Despite Risks, Pilots Keep Returning to Air Races - KTVN Channel 2 - Reno Tahoe Sparks News, Weather, Video

Despite Risks, Pilots Keep Returning to Air Races

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Flying around an 8-mile track at 500 miles per hour is something most of us probably can't comprehend.

But for many pilots, it's a lot like Christmas, in September.

"The biggest part of that is not so much getting and opening up the presents, it's seeing your family," Will Whiteside said. "These guys and gals up here have become, over the past ten years for me, my family."

"If you miss it, you feel a void in your life," Marilyn Dash said. "When I started racing about ten years ago, I couldn't imagine doing anything else with my September except coming here and we call ourselves our September family."

When Jimmy Leeward's plane crashed into a crowd of spectators last year, it affected this close-knit group.

11 people died, more than 70 were injured, and the future of the event was in doubt.

"Last year was terrible and we were all very disappointed and felt terrible for the people that got hurt," Whiteside said. "It cast a bad light on what we think is the world's premiere aviation event."

The event brings an estimated $85 million into the local economy.

"What we had was an accident, plain and simple," Reno Air Races Announcer Steve Stavrakakis. "To have discontinued an event of this magnitude that puts so much money into the Northern Nevada economy, in these tough times, would've created a tragedy."

Since the air races began, in 1964, no spectators had ever been killed at the event until last year.

In that same period of time, 20 pilots have lost their lives.

"When I sign up to do this and I show up and put my helmet on, I know what could happen and I make sure by doing everything I can, as a professional pilot, to not let that happen," Whiteside said.

These pilots say the reward outweighs the risk because of the companionship, the thrill, and the love of the sport.

"This is the only place in the world where we get to do this," Dash said. "We really get to enjoy the aviation and the racing aspects of life."

"It's the world's fastest motosport," Stavrakakis said. "Sure, you could get NASCAR and drag racing, on TV, but they don't go 500 miles per hour. We do."

Air race organizers say ticket sales are on track for a record year. About 200,000 fans are expected to come out here throughout the week.

The first race starts at noon, Wednesday.

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Written by Paul Nelson
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