A very important or crucial stage indeed... Just thinking about how close Tom Dwelle and Company came to success in last year's [1999] Gold Class finals gives me goose bumps! AAFO.COM's "Inside Air Racing" coverage team has been keeping a close watch on this team since hearing of the modification project they had undertaken after Reno '97. The Critical Mass Air Racing Team had hoped to make an appearance with the newly modified airplane at the 1998 event, but time ran out. Along with top contenders, Strega, Rare Bear and the unknown commodity "Czech Mate", the airplane was absent from competition that year. By the time the 1999 Pylon Seminar racing school rolled around last June, the airplane was still not in flying condition... We began to wonder, would we see her in '99? We've seen first hand, the amount of work that goes into getting a racer ready for Reno, especially when a ton of modifications are in the mix... The Critical Mass Team had a lot on their plate with this particular project. Not only was a completely new "Aircraft Cylinder And Turbine" R-3350 radial engine installed... The highly modified Hawker Sea Fury would now sport one of the extremely rare "slow nose cases" from the old "Super Connie." Those of you familiar with this sport will recognize this as the same setup as is seen on the VERY fast F-8F Bearcat, "Lyle Shelton's Rare Bear."

To say anticipation by fans of the round engined airplanes was high would be an understatement... It had been two years since we had seen this "mouse killing" engine configuration in competition. But what would we see from Tom Dwelle in his Taco Bell sponsored "Critical Mass"? After all.. the project had not been totally completed. Though the addition of a Nitrous Oxide Injection System was on the project docket, there had not been enough time to get it completed. She would be running on good old "compressed air" to mix with the huge quantity of fuel the airplane would burn on each lap around the pylons at Reno.(her fuel flow meter shows 10 gph at idle!) From the flurry of emails flying back and forth within the team, it was obvious they were very much in high gear as we approached the event, but time was running out and they were not yet flying. Surprises are never a surprise when you are talking about Reno and air racing. We would just have to wait and see.

What a welcome sight it was when we finally saw the airplane sitting on the ramp at Reno '99. They had done it.... "Critical Mass" was there! Now came the question... How would they do? New engine, many modifications, no time to do extensive testing. Her pilot, absent from competition in 1998, not only had to "shake down" the airplane... Reno Air Racing Association's requirements for race pilot currency, had the veteran of many air races and nearly 300 combat missions in Vietnam, proving he still had what it takes. There was much on this team's plate.

The new engine certainly sounded good... I had been like a kid waiting to open my Christmas presents, since getting a message from Tom right after the early engine runs at Auburn... "It is pretty awesome. At idle, the cam has so much overlap that the tires try to bounce off the tarmac." It sure did! I walked by on one engine run and sure enough, the 3350 was barking like a Top Fuel Dragster on the starting line and those tires really did look like they would like to bounce right off the ground. Showing he had lost none of his pylon racing skills, Tom easily qualified himself and the airplane. Wisely starting out the week with reduced power settings to break in all the new parts, Dwelle still managed a respectable 435.015, placing him high enough in the standings to eliminate the need to run Thursday's heat races. A very good thing, giving the team a chance to look things over, regroup and be ready for Friday... But, had we been shown all she had? Friday's heat race results had Tom at 426.019, placing him forth fastest for the day. And it was a slower speed than he had posted for qualifying... Was CM and Company running out of steam?

On one pass by the CM pit we collared one of the crew and asked the question "how you guys doing?" The response gave us goosebumps.... "we took her out and saw over 480.".... Had the sand truck arrived? And was it dumping a load squarely on the wings of "Critical Mass"? If this unofficial report was true, we had a "dark horse" contest brewing for Sunday's finals... "Rare Bear" had been fighting engine problems all week.... passes by "Strega" and "Dago Red" pits, showed engine work in progress at various times during the week.... "Miss Ashley II" was also in the unknown column, chasing gremlins from the big Griffon all week. No major contender for the Gold was without some cloud over their pit..... Suspense was high.... This IS Reno!

Saturday... in many ways, a day most who were there would like to forget. Tragedy marred the competition and it took a long night and many visits by the bartender to get this reporter's mind back on what would come the next day... But, was the accident that shocked fans and racers alike responsible for Tom turning in an even slower 399.782 in the Saturday's 6 lap, Heat 3A? Was there money in the "Critical Mass" bank or was the airplane running on empty?

Racing mythology has it that two Reno Air Race officials were sitting together in an official golf cart at the start of Sunday's Gold Finals, involved in a heated discussion. As Tom flew by the first time... one official looked up and said... "What the hell was that?" To which the other replied.... "That was Tom Dwelle." About a minute later, when the now very spooled up "Critical Mass" streaked by, the first official jumped up and said "what the [expletive deleted] was THAT?" The reply: "That was Tom Dwelle again." The first official then said.... "I think we better watch this!"

The sandbags had indeed been there and now were removed. There was money in the bank and Tom Dwelle was at the cashiers window making a BIG withdrawal. Tom's words tell what happened that day best..... "We sandbagged all week, while we tested and adjusted our systems and slowly raised the power up to 4100 hp on Sunday. I came down the chute with Brian Sanders slightly in tow. We started earlier than the Mustangs, [Strega & Dago Red] but they soon caught us. I called passing Brian, but couldn't do it. He turned away from me and I got sucked in on the first turn. I kept moving up on him through the first lap until I figured out his line and then was able to pass him the second time around. I went by him FAST. I dropped down in front of him and then could fly my own line."

From my vantage point at Pylon 8, Tom looked good indeed. "Look at Critical!"... "Wow! Look at Tom!" were the comments coming from right and left as Dwelle made his move on Sanders, in "Dreadnought". Then there was smoke trailing from "Critical Mass". Usually not a good sign, I wondered aloud whether or not they had actually gotten the Nitrous Oxide system installed. I was hoping against all hope that the smoke was due to Dwelle "pressing the go-button".... What was going on inside the airplane?

Tom Dwelle: "I chased the Mustangs around in the third lap. I was not closing much on them, but they were not getting away either. My strategy was to keep the pressure on them until one blew the engine and then keep the pressure on the other until HIS engine blew up. Those mustangs were designed for 61" of MAP (boost) and these guys run up to 145" with their Dwight Thorn engines, but they don't last long at that power setting. This might have worked. Strega blew up the engine on lap 5 and dead-sticked. [Later] Tiger said the parts in the screen were so big that you could read the part numbers on some. Turns out that Dago Red had some valve guide keepers come loose and might not have been able to complete the race at max power. We'll never know. On lap 4 an exhaust valve guide broke on our #11 cylinder and the valve stuck open, resulting in a big blow torch that melted the exhaust port on top of the cylinder head. It then started melting the coil on that cylinder, along with everything else in the area. Ken called me with 'trailing smoke' so I shut her down and pulled up to the flameout pattern."

Tom's pull-up, out of the race, answered my question.... A dark horse win was not to be for 1999. But this beautiful racer had made it! They were there and added immensely to the suspense and action of race week '99. Despite the teething problems with the new engine and what might be considered a disappointing end to the week, in a statement to his crew after the race, Tom summed up his sentiments: "I consider this a huge success. Bruce Lockwood said 'somebody's ground crew will win this today', and he was right. I got reinstated in the "Club", we flew a good race and looked great on the ground."

Unofficial reports from Reno state that cleanup crews are still sweeping sand from the Dwelle pit. I think all of us who watch this sport will agree, not only did this team look good on the ground... they looked GREAT in the air. Tom's run on Sunday, with the surprise pass on consistent Gold Class contender, "Dreadnought", being one of the high points of the entire week.. "Critical Mass" was indeed, back.

As the off-season progresses into the "countdown to R2K", more information on just what happened to the R-3350 powerplant has become known.... We asked Tom Dwelle this question: Just how bad was it? "The damage is limited to #11 cylinder. The sodium filled exhaust valve stem exploded, breaking off the valve guide in the process. It appears that the valve stuck open for a while and burned about 1/4" off of one edge of the valve. The valve seat loosened up and about 3/8" of cylinder head was burned away outside of the seat. The piston is totally intact, and the damage is limited to the exhaust port area and the cylinder head. The valve stem has a 2" long crack where the sodium came out."

At the time we asked this question, the plan was to replace only the damaged cylinder, then after several test runs, fly the airplane back to the Critical Mass Air Racing, Auburn, CA. home base. Further inspection of the engine revealed other problems. "Critical Mass" will arrive at R2K with a completely overhauled, race ready, R-3350.

Late last year we asked "Critical Mass" Assistant Crew Chief, Chris Farinha, how the engine was coming along.... "Larry Klassen and I will pull the rest of the cylinders and then take them to his shop and overhaul them. The core of the motor will be shipped back to L.A. for IRAN of the nose and blower cases by our other engine guru, Mel Gergoir". Latest word from the team has the engine work moving along nicely with expectation all work will be completed in time. Currently the airplane is still in the RARA hangar at the Reno Stead Airport.

Story & Graphic Layout: -Wayne Sagar-
Photography: Mark S. Daniels, Dominique Thirot, Wayne Sagar

What does it take to make a successful Air Race Team? A TON of talent would be the answer, and this team certainly has no shortage of this commodity. Critical Mass Air Racing's Chris Farinha gives us this rundown on the makeup of the team:
"At the top of the list would have to be Tom, definitely the rudder of the ship. Besides being a pilot extrodinaire (I think 300 Skyraider missions in Vietnam speaks for itself). He is an extremely hands-on pilot/owner. So much it would not be uncommon to hear someone say 'Hey Tom, isn't Peggy calling you', but, he is the best. Not a bolt or rivet goes on this airplane without him knowing about it. His self-described title as "Team Janitor" is not far from the truth. He is the first one there in the morning and the last one there to leave, from sweeping the floors to banking around the pylons.

James Flanagan: Chief Mechanic. Jimmy is a phenomenal guy. Mechanic/fabricator extrodinaire, he parachuted into Normandy on D-Day. He has forgotten more about these airplanes than most of us will ever hope to know.

Art "Tinman" Ermshar: Expert sheet metal man and all around great guy.

Larry Klassen: Another mechanic extrodinaire. T-6 engine guru. More T-6 gold winners have taken the checkered flag behind a Klassen motor than all others. Among other things, he built the exhaust system for the new race motor. An outstanding feat, superbly done.

Ken Dwelle: Crew Chief. The rudder of the crew. Like his dad another hands-on kind of guy. An excellent leader/coordinator/dictator, that can turn a wrench with the best of them. Ken, a very experienced pilot in his own right, attended the 1999 Pylon Racing Seminar and is likely to start flying Critical Mass this summer.

Dave Cornell: Engine Guru. As you probably know, he was the master mind behind the Bear's race motor. As mentioned in the new book "Fly Low, Fly Fast", they asked what ever happened to Lyle Shelton's winning ways? It was the loss of Dave Cornell. He is responsible for the majority of our speed increase, from 403 to 484. We are very fortunate to have him!

Me: Assistant Crew Chief. Or more appropriately (and preferred) Critical Mass Butt Boy [laughing]. Do whatever needs to be done. This past off season I did the vast majority of the bondo/painting on the new spinner, cowling, faring, etc. Although I prefer to do more wrench turning, with the talent and depth in our team, we go with our strengths. I kind of bat clean-up."

-Chris Farinha-

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