All Aviation FlightLine OnLine RENO 98! -UPDATE-

Lefty Gardner & White Lightnin'
Airshow Performance in Doubt

FlightLine Update 8/21/98-

When we learned a few months ago that the National Championship Air Races (NCAR) would be introducing two new classes of racers to this years event, along with a sizable increase in overall purse money, we knew that the complexion of Air Racing was never to be the same. More racing *is* good, and the addition of the T-28 and Sport Racing Classes will undoubtedly give everyone more of what they primarily come to Reno for in the first place. However there were certain realities that had to be dealt with. In particular, changes had to be made in the event schedule to accommodate the new race classes, more racers meant less time for airshow. And even though the purse money is larger than it ever has been, the money needed for air show performers would be difficult to come by. This must have left the Reno Air Racing Association with some extremely difficult decisions, none of which would be easy.

This leads me to the purpose of this article which surrounds Reno Air Race icon, Lefty Gardner and his P-38J White Lightnin’, returning once again to grace the skies of Reno. So far, White Lightnin’, is scheduled to make qualifying runs and race in the Unlimited Class. His trademark aerobatic demonstration is currently on hold for this year......We were contacted by Rick Merrill of the White Lightnin' Crew who filled us in on details of the return of this Reno favorite.

"As you may know, Lefty has decided to make Reno for at least one more time. We have tried to get on the program for him to fly his aerobatics routine. I have spoken with Jack Walther, [Chairman of The RARA] Jack sounds like he would like Lefty to fly aerobatics if possible and seems basically in support of it. But he did say up front that they added two new racing classes this year and that they just don’t have time on the program at this point. Also, the money is really tight - better than last year but still really tight." (word is, that the annual event we all love was within a few dollars of being lack-of-funded out of existence last year!)

Just hearing "official" news that Lefty and his beautiful P-38J would return this year made our day! Reno is never quite the same without that white twin-boomer flying overhead, this was great news indeed!

"Lefty and the crew have been working on White Lightnin and it's running great. Lefty's feeling great too. We are really excited and looking forward to being there this year and will try to qualify White Lightnin' "

The team is understandably very eager to get Lefty in the show for his aerobatic routine, but they are aware of the circumstances, and the problems involved in getting into the schedule this late in the game.

"Realistically, it is a very last minute thing that we have asked him [Walther] to do here. We’re just trying to drum up support for this [aerobatic routine] to happen. Maybe if the folks at Reno heard from Lefty's fans they would find a way to get him on the program. An appropriate amount of support might help."

To say that not seeing Lefty flying his P-38 aerobatic demo could be a bit of a disappointment is putting it mildly. For more years that I can remember, Lefty has been putting this extremely rare and beautiful warbird through it’s paces. A true showman, Lefty and White Ligntnin’ have been a hit every time they appear at Reno.(if not the most anticipated airshow performance of the entire event) Yes, for myself and many others - Lefty Gardner and Reno are synonymous. This was proven in 1996 when late Sunday afternoon White Ligntnin’ taxied in front of the crowd (after having been refitted with a new engine which let go earlier in the week) and then took to the skies. The applause was never louder nor was there a person left sitting in the grandstands when Lefty taxied by. A tribute to not only the following Lefty has among the spectators, but also to the loyalty and dedication of Lefty and his crew to the NCAR.

Knowing that Jack Walther (Chairman of the RARA) could also help shed some light on this issue, we contacted him in the hopes of getting some more information. We asked if he could add anything to the problems concerning the money and scheduling.

"At this point, quite frankly, we are probably going to have to start [the event] as much as an hour early just to get in everything that is scheduled, in particular, because of the two new classes. We’re looking at starting somewhere around 8:00AM to 8:30 AM. May be getting to 4:30PM to 5:00PM before the event is over - depending upon if there are any holdups along the way. The other part is strictly the money, Lefty and I have had that conversation often for the last couple of years. We just have to kind of watch our nickels and dimes."

We then asked if there was any possibility to include Lefty into the program, and how much support was there within the RARA for this.

(we found out) "Lefty was coming this year and going to race, which I thought was great. But just like I told him, I can’t make a commitment, if things change around a little bit, well, I’m keeping our options totally open."

"Lefty is my favorite act, I love that airplane. I really like Lefty, he *is* a legend in his own time. If it was left up to me alone to make the decision and we had the money, he’d be the first guy out there. But there are an awful lot of other considerations here that make that not possible, at least as of right now. But I just cannot commit to something right now that may not happen"

Finally, I asked what we, as race fans could do to show support for Lefty in this regard in an attempt to get Lefty included into the program.

"Well I think, due to the late date on this that will not change our decision. We always like to get fan input. That’s allot of what we make our decisions on. If we do get an opening [in the schedule] and get a little extra money in our pockets - he’ll fly".

I have to admit that after talking with Jack I felt much more positive about the possibilities of Lefty and White Lightnin’ strutting their stuff at Reno 98. In fact, it appears that if there is any way that this can happen - it will-. The Reno Air Race Association *is* pro-Lefty, Jack spoke to that quite directly. It’s just circumstances such as scheduling difficulties (the program has been inked for months), a last minute notification of intent, and keeping an eye on the bottom line (money) that resulted in this noncommittal stance. This is totally understandable once all the facts are put on the table, they can not commit to spend money already budgeted elsewhere. Neither can they insert performers into schedules already filled.... (no matter how much they, or we want them to).. However, let us not forget that last minute cancellations have and do occur at the NCAR. We can only hope this will again be the case this year, some time within the busy schedule is freed up and that a few extra dollars can be squeezed out of the budget. (or into the budget by a sponsor?)

We, as race fans, may not be able to change the realities surrounding the decisions that have already been made - but we can influence the direction of where they go in the future. Lefty and White Lightnin’ have always been there for us, now it’s time for us to return the favor. Join us in the support of Lefty by relaying your thoughts on this matter to the RARA. Their email comments/questions form is available at http://www.airrace.org/1998/requestmain.html.

We all love Lefty, and hope that the RARA can find a way to include him in the schedule lineup if at all possible. Reno just won’t be the same if the fans are deprived of what has always been the undisputed highlight of the Reno airshow.

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(article and photography by Mark Kallio)
(White Lightnin' in-flight photo courtesy of: Wingman Photography)
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