Next year would have been the 60th for the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada, but the venue is shopping for a new home. It may find one in Wyoming.
Casper has made the short list for aviation’s fastest motor sport, where planes fly up to 500 mph 50 feet from the ground on a closed course.
“We heard they were going through this process, and they had a bidder’s conference for anyone who was interested in learning more about the races and so forth,” Casper Airport Director Glenn Januska told Cowboy State Daily. “That was held the end of June, and it was a couple of days conference that I went to Reno for.”
The airport worked with Visit Casper to put together a proposal, and it was one of six selected for further consideration. The others are Buckeye, Arizona; Pueblo, Colorado; Roswell, New Mexico; Thermal, California; and Wendover, Utah.
Making the short list is exciting not just for Casper, but for Wyoming in general, Januska said.
“It’s not just something that would be $100 million impact to Casper and Natrona County,” he said. “It’s significant for the state. With the coverage and the visibility, I don’t want to say it puts Wyoming on the map, but you know, there would be a lot of people who would be coming to see the races, a lot of people who would be watching. It would be good visibility for the central portion of the state as a whole.”
The air races in Reno have hosted upward of 69,000 people for the multiway event.
“This gets national and international attention,” Januska said. “And I think it’s Fox Sports that actually televises this. I think the last time they had this, they said something like 240 different credentialed media people were there.”
With this kind of attention, Januska said he believes the event has potential to fill hotels from Douglas to Buffalo, and is likely to keep airports around the region busy from Riverton to Casper.
Crashes Aren’t Unheard Of
The Reno-Stead Airport announced earlier this year it’s evicting the event, citing significant growth in the region and a forthcoming airport expansion that would make it incompatible to continue hosting the races.
The races faced significant financial issues after they were forced to cancel in 2020. That included not just refunding all the tickets for thousands of spectators, but also refunding more than $150,000 in sponsorships.
There have also been some highly publicized crashes over the years, which have raised safety concerns with the sport. The Reno Air Races is one of the last remaining when it comes to air motorsport events.
Last year, a Czech jet crashed, killing its pilot.
Then, in 2011, a World War II-era modified P-51 Mustang fighter plane nicknamed Galloping Ghost veered into the grandstands at 400 mph, instantly killing at least three people, including pilot Jimmy Leeward, and injuring 50 others, many of whom were reported at the time to have critical, life-threatening injuries.
Ultimately, seven more died, bringing the total fatalities to 10.
An NTSB investigation found that untested and undocumented modifications to the airplane contributed to the crash by causing a piece to fail.
As a result of the crash, NTSB made seven recommendations to improve the safety of the races, including a course design and layout farther away from the spectator stands, pre-race inspections, FAA guidance, airworthiness of aircraft modifications, pilot G-force awareness and ramp safety.
A Precision Sport
Air racing is a fun sport, Januska said, but safety is something that’s taken very seriously by the race organizers, particularly in light of the high-profile crashes.
Januska said there’s a pilot racing school that all the competitors have to go through now. That’s usually held a couple months before the actual races.
“That’s to make sure everybody has that skill level for the races,” Januska said. “That’s usually a couple of months before the actual races.”
The races themselves, meanwhile, take place over a 10-day period that includes practices and preliminary qualifications.
One of the special advantages that the Casper airport has in the competition to host the races is the size of its airport, which was once a World War II base.
“We have a lot of infrastructure,” Januska said. “And we have 5,150 acres of land. We are probably more fortunate than a lot of airports in the fact we can, you know, if we need to park 5,000 vehicles, we can do those types of things. As we’ve grown and developed, we have a lot of the infrastructure that we think could support this.”
Januska said a group from the National Air Racing Association will come next week to view what Casper Airport has to offer.
That’s going to include tours of the community, a trip to Casper Mountain and the sports complex, as well as the tour of the airport.
Community partnerships also will be explored, Januska said.
“For example, we can work with the Ford Wyoming Center on a concert, so if the people are here for the races, they know their ticket allows them to get into a concert,” Januska said. “Or maybe we can do some things with David Street Station and the event center.”
How To Race And Have Your Airport Too
That Casper is a commercial airport will be one of the big considerations in hosting an event of this nature, Januska said.
“We can’t just shut the airport down and not have commercial service,” he said. “So, we’re a different animal than what they’re used to.”
But, Januska added, that’s true of several of the others that made the short list.
“Anywhere that they go to, the event is going to have to have adjustments,” Januska said. “What we basically said is this is what we can offer, this is what we have available.”
If Casper’s selected, Januska anticipates there would be careful scheduling around the event so that commercial flights could still come in at certain times of the day.
“So, we have a couple of larger 737-size jobs, and then on those dates, those would depart in the morning before, let’s say 7 o’clock, before you start the racing,” Januska said. “And then maybe there’s a gap in the afternoon, like right around noon time so you could get a couple aircraft coming in.
“We’d work with the airlines on larger planes in that schedule and we’d work to make sure if there’s FedEx operations or cargo operations, we’re able to go out before that time period.”
There will be adequate time to figure things like that out to ensure all critical functions of the airport are still available, he said.
The plan is to announce a selection for a new home in the first quarter of 2024. A celebratory airshow is planned for that year in September to close out the National Championship Air Races’ 60-year history in Reno. The first air race would not be held until the following year in 2025.
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.