RENO, Nev. – The annual air race in Nevada's Valley of Speed has a new name. Fans returning to see vintage World War II fighter planes streak across the sky will sit farther away. And a redesigned course poses less risk as pilots make the final turn toward the finish line.
But for all the changes and new safety measures at the air race a year after a plane took a deadly plunge into spectators, the element of danger remains. Pilots will still be flying souped-up muscle planes wingtip to wingtip, sometimes exceeding 500 mph.
"We never thought what happened last year would happen, but we know it's not knitting," said Marilyn Dash, a biplane pilot from the San Francisco Bay Area who's the only woman in this year's competition. "It's not bowling.
"Nobody ever was killed bowling, were they?"
Organizers for the 49th annual National Championship Air Races adopted a half dozen changes recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board following the crash last September that killed 11 people, including pilot Jimmy Leeward, and injured more than 70 others.
A reminder of the danger came Tuesday afternoon during qualifying heats for the fastest planes when the pilot of a vintage Hawker Sea Fury was forced to make a rough, emergency landing but escaped unhurt.
Among the differences from last year, the course now is more than 1,000 feet from the grandstand, instead of 850, fuel trucks set away from the landing strip and the final turn of the race is less sharp.
Some of the changes are more obvious than others, including the impact crater on the edge of the tarmac that has been paved over with asphalt and the official name change to the TravelNevada.com National Championship Air Races and Air Show presented by Breitling.
The new name is the result of a one-time, $600,000 sponsorship the state tourism commission extended as a necessary component to keeping the event alive in the face of soaring insurance premiums.
Race organizers hope the most significant changes will be behind the scenes, in training classes intended to better prepare pilots for intense gravitational pull and wake turbulence, and along pit row where mechanics will be subject to a new inspection process that requires follow-up confirmation that ordered repairs actually get done — a possible contributor to Leeward's demise.
"It really seems about the same," Eric Zine, a pilot from Van Nuys, Calif. "There's increased focus on safety. But we're doing stuff people don't do. It's not normal to try to make a plane go faster than it's designed to go."
The Reno Air Racing Association also established a new position of safety czar with the authority to shut down the competition immediately if any concerns arise.
NTSB chairwoman Deborah Hersman commended race organizers for steps taken to place even more emphasis on making the event safe for competitors and spectators alike.
"We know everybody is going to be paying close attention to the races this year and that is what everyone wants — for additional scrutiny to occur," she said.
Reno Mayor Bob Cashell and Sparks Mayor Geno Martini plan to help lead an opening ceremony on Wednesday, the final day of qualifying heats before the six classes of championships begin Thursday and run through Sunday.
"The last year has been a true test to our organization, our fans, both the northern Nevada and aviation communities," said Mike Houghton, president and CEO of the Reno Air Racing Association who helped persuade the Nevada Commission on Tourism to give $600,000 for the one-time title sponsorship.
"We will truly never forget the incredible display of courage that was shown in a moment of tragedy last year by the first responders, victims and fans," he said. "It really has been inspiring."
Advance ticket sales are a bit off but Houghton said he's heard from a number of people making last-minute plans to attend and expects swift walk-up sales, with enthusiasm of many loyal aviation buffs stronger than ever.
Dr. Anne Courtney, an emergency room specialist from Seattle who was at the races last year and helped treat the wounded, didn't think twice about returning.
"We are going to be sitting there in our same box seats we've been in now for the last 20 years. It's kind of like a big reunion. I have no apprehension whatsoever," she said.
Courtney was in her usual seat on the edge of the tarmac about 4:15 p.m. on Sept. 16 when Leeward's P-51 Mustang, the "Galloping Ghost," surged into the air, then turned over and slammed nose first into the box seats on the edge of the grandstand.
"At one point, the plane came down and it looked like it was going to hit us but I think the wind took it a little further. When I made sure everyone in my box was ok, I went down to help — to do what I'm trained to do."
Courtney said one of the couples in their box decided not to return this year.
"The whole memory is just too vivid for him. His dad had died in a plane crash when he was young," she said. "But everybody else I talk to is going back."
Mark Daniels, a former Army helicopter mechanic and air traffic controller, is one the most vocal critics of what he says are continuing safety deficiencies at the air races.
Among other things, he thinks the pilots in the fastest planes should be required to wear anti-gravity suits like they do in the military to keep them from blacking out like Leeward did. He also thinks it would be safest to have the grandstand in the infield because the centrifugal force of planes sends them toward the crowd when they lose control.
Daniels has been banned from the grounds and believes it is because of the criticism — something he's suing over in federal court. Houghton said the ban is based on past threats Daniels has made to him and others and has nothing to do with the criticism.
Either way, Daniels said he understands why last year's tragedy hasn't dampened many fans' fascination with the only event of its kind in the world.
"They don't think it could happen again — that lightning could strike twice," Daniels said. "And they love air racing. It's the air racing bug. When it bites you, there is no quitting it."
A nerve-racking moment for some came Tuesday during qualifying for the same unlimited class Leeward flew in when Matt Jackson of Van Nuys, Calif., radioed a "May Day" after ground crews spotted his landing gear stuck down in flight.
Fire trucks and emergency crews manned a runway on the far side of the course away from the grandstand as Jackson brought his World War II-era fighter named "Furias" down slowly.
But the right gear collapsed, the plane slid off the runway and spun in the sagebrush, kicking up dust. Jackson walked away from the accident.
"He's fine. He just wrecked the paint job," race spokeswoman Valerie Miller-Moore said.
Crews brought in a crane to remove the plane as the qualifying heat resumed in the Unlimited class where two-time national champion Steve Hinton Jr. posted the top speed earlier in the day at 493 mph.