Mourning the 2011 Reno Air Races

Rest in peace Jimmy Leeward and those lost in the crowd.
Photo from the 2010 Reno Air Races, by yours truly.

A ground-shaking explosion, limbs and life obliterated, screams of terror. A war zone? No, my beloved Reno Air Races. Days later, it still doesn’t compute.

For the last seven years (whoa, seven!), Mr. T and I have celebrated his birthday at the Reno Air Races. Over time, we’ve developed traditions together. In the months and weeks leading up to the Races, T tells me about the field… the progress race teams are making rebuilding their engines, how fast folks finished in Pylon Racing School, if any planes break over the summer and drop out, how qualifying matches go the week prior to the event. Friday, we typically high-tail it to Reno and start our posturing about who will take the grand prize for Gold Unlimited–Rare Bear or Strega. This is important because Sunday night dinner is on the line.

My prayers go out to those touched by this tragedy. Although we fans know
the dangers of racing, obviously, it still comes as a shock.
Photo from the 2010 Reno Air Races.

Saturday means waking up early, but not early enough and having T badger me because we missed the biplane races, again. (They’re at 8 a.m. people!) We stop by Scolari’s, a local grocery store, to buy tickets and head to Stead Field where we circle around for a few minutes to find parking before giving up and paying $20 to the Boy Scouts for a spot in their lot. We spend the day traversing the field–watching races and exhibitions in the grand stands, taking pictures of vintage and restored aircraft in the static displays, puttering around the pits and watching folks wrench on engines, and hanging out with friends, old and new, watching history. (See here for my “ode” to the races with pictures and details of what it’s like.) Saturday night is T’s birthday dinner at the Harrah’s steak house where we inevitably join other race enthusiasts in dissecting the day’s events and laying bets on Sunday’s finale.

Galloping Ghost team at the 2010 Reno Air Races.

Sunday is much the same–watching, walking, talking, taking a thousand pictures, staring at the sky, and of course, praying for safe and successful races. If the weather is nice (read: not snowing), we’ll stay in the grand stands long after the Unlimited Gold conclusion and award presentation, watching planes depart, seeing the static display get dismantled, getting out of the way of folks sweeping plastic bottles and debris out of the grand stands. We leave, wind whipped and sunburnt, no matter how much sunscreen we apply, typically in possession of Jelly Belly bellyflops or kettle corn, riding the high of whoever just claimed victory. (Hopefully, Rare Bear.) The drive home is bittersweet–another 363 days until Reno.

This is the vision of the Reno Air Races that I keep in my mind and indeed, look forward to all year long. It’s with a heavy heart that I wonder if I will ever experience those moments again.

We visited Stead Field Saturday and helped friends pack up their planes. To see
people leaving on what would have been an utterly perfect race day was so
depressing. Normally this area is filled with people checking out sport class and
small bi-plane aircraft.

We were 30 minutes outside of town when we got the call. Mustang down in the crowd, Stead Field evacuated, perhaps a hundred injured or dead. I couldn’t help but cry for our friends–not personal ones, I hoped, but any fellow race enthusiasts whose world was just shattered. We spent the remainder of the drive in shock, searching for news, touching base with friends on scene, hoping that no one in our social network was killed or hurt, and praying, praying hard for everyone there. Even now as I write, I feel pangs of nausea, imagining what it must have been like to witness the tragedy in person. My heart still aches for those lost, injured, scarred.


I pray this isn’t my last view of the grandstands.

But I am also awed at the Reno Air Races community. Despite catastrophe, folks banded together to take care of each other–during and after the incident. What could have devolved into mass hysteria was managed well and thousands of people worked together to avoid making an awful situation worse. After the event, as we visited friends at Stead Field yesterday, so many volunteers were working hard to dismantle displays, get aircraft buttoned up, manage media, and cooperate with investigators, all while dealing with overwhelming grief.

I hope that this beautiful community can find healing. I hope that my 8th Reno Air Races will not be the last. I pray for the families of Jimmy Leeward and all of those killed or injured.


P/S Mr. T and I tried to donate blood in Reno on Saturday, but the blood banks were completely overwhelmed with volunteers which is an EXCELLENT problem. However, the demand for blood after major accidents continues for days and weeks as victims have surgery, etc. No matter where you live, please consider donating blood this week and save some lives. (To see what donating blood is like, step-by-step, click here.)

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