I grew up around an open-wheel racing community, so I was looking forward to my time with the Red Bull Air Race. I was extremely curious to see how it compared to the race fans I know and the earthbound competitors I've watched for years. And while many people immediately thought of Red Bull's comedic Flugtag when I told them where I was going, what I experienced couldn't have been more different.
What I found was an impressive community of highly-skilled pilots, expert crew members, and the families that travel with them. The fans in the stands (Red Bull says that over 30,000 tickets were sold, with more being sold at the gate on race day) were similar to those that fill the speedway when NASCAR is in town — motorsports enthusiasts with a penchant for thrill-seeking — but the crowd was also unusually diverse. People sported everything from tank tops emblazoned with the word "SELFIE" to shirts from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and their ethnicities reflected the global makeup of the pilots who compete.
All of this makes up a sport that's looking to grow, and flying through American speedways is certainly an interesting way to do it.
- The Red Bull Air Race is pretty simple. Twelve pilots each get two timed runs on a course constructed out of inflatable pylons. They must pass each pylon at a specific height (designated in red) and at a certain orientation or else they are issued penalties that add time to their runs.
- Aside from the vertical turns at either end of the course, the planes were often only 50-100 feet off the ground at any moment during a lap.
- The pylons stand 82 feet tall, and are inflated by a 15-horsepower engine. The top section, in red, is made from an extremely thin material that tears away when a wing makes contact. When a pylon deflates, it can be re-inflated in as little as 90 seconds.
- In Las Vegas, the Air Race course was laid out between turns two and three of the speedway, and spanned the length of the back straightaway. Most pilots reached around 200 feet of altitude during their vertical turns, which made them visible miles away from the speedway.
- The most popular pilot all weekend was the United States' Kirby Chambliss, who won the championship in 2006. This amount of fan interaction was previously hard to come by at the series' more scenic venues since pilots would take off and land from off-site airfields.
- Despite their unique looks, there are only four different types of aircraft in the field. The most popular is the Edge 540 V3, which is flown by five different pilots.
- The smoke from the planes is generated by injecting paraffin wax into the exhaust gases, and makes it easier to see the flight path of each plane. The pilots are in charge of activating it each run, and can be penalized one second on their lap time for "insufficient smoke" if they fail to activate it or run out during a lap.
- "Smoke on!" is the command given to the pilots as they enter the race course, and serves as the sport's equivalent to auto racing's "Start your engines!"
- Some pilots like Kirby Chambliss use Red Bull cans to map out the course on their hangar floors.
- Australian pilot Matt Hall's plane clipped the water at the Windsor, Ontario Air Race in 2010. He was able to fly the plane to safety, but the incident contributed to the decision to suspend the series for three years. He used the time away to start a business in Australia.
- Even though they're dealing with expensive, high-tech aircraft, the race teams aren't against using DIY solutions like this to keep little accidents from turning into major problems in the air.
- Red Bull filled most of the downtime between classes with dozens of different side-shows, like freestyle motocross.
- The most stunning side act was Chuck Aaron's aerobatic helicopter show. It featured inverted maneuvers that looked impossible to pull off in a helicopter; Aaron is the only man in North America that performs them.
- One of the elder statesmen of the twelve-pilot field, 58-year-old Hungarian Peter Besenyei helped create the series in 2003. Speaking to the series' potential, Besenyei believes that it can become the next great worldwide motorsport. "It's more spectacular and more thrilling than F1," he said.
- Besenyei's plane, the Corvus Racer, is the newest plane in the field and is technically faster and more agile than the others.
- The Air Race planes made good use of the existing runway in the infield of Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It was where they took off for and landed from each run.
- Another stunt that passed the time between rounds was Red Bull's team of wingsuited skydivers, who hopped out of a helicopter and landed on the grass in the front stretch of the speedway.
- The winner of the Las Vegas Air Race (and the youngest competitor in the field at 30 years old), Canada's Pete McLeod takes off from the infield before a qualifying run. Like other pilots, he praised the shift towards speedway racing. "You just feel like getting in something with an engine and competing here. It just oozes that kind of motorsports feel."
- During the series' suspension, McLeod kept busy by flying other disciplines. "I didn't fully disengage. I kept flying, doing professional aerobatics and air shows." To him, taking time off wasn't an option. "For me it was like: what else would I do?"
- Outside the speedway Red Bull offered a "90 seconds of the race experience" which let fans take a virtual lap of the Air Race course in Ascot, which takes place over the United Kingdom's famed horse racing track.