Low & Slow In Reno
Flying|December 2019
The National Championship Air Races bring in STOL Drag.
Pia Bergqvist

IF YOU’VE EVER ATTENDED THE STIHL NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP AIR RACES AT THE RENO-STEAD AIRPORT WEST OF RENO, NEVADA, YOU KNOW THE EVENT BRANDS ITSELF AS “THE FASTEST MOTORSPORT ON EARTH,” WITH THE SLOGAN “FLY LOW, FLY FAST, TURN LEFT.”

Low and slow has never factored into the equation since the races began decades ago. But times are changing at the Reno air races with a whole new class: STOL Drag (for “Short Takeoff and Landing”). While these airplanes might not be flying anywhere near 500 mph like the classic Reno racers, they have a knack for getting the crowds going.

What on earth is STOL Drag? Two light airplanes line up side by side in between two vertical flags, scurry off the ground, and fly as fast as they can just a few feet off the dirt along a 2,000-foot straight track. Toward the end of the course, the airplanes quickly slow down by pulling up into a severe slip, then land beyond a line (also marked by vertical flags) that designates the halfway point of the course. The airplanes come to a complete stop (tailwheels down, for those who are so equipped) straight ahead—10 degrees or more off heading results in disqualification—spin around 180 degrees, then fly in the opposite direction and land beyond the start/stop line. The pilot who gets his or her airplane stopped first wins.

STOL Drag was founded by high-adrenaline backcountry adventurer and social media phenom Kevin Quinn. Originally from Alaska, Quinn has operated Points North Heli-Adventures, a heli-ski outfit in Cordova, Alaska, for more than two decades. Quinn is also a hardcore backcountry pilot, with more than 8,500 hours of tailwheel time, and the founder and organizer of the annual High Sierra Fly-In, where STOL Drag was first introduced. High Sierra has become an extremely successful event, and it celebrated its 10th year in October. While there is no limit to the number of attendees, Quinn capped the number of airplane registrations at 500 for this year. About 170 of those were registered to fly in the STOL Drag competition at the fly-in.

Pilots are initially timed on the course in hopes of qualifying as one of the top 16 pilots. From that point, it’s elimination time. The loser in each heat is eliminated and the winner moves on to the next round. The final round crowns the winner. The heats are often too close to call, prompting a thrilling rerun.

According to the Reno Air Race Association’s chairman and CEO, Fred Telling, the STOL Drag idea was introduced to RARA by secretary of the board Joey Scolari and COO Tony Logoteta after they watched the competition at the High Sierra Fly-In this past year. Telling was enthused by not only the excitement of the event itself but also their social media following. Research will show Quinn and his High Sierra friends, who collectively call themselves the Flying Cowboys, have about 29 million followers combined.

Over the span of several months, RARA, Quinn and the FAA worked out the details for STOL Drag at NCAR, including a plan for the demonstration race in 2019 as part of the accreditation process. Pending the final FAA approval letter, the event will be the seventh official class.

Like all of the racers at NCAR, the STOL Drag pilots had to attend the Pylon Racing School—a nearly weeklong training program that takes place in June each year. Eighteen pilots went through the PRS training ​and qualified to participate in this year’s demonstration race. However, for various reasons, a few of the qualified pilots were unable to fly.

The Airplanes of STOL

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