This past weekend, speed was up in the skies above the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Red Bull Air Race came back for the second year to the track, bringing twenty-two pilots (three Americans) to compete in an aerobatic obstacle course for time. This also was my second year attending the race, each year I leave already anticipating next year’s race.
It harkens back to the aviation history of the IMS. The very first event held at the IMS was a hot air balloon race held on June 5, 1909. Eddie Rickenbacker, four-time Indianapolis 500 starter and part owner of the IMS from 1927-1945, also had a strong history of aviation. Despite not knowing how to fly when he signed up to fly planes in Europe in 1916. Rickenacker picked it up naturally and by the end of the war (World War I) he was known as an “Ace of Ace”. During World War I the IMS was also transformed into an aviation repair depot and landing field for war planes. There is a monument to this fact near Main Street on Speedway. Racing may be in the blood of Speedway, but aviation is also present.
The weekend is set up in an elimination structure. The Master Class (the higher class) is set up in a Round of 14, a Round of 8, and a Round of 4, with the final podium set based on times from the Round of 4. Both the Master Class and Challenger Class will navigate multiple 82-foot-tall pylons and what’s called a Vertical Turn Maneuver (or what I call a very high loop) all while maintaining appropriate level of aviation and not hitting the pylons. The pylons themselves are set up into various gates, which the pilots must navigate, and one chicane set up just along the backstretch. If you plan your seat just right you can see the planes navigate the chicane nearly head-on.
You can’t have an event at the IMS without dealing with weather. This race was no different. Friday’s rain and wind cut short the practice times for the Challenger Class, but the Master Class was able to hold both practice sessions on Friday. In a moment of foreshadowing Michael Goulian held the top spot for both practices. The weather (more the wind over the track) came back into consideration during qualifying. The Master Class was plagued by penalties, especially Kirby Chambliss who received a DQ during his first qualifying run for RPM, and then received a 2-second penalty, which shunted him into fourteenth (last) in qualifying order. Conversely, Martin Sonka qualified first, and at the time was first in the standings.
With this race, you can qualify wherever and still show up on race day and blow everyone’s mind. That’s exactly what Chambliss did this weekend. Chambliss was dead last in qualification order and in race format he would be going up against Sonka who qualified first. Chambliss handed Sonka a defeat, knocking the current standings leader out in the first round. Unfortunately, Chambliss would not advance out of the round of 8, but another American Michael Goulian did, and all of his runs were exhilarating. Goulian, who got into the Round of 8 as the fastest loser.
The Round of 4 was nail biting and electric. Nicolas Ivanoff led off the final rounding posting a final time of 1:06.951. Then it was Goulian who came out and put down a lap of 1:06.208. Ben Murphy went third and wasn’t fast enough to beat Goulian’s time. Then it was Pete McLoed who has been putting consistent times this weekend and had beaten Goulian in the Round of 14. They had the Ghost Plane on the screens the whole time and suddenly after McLoed was through his first run the realization started to dawn on everyone that Goulian was going to win. It spread throughout the second run, and once he started his third run everyone knew that Goulian was going to win. His reaction was fantastic and matches Will Power’s reaction when he won the Indianapolis 500. Goulian rolled over onto his back at the hanger and kicked his legs around in excitement. Watching him on the podium as the American anthem played was a moment I’ll not forget. He is the first American pilot to win an Air Race here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the first US pilot to win on home soil in 10 years, a special moment we all experienced.
It is still hard to describe this weekend. It’s completely different from the Indianapolis 500 weekend or Brickyard Weekend of the IndyGP weekend. The 500 reminds me of a very special weekend full of pomp and circumstance. The IndyGP has more of a carnival feeling with families sitting on the mounds. The Brickyard weekend…well I have yet to have a full uninterrupted weather perfect weekend with the Brickyard. The Air Race it’s just exciting and yet restful fun. You spend your time up in Turns 3 and 4 with your eyes turned up to the sky watching airplanes streaking through the IMS leaving trails of smoke.
If you haven’t gone, I recommend you make the time and go next year.