Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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Air Show: High-octane sport hooks one reporter

Daily Sports reporter Brian Regan spent his weekend at the Red Bull Air Race in San Diego. When he wasn’t staring at the sky or chugging Red Bull, he took the time to write down what he saw.

I always thought Formula One racing, with its diverse crop of drivers, exotic locales and cutting-edge technology, was the most adrenaline-fueled sport.

Then, for the first time, I attended sports’ newest high-octane spectacle: the Red Bull Air Race World Series.

In its eighth year, the Air Race can be described as an eight-month odyssey of Quidditch-meets-giant-slalom-skiing with super-lightweight aerobatic airplanes.

Twelve pilots take turns careening around a course of inflatable pylons, known as “air gates,” reaching speeds of 250 mph. As they traverse the path, the pilots must make quick turns, sometimes sideways, to pass through the gates. While in flight, a pilot burns about 1,000 calories per hour and feels a force of up to 10 G-forces, which is more than three times the force felt by astronauts at liftoff.

One mistake could cost them their lives.

Despite the danger, I was impressed by the pilots’ complete control of their aircraft when I attended the second leg of the World Series in San Diego over the weekend. Red Bull representatives told me there have been no serious crashes or fatalities since the series’ inception.

The World Series kickstarted in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates in April and will conclude in Perth, Australia in November. The races take place on four continents and nine countries.

Official estimates show that more than 120,000 people attended the two-day race in San Diego. Unofficial estimates put the number at 200,000.

Most people came for the spectacle.

While the race takes place over the course of two days, there are only four hours of actual racing. Officials planned the event to coincide with the Navy’s Fleet Week in San Diego. Between racing sessions, spectators gulped beer and Red Bull and gawked at the Red Bull Air Force, a world-class group of stuntmen specializing in sky-diving, BASE jumping, para-gliding and hang-gliding. They held their ears as F/A-18 jet fighters buzzed the crowd.

The qualifying rounds occured on Saturday, and the top eight pilots competed on Sunday. The bottom four also flew Sunday for the last World Series point. At the end of the series, the pilot with the most points wins the championship.

The fastest qualifying time on Saturday went to Britain’s Paul Bonhomme, who mastered the four-plus mile course in just one minute and 16 seconds at an average speed of 190 mph. The speeds may not seem high considering the F/A-18 jet fighters fly at 1,400 mph, but the pilots have to overcome the drag of fixed landing gear and a single propeller.

Unlike motor sports, pilots can tweak their machines between the preliminary rounds and the finals to ensure the best performance. Some go to extreme measures to cut the most weight off their planes.

“I’m thinking of not flying with a flight suit,” said Mike Mangold, American pilot and 2007 World Series champion, on Saturday.

Mangold was second behind Bonhomme after Saturday’s qualifying. Later, he outlined his weight-loss strategy.

“We took some weight out of the plane, we shed a couple of pounds,” he said. “I’m doing my part too: I skipped breakfast and had a small lunch. But will it all be enough?”

Unfortunately for Mangold, Bonhomme extended his winning streak to two races, blowing away Mangold by more than a second with a time of 1:18.04 in the finals. The Brit did not have a run through the course above 79 seconds and flew all weekend without being assessed a penalty.

“He’s got a fast plane and he’s a fast pilot,” Mangold said Sunday after the race. “I’m annoyed I can’t get my plane to go any faster.”

With the combination of Fleet Week, Cinco de Mayo and sunny San Diego weather in one weekend, Red Bull picked the right time to show off its event. Hopefully, the success of the San Diego race built excitement for the Detroit race on May 31 and June 1, which happens to be Dillo Day weekend.

Ted Leo and the Pharamacists may be good, but they can’t match the excitement of the Air Race. Common? Not even close.

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
Air Show: High-octane sport hooks one reporter