“You’ll be flying in the front seat,” I was told on a clear, sunny morning in Las Vegas. My pilot Petr Kopfstein — who was about to hold my stomach (and my life) in his hands — said it with an easy smile, so I responded with a laugh. I thought he was joking.
The Red Bull Air Race series was started in 2003, pitting a dozen of the world’s fastest pilots against each other in timed laps where they maneuver around 82-foot-tall inflatable pylons. But while other sports the energy drink company is involved with — motocross, skydiving, base-jumping, so on — focus heavily on thrill-seeking, the Air Race is all about discipline. As I found out firsthand, it’s more than just a race. It challenges pilots to remain precise while taking calculated risks and enduring a physical toll. A mistake doesn’t just lead to a damaged vehicle or a broken bone — it’s the difference between life and death.
Kopfstein, a three-time Czech aerobatics champion, races in the Red Bull Air Race's Challenger Cup — a second tier for up-and-comers to prove their mettle before graduating to the Master Class. He gave me a puzzled look and affirmed his statement: I really was about to experience a 10-minute stunt flight from the front seat of a two-seater plane.
While safety is king in this community, it was hard not to notice where things could go wrong. I signed numerous waivers that warned me of death, dismemberment, and the need to settle disputes in an Austrian court. My share of the cockpit had rudder pedals and a stick of its own that were mapped to Kopfstein’s behind me, and I was thoroughly warned to avoid touching both at all costs. As I was lifted into the sky it was obvious that, for better or worse, I was in for a perspective-altering experience.
Carved out of the cratered ground a dozen miles northeast of the Vegas Strip, out where the speed limit stretches to 75mph and the only neighbor around is Nellis Air Force Base, the massive complex that contains Las Vegas Motor Speedway is like Disney World for motorsport enthusiasts. Eight smaller race tracks — some asphalt, some dirt — feature everything from go-karts to exotic supercars. In the mornings, the on-site gas station sports a line of street race-ready cars fueling up before they head out to compete in the shadow of the main track. And at night, people drag-race muscle cars in the empty parking lots until they’ve scared up enough attention from the Speedway’s security, then promptly make a break for it.
Like Disney World for motorsport enthusiasts
So in many adrenaline-filled ways, it made perfect sense that this venue would host the Red Bull Air Race. The United States has hosted the competition before, but always in places like the shores of San Diego or in New Jersey overlooking the Manhattan skyline. And while the 1.5-mile Las Vegas tri-oval superspeedway is known best for showcasing wildly popular four-wheeled events like NASCAR and IndyCar, Red Bull thinks it has a product that can become just as big.
Until recently, the path to that success seemed doomed thanks to a few extremely close calls involving pilots grazing the water they were racing over and, in one case, crashing and needing rescue. In 2010, the series’ directors suspended events mid-season and took a year to reevaluate their safety measures — an unprecedented move for a major motorsport. A one-year break turned into three, but in April of this year the series finally returned with a more standardized aircraft design that Red Bull says further encourages safety and competition, and a schedule that featured actual speedways like the one here in Sin City. The move to speedways is a clear shot at raising Red Bull Air Racing’s profile, as it brings the action closer to the spectators and lets them mingle more easily with the pilots and crews. (It certainly works for NASCAR week after week.)
I couldn’t even tell which direction we were flying
Back in the air, Kopfstein was running me through simulations of the different race maneuvers as well as some classic aerobatics. All were physically taxing to a complete amateur like me. We performed a number of vertical turns that put over 5 Gs — five times the force of Earth’s gravity — on my body. Because I lacked both the years of muscle-control training and the liquid-filled pressure suit that the pilots wear, that force pulled hard enough on my body that blood started flowing from my brain towards my feet, causing my vision to tunnel and nearly knocking me out. I became glued to my seat, and was focused only on staying conscious. The only futile defenses I could muster were to suck in as much air as I could and open my eyes as wide as possible. Once we finally eased out of those turns, Kopfstein inverted the plane and negotiated a turn that put so much negative g-force on my face that it felt like it might tear right off my skull. It was such a disorienting maneuver that I couldn’t even tell which direction we were flying.
Other maneuvers, though, were sheer fun. He flew me through a double-pylon gate like the ones pilots speed through to enter the course on race day. The most enjoyable were the chicane turns, the S-shaped maneuvers around three pylons that mark the beginning of each timed run. Those turns were taken at 180 knots (over 200mph) and had my head rattling against the plane’s canopy despite my best efforts to keep it steady. But the g-forces in these turns were low, and once I got the hang of the rhythm it was like slamming down a mountain on a snowboard.
When I wasn’t getting thrashed around in the cockpit, I realized I was too distracted to watch the altimeter or airspeed: off in the distance, fighter jets were taking off from Nellis, and I needed to look toward the horizon to keep my stomach in check. Between bouts of disorientation, a foreboding placard on the instrument panel caught my eye. "Use of parachute is recommended," it read. After a few minutes under the canopy, I could see why.
After we landed I wasn’t dizzied from the experience so much as I found myself going through withdrawal; during different parts of the flight my hands and legs were shaking from the adrenaline. When I’ve gone skydiving, I’ve always returned to the Earth elated. At Kopfstein’s mercy, it took 45 minutes before I felt like myself again. I absolutely loved the experience, but my Red Bull Air Race flight left me physically and mentally drained.
On my way out of the speedway on the final day, I noticed a tent in a fan-accessible area that promised "90 seconds of the race experience." Inside, I found eight Oculus Rift headsets attached to pilot’s helmets. I signed yet another waiver and strapped one on. To my surprise, the scale of the virtual plane and the perspective it featured were almost identical to my view from Kopfstein’s plane two days earlier. The movements felt accurate, I was able to scan for the horizon during the vertical turns, and — unlike the real thing — I didn’t have to keep my feet off of the rudder pedals or worry about blacking out. Aside from the low resolution of the first-generation Rift developer kit they were using, it made for a pretty cool experience.
But all the fun stuff was absent — no blinding g-forces, no hanging from my safety straps while flying inverted, no deafening engine hum, and definitely no adrenaline rush. Almost everyone who tried it left the tent with a grin, but one man looked a little apathetic as his virtual flight ended. "I’d rather do the real thing," he said as he handed back his helmet. I couldn’t agree more.