National Reno Air Races embraces 50th birthday

Bob Hoover is an aviation legend who was once friends with Orville Wright, Charles Lindbergh and Chuck Yeager and spent 16 months in a German prison camp after his plane was shot down during World War II.

The 91-year-old also witnessed the tragic crash that killed a pilot and 10 spectators two years ago during the Reno National Championship Races, and he described it as one of the worst things he has seen outside of his war years. He thought at the time that the crash would spell the end of the event.

“I did not believe for one minute that we would be here now,” Hoover said on the eve of the five-day event that features flight demonstrations, stunts and high-speed races in which specially modified planes fly at more than 500 mph wing tip to wing tip barely 100 feet above the tarmac.

Hoover said he’s overjoyed that the racing community rallied to support the continuation of the Reno races that began in 1964 and are now host to the only competition of its kind with multiple aircraft classes, including the fastest jets and fighters.

Its part of an effort to ensure the future of an event that looked like a longshot before race officials satisfied the Federal Aviation Administration with added safety precautions last year, and persuaded state tourism officials to pony up sponsorship money to cover a doubling of insurance costs.

“It was important to get last year’s event under our belts, part of a healing process,” said Mike Houghton, president and CEO of the Reno Air Racing Association.

Houghton expects as many as 75,000 people to visit the 2013 competition through Sunday, for a weeklong, overall attendance of 200,000, compared to about 190,000 last year.

He had the same sinking feeling two years ago when he witnessed another vintage P-51 slam into the apron of the grandstand at Reno-Stead Airport, killing longtime Hollywood stunt pilot Jimmy Leeward and 10 people on the ground and seriously injuring scores more.

“We all watched the whole thing as it happened, just appalled at what we were seeing — just devastating,” said Hoover, who was in a golf cart near the carnage on the tarmac.

Hoover admits he never thought the competition would get off the ground when Bill Stead — a World War II flying ace, wealthy Nevada rancher and hydroplane champion — first approached him about trying to help persuade casino mogul Bill Harrah and others to revive the competition that hadn’t run since the Cleveland crash in 1949.

Stead owned more than 1,000 acres north of Reno that he thought would be the perfect place to build a race course, but Hoover told him Reno wasn’t big enough to support such an event.

“I said Reno is just too remote. It wouldn’t be financially successful,” he recalls. Stead told him, “It will catch on.”

“And now,” Hoover said, “we’ve got them coming from all over the world.”

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