by Karen Morss
This was Dave’s 31st year racing at Reno and my 16th with him. I teased him last week
that he had done more Reno’s with me than without, which he found hard to believe. I
take that as a compliment that our time together is passing quickly.
Dave flew Polar Bear up on Friday. This would be the fifth year we raced Gerry Gabe’s
beautiful P51A Mustang based in Hollister, CA. He was also flying Jack Strehl’s T28, The
Bear. Dan Heddy flew it in from Sonoma Sky Park. I drove up Sunday with the pit
supplies and my race angel. The weather was beautiful and the drive through Tahoe
National Forest never ceases to inspire my soul. I get a wonderful big picture perspective
at 7000 feet.
Sunday is all about tech inspection and we had some hoops to go through with Polar
Bear. Safety is paramount at Reno. Every precaution that can be taken is taken. Robin
Reid, our Crew Chief overseeing both airplanes, made sure all was in order. Dennis and
Brad Whitman and Bob Fitz worked all day but the net result was he didn’t fly either
plane on Sunday. About an hour after I arrived, the storm clouds moved in, the wind
kicked up and a full-blown rainsquall was shortly in progress. I would soon be missing the
protected shelter of the Sport Class and Formula One hangars where I had spent the
past 15 years in relative cozy comfort. At least I had help in this unfamiliar pit space with
Lana and Marie Wittman, Dennis’s wife and daughter.
Monday started out with a magnificent sunrise, always a good omen. We got to the field
early so I had time to put the Dareangel stickers on the planes. Dave flew Polar Bear
during the Unlimited session and qualified at 343.741 mph. Robin and crew continued to
work on The Bear to get her in race ready condition. Dave needed to get Polar Bear into
the Silver in order to race The Bear in the Bronze. He would have one more qualifying
attempt on Wednesday. We had another afternoon squall so once again we dismantled
our pit and packed everything away. I looked longingly towards that big Sport Class
hangar. But soon enough we were back at the hotel. Monday night’s full moon
illuminated the hilltops of the surrounding mountains like daytime. Just take your breath
away beautiful. I almost wished we were staying out at the field with Robin, Bob and Brad.
Tuesday was all about The Bear and getting her a good qualifying speed. The minimum
speed to make the Unlimited field is 300 mph. T28s normally top out in the high 290s.
Last year was the first time a T28 made the Unlimited field when Dave flew The Bear and
qualified at 309 mph. Robin and Vess Velikov have been working for three days to get
the Bear race ready. Bruce Wallace arrives to offer his special expertise on this airplane.
We are ready to go and the big Bear fires up that great radial engine one more time.
Dave flies a great course and qualifies at 307 mph. But the other results are in and now
we really need Polar Bear to move up a couple positions to be in the Silver.
I am busy getting ready for the Sport Class Social that evening. Kevin Eldredge has
secured a hangar and we have our ‘Meet and Greet’ in a first class setting. It’s so good
to spend time with our many friends from Sport Class. Another squall moves in during the
party but as we leave the field, a magnificent lightening storm begins and continues
through the night. Maddy Kenney and Kent Rhodes arrive later that evening to complete
our crew. Loyal friends for many years, Reno would not be Reno to me, without these
Wednesday we have one last chance to better the qualifying speed of Polar Bear. Dave
figures he has to get a 345mph lap to move up. Everyone pitches in and in no time at all
she is polished, taped and race ready. Dave asks me to radio his speeds after the first
two laps so he will know if he has enough to make it. My main crew duty is timing laps
and radioing the intervals and speeds to Dave. It gives me something to do during the
race other than fainting. I sit with my good friend Marilyn Eberhardt in Merlin’s Magic pit.
Marilyn has a way of calming me down. She’s been at this twice as long as I with both her
husband and her two sons’s racing. I admire her immensely.
Dave takes off and I stop breathing well not literally but almost. I feel like I hold my breath
until I see him touch down and rolling out the landing. First lap 337 mph. Second lap 330
mph. His speeds were down and this would not be the day he bettered that 343 lap. He is
down on manifold pressure. Later that week, the crew finds a leaking gap seal that
explains his lower speeds. Dave spent the rest of the afternoon trying to find a race pilot
qualified to fly the T28 on Thursday but that didn’t work out.
Thursday was just beautiful, a perfect day for racing. Dave held the pole position at the
start of the race. He was racing with the Fockewulf, P40, Corsair, Yak3 and the Wildcat. I
heard the pace plane make that famous call, ‘Gentlemen you have a race’. Dave got a
great start and by the time they came around the home pylon he had a five second lead.
Each lap he pulled ahead further to almost 15 seconds at the end of the race. He won
and that means we get to go for a ride in the antique fire truck, a very special treat for
the whole crew.
We all crammed into the truck for the ride in front of the grandstands and boxes. The
announcer acknowledged Dave’s 215th race at Reno, the most races of any pilot in
Reno history. Everyone in the stands and boxes was so happy and waving and cheering
us on. We got a whole bunch of 10s and 11s from Section 3, those wonderful veteran air
race fans with the orange shirts. We all stood up in the truck and bowed to them. It is a
memory that I will never forget.
Later that night I made arrangements for our crew dinner for Friday night, an event that I
always look forward to. You might think air racing a very exciting lifestyle but the truth be
told we are in bed by 8, up at 6 and at the airport by 7:30. I had five nights of room
service and was looking forward to our one night out.
Friday was another beautiful day and the rest of the weekend was forecast to be even
nicer. We should have record crowds out here with this weather. Dave has moved up to
the Bronze race on Friday. He is starting in last position behind the Tiger Cat. He tries
real hard to make a great start but can’t get around the Cat. Once the big Cat gets going
he moves all the way to first place. Dave manages to pass two Mustangs finishing fifth.
He is still down on manifold pressure so the crew goes back to work.
The rest of the afternoon is spent repairing a leaky gap seal. I am anxious that we finish
work in time for our crew dinner. At four, I ask Maddy and Kent to take the golf cart and
go pick up the oxygen bottle at Aviation Classics. We need it installed and ready to go
for tomorrow morning.
Dave tells me he is going to go watch the Gold Unlimited race about to start in a few
minutes. Most of the crew headed out to watch the race. I start cleaning up the pit area
when Maddy and Kent return with the news that there was a kid on duty and he didn’t
know what to do and couldn’t get hold of anyone who did. I told Dennis I was going to
retrieve our oxygen bottle. And off we went in the golf cart to the far end of the field. We
went the long convoluted back way since they knew how to do that. When we got to the
shop everyone was out watching the race. The bottle was sitting in the back of his truck. I
wrote a note explaining we needed our bottle and thank you very much and please
charge Gerry Gabe. We tested it first to be sure it had in fact been refilled and put the
bottle in the cart. I looked left down the ramp and thought how easy it would be to go
back that way. Just drive in front of the grandstands and box seats to get back to the pit.
Plus Maddy and Kent could watch the race.
I don’t know why I turned right. I really don’t. Kent told me later he was ready to ask me to
go left. If he had, I most certainly would have agreed since I was already thinking of it.
But I turned right and drove back the way we came. As we drove behind the grandstands
we heard an explosion. We were directly abeam the point of impact. We saw pieces of
debris and airplane flying through the air. We saw Rare Bear pull up. I continued to drive
back to the pit still not knowing exactly what had happened. When I drove into the pits I
could hear the announcers asking everyone to leave the field. Asking for any medical
trained personnel to report to the crash site.
Dave had come back to the pit as soon as the accident occurred only to find that Maddy,
Kent and I were gone with the golf cart. He tried to call but all the cell phones jammed. I
could see the look of relief on his face when I pulled into the pit. He told me what had
happened. I burst into tears and started to shake. I’m still shaky.
At first Dave wanted to cancel the crew dinner but Robin said, ‘We all need to be
together tonight’ and he was so right. Later that night we sat around a big round table in
a private room at Trader Dick’s. We shared memories and stories of our first Reno, our
most memorable Reno and many, many others. It was one of the best crew dinners we
Saturday we went back to the field to pack up and go home. I was in a daze, still numb
from the recent events. It was another impossibly beautiful day at Stead. But something
was missing; the sound of airplanes roaring around the course and fans cheering their
favorite racers to the finish line. And wives’ holding their breath praying to the Race
I drove home Saturday afternoon. I don’t even remember the drive. I don’t remember
Sunday. I know I took Lucy to the beach on Monday. There was a ghostly fog lapping at
the shore. I thought about Jimmy and how he lived his life, full of passion and
commitment. All last week people kept asking me how I could ‘let’ Dave do the things he
does. Well, first of all, ‘let’ is not part of our deal. Dave lives each day doing exactly what
he wants to do. He is passionate about what he does. He works very hard at what he
does. He is very good at what he does. He doesn’t waste time doing things he doesn’t
like to do. How wonderful is that. For me, the lesson of Reno 2011 is just that. Do what
you love, do it with passion. You never know when a left turn might be coming. And there
is no guarantee on the number of tomorrows you will have.
PS. We extend our sympathy and condolences to everyone effected by this event. But
more than anything we hope that was not the last race at Reno. We hope to see our
September family and fans once again next year in the high desert airfield at Stead,
DareAngels and RaceAngels
Sister Mary Joseph a Carmelite nun in Illinois came up with the term DareAngels after I
told her in a letter that my husband was a little bit of a daredevil and could use her
prayers. Now she, and the entire convent, pray for the pilots during the week of Reno.
Her note to me last week read: Supplications, Petitions, Beseechings and Angelic
Salutations for all the incomparable Dare Angels. Any plane that Dave flies has a sticker
that says Protected by Dare Angels.
Race Angels are the pilots that we have lost at Reno that hold a special place in my
heart forever. I say a prayer to them for their protection before each race. We have a
new one. His name is Jimmy.