Reno Air Racing: Interview with "Strega" Crew Chief Bill Kerchenfaut. Air Race Photography

Mention Air Racing anywhere and a few names will always come up. Lyle Shelton and his Rare Bear racer will always be at the top of anyone's "who's who at Reno" list. Over the last three and a half decades of Pylon Racing at the huge expanse of high desert known as "Reno" this man has certainly left his mark. It is a mark that will be etched into the annals of motorsport legend forever.

In the history of air racing since it's inception, there are a few names that are remembered. Names of men that left their mark on the sport. Names of men that will certainly never be forgotten. James "Jimmy" Doolittle, Col. Roscoe Turner, Darryl Greenamyer,Jackie Cochren.... These men will live on in our memories for their courage and achievements in this sport. There is to be a new entry into this very heady crowd. Lyle Shelton has been nominated to be inducted into the Motorsports Hall Of Fame. We can think of no person more deserving of this great honor.

Last year (Reno '98) the growl of Lyle Shelton's Rare Bear was not to be heard. The constant battle between this man and his airplane with any racer fast enough to "come up and play" with him was, sadly, missing from the program. Engine problems late in the 1997 Gold Class final race on Sunday put the "Bear" out of action, misfortune and lack of funding kept it grounded for 1998.

As reported here earlier, plans are well underway to get Rare Bear ready and competitive for Reno '99.... Recently we had the honor to speak with Lyle about this effort as well as his roots in this great sport. It is with great pleasure that we present the bulk of that conversation here.

AAFO: It's great to hear that you will have the racer ready for competition this year... How are things going on the airplane.

L.S.: We've got three guys in the hanger right now where I am and we're working on the engine. It's on a workover stand and it's darn near complete. They're starting to get the cowling ready to put on the engine .... they've got the engine mount with part of the cowling on it. We're going to put the mount on the engine here pretty quick, bolt it up as much as possible so that we can just run it up to Reno and pretty much stick it on the firewall with minimum work up there. We're trying to do as much work as we can down here.... The guys are working about three or four days a week or nights. It's pretty much the same crew as we've had in the past. Matt [Jackson] is, of course, gonna fly it. He's putting his shop to work on it quite a bit.  He's come up with quite a bit of backing for the effort to get the plane back flying. Matt will be the primary pilot this year with John Penney as backup pilot.

AAFO: It takes funding to go fast at Reno, and sponsors to do that..... How is the team doing in this area?

LS: Shell 15w50 Aeroshell Aviation Oil has a limited sponsorship of the airplane.

AAFO: You've carried the Aeroshell name on "Rare Bear" for some time...

LS: They've been helping us each year. liason engineer, Ben Visser, in the Shell Development Company, has been good to us. The 15w50 is a good oil about half of it is a synthetic oil and half is a petroleum, mineral oil.

AAFO: Can you use this oil in the race engine?

LS: Yes, we've been using it in this engine it is pretty good stuff, especially for the general aviation engines.

AAFO: At the power you put out with this engine, the oil would really get a test!

LS: works, it's good stuff. They've been helping us every year, their contribution is a good start then we have to get out and start begging and borrowing to get the rest.

AAFO: It takes a ton of money to get an entry ready and then race it at Reno. How bad is the hit on the team and how do you go about getting it done?

LS: The way we've been doing it is with all volunteer help, doing it on a shoestring. Just to prepare for Reno take the airplane to Reno and get it home is a minimum of $150,000. a year. If you win first place, you can offset some of that....if you don't win first place.... then you're really in trouble.

AAFO: We've heard it said "the difference between winning and not winning is, you just don't lose as much"

LS: That's the way it is, yes...

AAFO: Sponsorship is always an issue in any motorsport venture, Reno, being a once-a-year event plays into this. There have been years with multi-events, do you see this ever happening again?

LS: 25 years ago, back when I first got involved back in the late 60's, I hoped we could get a circuit going. I worked towards it, I was president of the old PRPA for a lot of years. I put money into the Mojave races and invested there, went all over the USA trying to get races going but it hasn't worked out very well. Very few people were ever financed well enough to keep the thing going for three or four years till they started making money. They needed to start making money the first or second year, so after the first year or second year they all dropped out. It's hard to find a race site anyway.

AAFO: Given the amount of effort and money involved, it would probably be hard for most race teams to field an effort at more than one race annually as well....

LS: That's right, if you start getting more than three races a year, then you have to go professional. It's a full time thing. We did it a couple of times way back there, when it was a lot cheaper to get the airplane together.

AAFO: Indy used to make it with a single annual event. More coverage seems to be part of the answer. ESPN does cover the races, but with only an hour of coverage, not well publicized... There needs to be more. AAFO.COM hopes to play a part in this by keeping the spotlight on the behind the scenes action during the off season. MUCH goes on that is of interest to the fans and potential fan..... Like your effort to get back to Reno for the '99 competition.... People are dying to know more and we appreciate you taking the time to talk with us about this.

LS: Every little bit helps and we appreciate it.

AAFO: Lyle, you've been in this sport since the beginning. You crewed for Clay Lacy at the 1964 inaugural event.... How different is it now than from those days at Sky Ranch?

LS: Well, it was a lot more.....just fun in those days..... I was a Navy pilot at the time and just hotter-than-hell [laughing] I'd flown AD-Skyraiders, had propeller experience with big horsepower. When I kind of accidentally happened onto that first race out at Sky Ranch and got into the pits, got to know several of the guys. I introduced myself to Clay and wound up helping him out that first year, we got to be good friends, still are. I just really liked it, it was my kind of deal, I decided I wanted to stay in it. Then I got to working in it, I kind of borrowed an airplane. I made a deal with Richard Vartanian and in '65 flew his P-51 as a stock entry, but it was pretty fast for a stocker. (Lyle finished 6th not bad for a stock airplane and a "rookie" race pilot!)

AAFO: So you're in the Navy, and you're hooked on Air Racing.... How did you manage this?

LS: I got orders out to the coast here, I wanted to come to California so I could get more involved, be closer to the action. Then about midway through 1965, Clay [Lacy] convinced me that if I wanted to fly airplanes for the rest of my life, I'd better get out of the Navy. I joined the Naval Reserve and went to work for TWA.

AAFO: We've heard that you wanted to race so badly at one point that you would track down the owners of warbirds, then strike up a deal to race their airplane....

LS: I went all around the L.A. area, peeking in the cockpits for a name. That's how I struck up that deal for the first P-51 with Richard Vartanian.

AAFO: You've got over 20,000 hours in your logbook.... How did you first get started flying?

LS: Right after I got out of college the draft board got after me, I was still single in those days.. So I had to go in the military, I decided I wanted to go flying in the Navy. I'd always had a preference for Navy flying. One of my friends that I'd graduated with went on down to Pensacola, came back on leave and told me about it, so I volunteered to go into the Navy flight training.

AAFO: When was this?

LS: Early '56

AAFO: There were still some propeller airplanes in service at that time, what did you wind up flying?

LS: Oh Yea, all our training was in props.... We had T-34's and SNJ's the Navy was just getting those big T-28's at that time. We had jets too, but all the anti-sub planes were props, and the patrol planes were P-2's, they were props. At that time, advanced training in the jets was in the straight wing Panther. All the fighters at that time were jets. When I was in in 55-56 there were still a couple of Corsair reserve squadrons. Up in Ohio somewhere, they were driving Corsairs...but that was about the end of it. There were Bearcat reserve squadrons up until about 1954.

AAFO: Did your love affair with the Bearcat start then?

LS: I was looking for a P-51 and I couldn't find one that was wrecked enough, or rebuildable enough, or cheap enough. Walt Ohlrich, who's still on the contest committee up at Reno, knew about this Bearcat at Valpariso, Indiana. I went back and took a look at it and decided that if I was going to get into Air Racing, I'd better get that wreck and rebuild it.

AAFO: It is an amazing story how you took the wreck of the Bearcat, a wreck that had been sitting for seven years, and not only managed to get it flying, but actually raced it that same year that work began.

LS: We did a LOT of work on it that year. I think it was 5 or 6 thousand hours, not counting my own hours and I think I put about 2500 hours in it.

AAFO: From the time you first brought this airplane back from the scrapyard, starting almost immediately, you have compiled a very impressive record. First flight was Sept 13 1969, you raced less than a week later at Reno managing a very respectable 5th place finish. In '72 you broke the 3000 meters time to climb record at 91.9 seconds Broke closed course record at 528.33 in 1989 you set a race record at Reno '91 481.618 fastest qualifying speed in '92 482.9.... Just what are you doing in there to pull the horsepower out of that engine!? [-editors note- pilot, John Penny broke the qualifying record set by Lyle, bringing in the Rare Bear at an amazing 491.266 mph in 1996]

LS: One thing is our propeller is geared down to where it's pretty efficient, about a 3:1 gear ratio.. This case is off of the very last Constellation, the 1649. All of these cases have been bought up.. we're down to one. Some of the sea furys will have this case this year.

AAFO: You pull about 4000 hp out of a motor that came out of the factory at somewhere well below that....

LS: Early versions of this engine came out at about 2700 hp. We run water injection, of course, and then we do have a nitrous system. I don't like to use it, and we rarely use it. We can run about 3800 hp with water then the nitrous boost will put us up over 4000.

AAFO: I think most people assume that you run with full-on nitrous most of the time... This is an amazing amount of power.. Who does your engines for you?

LS: Our best engines have always been by our own crew. One of our guys, Mel Gregoire, is an old engine blower man who works for Aircraft Cylinder and Turbine, who's been doing if for 50 years or so. We've just had some pretty good mechanics, using their facilities with some supervision, mostly from Mel. We've put together as good of engines as anybody ever put out. Aircraft Cylinder and Turbine has supplied us parts and pieces such that we could keep going. That's the only way we were able to keep going for a lot of years.

[Shortly after this interview Lyle learned that longtime friend, and founder of
Aircraft Cylinder and Turbine, Bill Jones, had been killed in a tragic crash]

AAFO: We've seen the dedication of the teams. The effort to get an airplane built, maintained and to Reno to race is simply amazing. Most of the fans in the stands do not realize how much time and effort go into the race planes.

LS: Most all the other teams have volunteers too, some of them have a few paid professionals, but we haven't had anyone paid. With the exception of a few contract jobs. It's a labor of love.....

AAFO: All of us that enjoy the spectacle at Reno are the richer for your efforts. There's nothing quite like seeing the battle between your airplane and whoever is able to come up and play with you! There are several airplanes that are improving in speeds every year. With Rare Bear back in competition, things up front are going to be even more interesting than ever! You wont be flying this year.... Will we see Lyle Shelton at the helm of the racer sometime in the future?

LS: We're glad to be back... With Matt steering the program and John Penny as backup... .I'm always available for backup... maybe in a couple years I may run an occasional race...I don't know.... I hope in about a month the airplane will be flying. It will take a week or a week and a half to get this engine ready. After it's up there [Reno] then a week or 10 days. Hopefully within a month the airplane will be back down in the area [Van Nuys]

AAFO: You've recently received the honor of being nominated to the International Motorsports Hall Of Fame in Novi Michigan... Can you tell us about this?

LS: They've nominated me for their hall of fame, to be inducted next June....

AAFO: You will be in very high company there.

LS: Greenamyer was inducted two or three years ago... Some of the older guys are in there Doolittle, Roscoe Turner, Jackie Cochren. Nowadays they have to go for whoever is left....[laughing]

AAFO: We don't think anyone deserves this honor more than you Lyle....congratulations!

As of this writing, work continues on the engine at the Van Nuys airport. Progress was slowed by the loss of AC&T's Bill Jones last month. But this airplane will race in 1999 and from all that we gather from Rare Bear Air Racing, she will be in top form and ready to rock-&-roll with her best foot forward! Stay Tuned!!!!

Interview conducted by: Wayne Sagar
Photography and graphic design by: Mark Kallio

Visit The Official Rare Bear Website!

[special thanks to Lyle Shelton and Rare Bear Racing for allowing us the time to conduct this interview. Extra special thanks to Shirlee Kurtz, Marketing Director for this great Air Race Team for laying the groundwork for us.]

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