The Temple of Speed
Flying|December 2021
Reno entices even this altitude-oriented pilot.
By Sam Weigel

One of my grand theories of life, aviation and everything, of which I have quite a few—most in some stage of refinement or rejection, few of which I believe enough to commit to paper—is that there are speed people and there are altitude people. Aviation is the rare fellowship that features both, but for different reasons. Speed people enjoy action, competition, noise, crowds, and the pulse-pounding adrenaline rush of takeoff. Altitude people prefer peaceful quietude, thinking and reading, small gatherings of close friends, and the magical change of perspective that takeoff brings.

In childhood, speed people were inching off first base, looking for the first twitch of the pitcher’s windup so they could take off and steal second. Altitude people were in right field wondering what kind of airplane just flew over and completely missing the lazy fly ball headed their way.

Once they grow up, speed people race sports cars; altitude people go on road trips. Speed people own center-console offshore fishing boats with outsize outboard engines; altitude people go sailing across far horizons at 5 knots while listening to Jimmy Buffett. Some of my best friends are thoroughgoing speed freaks. There’s a great deal I admire in them, and a surprising amount of their thrill-seeking ways have rubbed off on me ( motorcycling, dirt-biking, skydiving). But from earliest childhood, I have spiritually belonged squarely in the altitude camp.

All of which perhaps explains why I have never been to the Reno Air Races until now. On the face of things, overpowered P-51 Mustangs going the speed of sexiness 50 feet off the scrub-desert floor should have had me driving to Nevada the same sun-soaked summer of ’98 that my beat-up Ford Ranger first pulled into Oshkosh, Wisconsin. But as I recall, my airy altitude-oriented teenage self was then focused on sharing that transcendent change of perspective with the girlfriend I wanted to make my girlfriend. (I failed miserably; she puked in my lap on a bumpy Wisconsin afternoon and declared me a great friend as I swabbed her vomit from my lap and the Cessna 150 cockpit.) I’ve never had a strong desire to go to the races since, presuming them to be a sort of sun-blasted aerial NASCAR, catering to speed tweakers of the Daytona infield set in Florida.

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