holder, Burt Munro.

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Graeme Frew inspects the Yak-3 before it ships out to Los Angeles. The number 35 on the wing and the fuselage, down to ...

Graeme Frew inspects the Yak-3 before it ships out to Los Angeles. The number 35 on the wing and the fuselage, down to the font and colouring, is a homage to Burt Munro.

Munro had the number painted on the side of his 1920 India motorcycle, and for the team heading to Reno his number 8 wire approach, dedication and grit have been an inspiration.

Leading the charge is Auckland-based Air New Zealand captain Graeme Frew, who come September will be swapping the controls of an A320 Airbus to sit in the cockpit of the Yak-3 he bought in 2004.

The plane has pedigree at Reno. In 1999, a botched take-off attempt resulted in one of the wings digging into the dirt, sending the plane cartwheeling along the ground at high speed.

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The wings and undercarriage were replaced, but like the time Munro spent perfecting his motorcycle, it took 14,000 hours of work to make the Yak-3 airworthy. 

"Because it crashed there, I've always wanted to go back to Reno and say 'you know what, world, this is what Kiwis can do'. It would complete the circle," Frew says.

"It's really the only place in the world now where you can do this kind of racing, we're doing things that would probably put you in jail anywhere else - flying at 50 feet at 400 miles an hour."

Sitting at the cafe at the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre, in Blenheim - a hot spot for aviation - Frew gestures in the direction of the JEM Aviation hanger, some 50 metres away where the bulk of the rebuild took place.

In a shipping container out front, the Yak-3, christened 'Full Noise' for the races, lies in pieces, dissembled and ready for its three-week journey from Nelson to Los Angeles.

"To see it in the container, ready to go makes the whole thing very real now," Frew says.

"There's a great phrase on a Youtube video about Reno, which says it's a bridge to the past - that really resonated with me.

"It's a bridge back to the past where you had test pilots pushing the limits, and this world we're living in now seems to be more controlled in an effort to make us safe - Reno pushes against that."

Frew has been to the races for the past four years. Two years ago, he happened to see a similar Yak in action, doing what he describes as a relatively slow 525kmh.

The sight encouraged him to take his own plane up for a test run, reaching a speed of about 560kmh - the seed was sown, and soon after he was on the phone with his engine builder.

Los Angeles-based Joe Yancey agreed to sponsor an engine for the race, a v12 Allison with an output of 1300 horsepower, and Jay McIntyre, director of Marlborough's JEM Aviation, jumped on board, too, to provide sponsorship and join the team as head engineer.

The team arrive in the United States on August 20, to reassemble the plane, get in some test flying with the new engine and generally prepare for the races, which take place between September 13 to 17.

Air racing is known as the fastest motorsport on the planet. In Reno, the team is set to compete in the Unlimited class, which consists almost solely of World War II fighters, some capable of reaching speeds of up to 800kmh.

The category is further divided into grades, gold, silver, and bronze. The pilots competing in the gold grade are the fastest-of-the fast, most backed by multi-millionaires who can afford to sink sizeable chunks of money into modifying their fighters.

These planes can do the eight laps of the roughly 12km oval course in about nine minutes. While the Yak-3 is not that quick, Frew says the team hopes to qualify in the silver grade, limited to aeroplanes capable of doing more than 600kmh.

"I'm not an adrenaline junkie, I don't think - maybe I am," Frew concedes.

"One of the things I love about this kind of flying is because it's so different to my day job. I think the air hostesses would get a bit grumpy if I tipped the plane upside down."

 - The Marlborough Express


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