Roaring, million-dollar World War 2 birds, chopped and tuned within an inch of disaster, wing to wing in a 400-plus mph circuit race over the baking Reno desert. New Atlas visits the world's fastest motorsport race, and meets some of its extraordinary characters.

Some sports have one particular event that's reserved for those who want to put the ultimate wager on the line. In motorcycling, that's the Isle of Man TT, a fiendish 200 mph lap of tree- and wall-lined public roads where riders die almost every year. For mountain climbers, it's Everest, where you're forced to pass dozens, even hundreds of frozen bodies on the way up, climbers who never made it back home.

For pilots, one could argue that flying any air race is taking your life in your hands, but the Reno Air Race is still the gold standard. It's head-to-head racing, none of this wimpy time trial business, with as many as a dozen planes in the air at once.

Heck, some of the smaller class races start with the planes gridded up on the runway. And since pilots can't actually see straight in front of them on the runway due to their cut-down canopies, that can lead to the odd incident. At this year's race, racer Thom Richard noticed his engine wasn't running smoothly, and stopped it to signal he wasn't going to take off. The pilot behind him didn't notice the flag marshall's warning, and smashed into him from behind, resulting in an unbelievable piece of GoPro footage and a very narrowly avoided tragedy.

Richard was lucky to escape with a broken hand; some 24 aviators have lost their lives at Reno, and 10 spectators, too, in 2011 when an Unlimited class plane lost control, rose up vertically, then flipped and plowed down into the VIP tables in front of the grandstands.

But for all its peril, this is the fastest motorsports event in the world. The Jet class, as well as the Unlimited class, routinely blast down the straight at more than 400 miles per hour (644 km/h) on their way around a circuit marked out by large pylons dotted around Reno Stead Airport's desert/mountain landscape. This year's Unlimited champion, Voodoo, a heavily modified P-51 Mustang fighter plane, clocked a top speed over 530 mph (853 km/h). That's about 200 mph (322 km/h) faster than the wildest Top Fuel drag racers.

The racing itself isn't massively compelling watching. To a large degree your plane is either fast or it isn't, and passing maneuvers are rare after the first lap or two – so the main intrigue is in the pits. Racers in the Unlimited class take imposing World War 2 fighter planes like the P-51 and the Sea Fury, then hot up their already enormous engines. They strip weight, cut down the canopies to reduce drag, even clip a couple of feet off the wings in the name of outright speed. It's a constant balancing game to work out how much a plane can be pushed for a few extra mph, trying to stay within the limits of safety.

There's no doubt this is a rich man's game. You might be able to pick up a race plane for one of the cheaper classes for US$120,000, but as with any racing, the cost of the vehicle soon fades into insignificance against modifications, transport, running and testing costs, and crew expenses. The top planes are multi-million dollar holes in the sky, and walking through the pits during race weekend is an aviation nerd's wet dream.

We made our first visit to the Reno Air Races this year, and spoke to a range of colorful characters about their part in the event, what the week is like and what goes on behind the scenes. Here are their stories, in their own words.

Steve Hinton

Pilot/Mechanic, Voodoo (the eventual Unlimited class Gold winner for 2016)

It's a modified P-51 Mustang, a World War II-era fighter. This airplane was built from parts, it wasn't actually in the war. The guy who built it in the 90s started racing it right from the get go, in a more stock configuration.

The current owner has slowly modified it over the last 25 years into the full-blown racer it is today. Common modifications for a P-51 include the wingspan, which is reduced by two and a half feet on each side. There's a production break on the wing, so the outboard portion is removed.

The canopy is much smaller. They used to have a bubble canopy for extra vision, but that's a lot of drag at our speeds. We have a smaller scoop, and a liquid cooled engine with a radiator. The scoop takes the air on board to cool the radiator, so the inlet's much smaller, for drag reduction purposes. We have to supplement the cooling with a spray bar system.

The biggest modification is the engine. The stock Rolls Royce Merlin put out around 1,700 horsepower, we're around 34 to 3,600 horsepower, something around there. Ground speed on the course is about 540 miles per hour (869 km/h) down the chute. Stock Mustangs are doing about 340 (547 km/h). We're a little bit faster.

The first year I was racing, everything happened real fast. You're traveling at 750 feet per second, so the desert goes by rather quickly. After the first year, things slowed down quite a bit for me. You can pick up different coloured sage brush and landmarks easier. So while it's a thrill and it is a rush going that fast, you're pretty busy in the cockpit. It's all steam gauges, the aircraft doesn't have any automatic systems, it's all manual.

I've got three different whizz-wheels in the cockpit that adjust water flows and methanol flows, and you're keeping an eye on pressures and temperatures while competing head to head with eight other airplanes on a racecourse. It's pretty busy, but you can't help but come back with a smile on your face.

This is the only form of closed-course head-to-head pylon racing in the world. The Red Bull races are time trials, doing aerobatics, but we put eight airplanes on the course at the same time.

In terms of being aware of other aircraft up there, I'm not too concerned with anything that's behind me unless it's a gap of less than 4 seconds. I've got a spotter on top of the trailer back here and a two-way radio. I can pick up the other planes in front of me pretty easy, you don't come up on people by accident.

This airplane's very brightly coloured; it was built to be a racing plane. A lot of guys we're racing against are stock airplanes, and they're painted camouflage, so you get that against the desert and it's harder to pick up. For the most part it's not too bad.

The biggest thing for safety is the mechanical aspects of the plane. We work on it a tremendous amount compared to the little time we spend flying. Several hundred hours of work for every hour of flight time. I fly about 150 hours a year, working on aerobatic stuff with high G-loads, so when you come out here you're not out of your environment.

I actually enjoy the work more than I do the flying. The flying's such a quick part of it … The work is more rewarding, I've learned a lot, picked up how to work with carbon fiber, it's always a challenge because you're wondering why did the original engineers do things the way they did, are they sacrificing speed, looking at blueprints, it's been a unique challenge.

Marilyn Newton

Journalist

For almost 52 years I worked for the local newspaper, the Reno Gazette Journal, and I've been to every air race. Every one since 1964.

I always volunteered to cover it. I love planes, I love flying and I've been involved with stuff like that all my life. I used to go flying with the skydivers when I was 15. Never jumped, I was too young and my parents wouldn't give me permission. I probably could now, except back in the 70s I broke my neck, and now they say the 'chute coming out could break my neck.

The Reno Air Races are really neat, because you've got all these different classes of airplanes. You've got what I call the little guys – the Formula Ones and the Biplanes, and they've all got their own charm. Then you've got the T6s, and them jets, and then the Unlimiteds, which are the Sea Furies, P51s, and even a Yak, I think there's a couple of 'em this year.

You'll figure out a class you like the best. I love the radial engines, so I love the T6s and the Sea Furies. They're slow, but they're noisy, and I just love that loudness!

Crashes don't happen, thank God, that often. We've had a few. But it was several years before we had the first one – that was J.D. Washburn in a T-6, and he crashed into pylon 2. And of course our big one, that was just a few years ago, when the P-51, something medical must have happened, they say, and he went straight up, probably unconscious by that time, and then just nose dived straight into the crowd. That one was tragic.

Bryant Steele

Crew chief for #79, No Strings Attached

Loz: These Formula One planes are tiny! How do you get a person in there?

Indeed they are. It depends on how large they are, but typically we can slather 'em up with Crisco and shove 'em in!

Loz: This particular class, the race starts on the ground. Can you describe that process?

They get stacked up in rows per their qualifying time, and they do a briefing before they start, as we're ferrying the aircraft out to the runway, and the pilots will kibitz among themselves to decide, well, I want the inside, or I want the outside.

Nobody wants to start from the middle, unless your plane happens to be exceptionally fast off the ground, if you can rocket out in front it's not that big of a deal.

So yeah, sometimes a pilot gets to choose where he starts on the grid. Sometimes you've just gotta embrace the suck and take what you've got.

They try not to fly too close to one another, that's for sure. But sometimes when you're looking from the ground, it looks like their wings are overlapping … It's a bit of an optical illusion. But I wanna say it's at least one full wingspan from each other. Sometimes it's a bit closer.

Those soft toys are intake plugs, they're there to stop foreign objects from getting sucked into the intakes. That can really ruin your day, if some kid came through here and put a rock in there.

I love it, it's my hobby. I've been coming here for eight years. I used to be a military aircraft mechanic, so it's in my blood. I've been coming to watch the races for the better part of 40 years, my dad started bringing me out here when I was five years old. I've only missed five years, and those were because of military obligations.

You try not to dwell on things like crashes … It's the good times, seeing essentially your family again that you only get to see once a year.

Justin Meaders

Rookie Formula One pilot

This is my first year at Reno flying. I've been here helping, things like that, but this is my first year for flying. I went to rookie school here back in June and got my racing license, and I'm going up for my first race today.

You gotta have a good solid airplane, you've gotta obviously be a fairly good pilot and a safe pilot. It's 50 percent pilot, 50 percent plane.

Race school is mostly safety stuff, and briefings on various incidents and accidents, that sort of thing. Trying to avoid things people have done in the past. Then there's learning the race course, passing techniques, things like that.

You never wanna line your propeller up with anyone's tail anywhere on the course. They could change speeds at any time and then you might be straight up the back of 'em. You might also get propeller turbulence back there which could flip you inverted and spin you right into the ground. We also have to go through a pilot qualification where you have to do roll to the left, roll to the right, half roll to the left and right, and demonstrate level, safe laps around the course.

I was always a motorcycle guy, I got my first one at age five, and I raced – that's what caused me to be in a chair. A road racing accident on a Suzuki 750. I came off at about 150 and did a couple cartwheels, and the motorcycle landed on me a few times.

But I've always been into motorsports. After the motorcycle stuff I went into triathlons, world championships, that sort of thing, and now I'm back into motorsports with the air races.

This is completely different from a motorcycle race. Obviously the speeds are higher, but on a motorcycle you've only got the choice of inside or outside around another competitor. We have the whole vertical factor too, so we can pass above, as long as we can still see them. A lot of different technique involved. Apexing turns, that sort of thing is the same, and energy management, that kinda stuff translates, but it's different for sure.

It's a small canopy, but you can see what's happening – you need great situational awareness. Sometimes if you're banked over on a turn and somebody's above you, you can see their shadow on the ground and work out where they are, that sort of thing. Watching the ground … your head's on a swivel.

The airplane is modified, all the rudder pedals and brake pedals came out so I can control it with a hand control we designed for the airplane. It's just a forward and back movement for left and right rudder, and I have a hand brake on each stick, and a twist throttle like a motorcycle. So I'm still twisting the throttle, haha! The airplane doesn't know the difference when I'm in there!

This plane belongs to a good friend of mine, we lost him on the 4th of July actually in a plane crash. His family asked me to race here in his honor. We've got a banner up of him from when he was flying here last year. It's awesome to be here doing it for him.

Les Salz

Balls Out Aviation

Two of us own this hanger, Balls Out Aviation. We're up to … basically no good. We just keep our own airplanes here. This is our own private organization, we don't do anything but goof off here and work on our planes and fly 'em.

These are T-28s – the Navy used them for about 30 years. Gary's got the Charlie model, which is an aircraft carrier deal, and I've got the Bravo model, which was used for gunnery and cross country flying.

The engines have a five degree tilt forward to help stall recovery. These aircraft were originally designed for training to help pilots transition from props to jets.

In 97 and 98, we had a T28 class race. I flew in that thing, and it was a lot of fun. The pylons stay up all year round and I fly 'em all year round, so it was just another day at the office for me.

Loz: What's the key to winning out here?

A lot of money, and a fast airplane. The work they do on these things, especially the Unlimited class, you're talking a million dollars. If you wanna win, that's what you're gonna spend.

Maurice P. "Mo" Bessier

Helicopter Mechanic

I work here all year round, I work on the Sherriff's helicopters. For one week and a half, this place is crazy like this, and for the rest of the year it's a ghost town.

The Air Races are kind of like a yearly reunion where you see all your buddies, go around and see everybody and say hi to everyone, pop the top off a cold one and chill.

I like the stock class, the P-51s, the Grummans, the Cats, the Sea Furies that haven't been modified, they're still in their stock configuration. Sometimes, certain years, the P38s will show up, we had an F4U Corsair that'd come in from time to time. Those World War 2 planes, those are my favorites. I'm definitely no expert on them.

I have to say, Steve, the Voodoo pilot, out of all the pilots I've met, and there's a lot of characters, Steve has to be one of the coolest cats I ever met as a pilot. Anyone that wrenches on his own plane, and then flies as fast as he does, that's rare. I've never met anybody like that.

You normally get some old rich dude come and jump in the plane, beat the living shit out of it, leave and say "have a nice day" and the mechanic's stuck with broken shit. "We broke it Mo, now have a nice day." "Yeah... Thanks..." We get that a lot too with the helicopters. But I love working on that Huey helicopter, it's one of my favorites.

My son and I were here for the big crash in 2011. We weren't gonna be here, we were over in Bonneville, but our friend set his record early, so we came home a day early. And instead of sending my son to school I thought let's go out to the air races.

When I saw that one plane pull out and went inverted, I knew instantly it was gonna be a bad day. The rest is history … I can't say what happened surprised me. To be honest I think it was a matter of time. They way they did things in the past, pushing these planes and pushing them … The pilot was 70 years old. Sure, he might have passed a flight exam but ... Really? You put an old man like that under those Gs … Then the plane went into a flutter.

Regardless, you could've had a top shape pilot, and it could've happened. I think from then on, they really woke up and realized they had to button down on inspections and how they go about modifying these aircraft. They're getting scrutinized a little bit more.

I was telling my buddy, if nobody gets killed this year, that's two years in a row, which is kinda rare for Reno Air Racing. If that happens, it'll show that this system is working, hammering these guys and not letting them get away with foul maintenance, per se. That'll be a good thing.

Jump into the gallery for a ton more photos from around the pits, as well as the racing itself.

Thanks to Mo Bessier.

More information: Reno Air Races

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