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The Other Lance

As I write this, an epic sports drama of unprecidented historical proportion — and I use those words judiciously — is playing out in a tiny village in the far northwest corner of Alaska.

In a community hall at the White Mountain checkpoint, Lance Mackey is within striking distance of winning the 2007 Iditarod.

That is the One Thousand Mile sled dog race everyone has heard about. Mackey is the musher no one in the lower 48 who doesn't pay attention to the sport of marathon sled dog racing has ever heard about.

Air Racing 101

When the Reno Air Races started in 1964, they were based on the premise that out in Nevada’s high desert, where there was no one around to suffer collateral damage, all bets were off. If you came to race, you knew the risk and accepted the consequences. The traditional way to learn how to race was to simply strap into a race plane and go take a good look at the pylons. The bravado of self-education added to the ethos of the sport, but it took a toll on pilots and airplanes. In the first four decades Reno lost 15 pilots. After a particularly preventable fatality in 1994, racer Alan Preston went to operations director Bill Eck and revitalized a concept that had been discussed over the years. In 1998, when the Sport class debuted at the Reno Air Races, a school to learn to race airplanes debuted with it.

X-Racers

THIS IS WHAT THE FANS IN THE BLEACHERS WILL SEE.

At one end of the track, two racing aircraft are poised less than 50 feet apart at a starting line. They silently exhale mist from vents in the fuselage liquid-oxygen tanks. When the gun sounds, their 1,500-pound-thrust rocket engines ignite, hurling the racers down the runway past the fans and throwing back brilliant 10-foot kerosene flames: 0 to 200 in 15 seconds. At the end of the straightaway, the rocketplanes pull vertical and shoot straight up on pillars of fire. At about 3,000 feet, they pitch over inverted, roll, and, engines now off, dive through an invisible gate to follow a course that twists and turns like a roller-coaster track.

Red Bull's Rodeo

One by one the racers charge the course. They dash and dance through a prescribed sequence-climbing corkscrews, knife-edge passes, precise rolls-all racing the clock through an obstacle course of 50-foot-high inflatable gates. The performance is mesmerizing and utterly alien to the hundreds of fans drawn year after year to the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada.

Fans have come to Reno since 1964 for the World War II charisma of piston-powered racers that roar, six to a heat, around fixed, lethal-if-struck pylons at 500 mph. Last September, the fans got that hit of adrenaline-and they were introduced to the other race. One has guts and thunder; the other, grace and cunning. One is homegrown and flown in a pack; the other is a European import and solitary. The question before the Reno Air Racing Association last year was: Is there room in this town for both?

Quest for the Cup

The windsock at Clarence E. Page Municipal Airport outside Oklahoma City is pointing stiff as a board this afternoon, and the late-May sun is baking Oklahoma in the worst drought of the century. United States Aerobatic Team trainer John Morrissey squints into the sun and wind to watch rookie Diane Hakala practice for the other America's Games of 1996—the ones without the massive media campaign and huge corporate sponsorships.

Hakala's rakish Staudacher S300D monoplane makes a run toward Morrissey, pitches up into a vertical climb, draws a line, twirls one and one half times about the now-vertical fuselage, draws another line, coasts to a halt, pivots sideways cleanly about its center of gravity, draws another line, executes a stunningly precise three-quarter outside snap roll, draws another line, and pitches startingly nose forward to fly away inverted downwind. "Good turnaround. A handsome down three-quarter snap," Morrissey notes for the practice videotape. "Don't change a thing."

The Last Piston Show

Over the mountains of western Nevada, Laird Doctor bounces through the afternoon thermals in the front seat of his AT-6 World War II trainer. Easing out of a shallow left turn, he keeps a watchful eye on the six T-6s strung off his right wing. Doctor issues a stream of minor adjustments over the radio to nudge them into position: "Number five, you're too low, ease it up. Race 22, slow it down, slow it down. Fifty-six, tighten it up on the end, tighten it up." The stolid trainers lumber into line like so many fat, obedient geese. "Okay, gentlemen, we're over the ridge at 200 feet. Line abreast, line abreast. Final power increase coming on. . . now!" Doctor toggles a switch marked "smoke" and a thick white plume billows from the exhaust stack. Once satisfied that everyone is lined up on the steady dive toward the airport, he pulls up sharply and opens the starting gate with the ritual words "Gentlemen, you have a race."

Ballet in the Box

With his monoplane falling out of the sky like some monstrous blue maple seed, Peter Anderson sees a row of trees swirl past his windshield. He lays the stick forward and the resulting jolt slams him against a rigid web of seat belts and harnesses. Precisely one and a half revolutions completed, the snap roll stops. Anderson continues an inverted 45 degree dive, the airplane upside down, raging toward the ground. Directly off the left wing, a tiny row of judges hang from a grassy ceiling. Anderson steals a glance at the small card in the middle of the instrument panel, taking an instant to confirm his next move.