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The 2015 NAG Banquet Report by Frank Ronco

Reprinted from the National Air Racing Group Newsletter, with permission from the author and NAG.

To say that this, NAG's 41st annual banquet, was a rousing success would be an understatement with the second largest attendance in our history. But then with our reigning unlimited champion, Steven Hinton, and his mentor the greatest living unlimited pilot, Bill "Tiger" Destefani, as guest speakers how could we miss.

First off I would like to thank air show performer and current voice of the unlimiteds at Reno, Steve Stavrakakis, for his introduction of our speakers. Steve related how he became acquainted with Bill before he became Tiger and many years later a kid in tan overalls, Steven Hinton. Then Steve S. told a great story about the time he had landed his Zlin and Tiger his brand new Strega at Livermore, Tiger said" Go check out the wings, we put 11 gallons of bondo on them!" "I was just about ready to say you did what? When Tiger said it’s ok, we sanded 10 gallons off" and a racer was born. Remarking about Saturday's Gold race he simply asked, "Who really won that race? I say we all did, for it’s a race memory we will all cherish forever." He finished his intro with, "so without further ado please welcome the "Nicest Baad Boy of Air Racing", you’re reining Unlimited World Champion, Steven Hinton!

The ever humble Steven started off by saying that he really came to hear Tiger speak, but it was a real pleasure to be here. He related that he started off with Tiger and LD in 2004. There was a big laugh when he said the real reason he got on the team was that he became their designated driver. "When I turned 21 I told them they'd have to find someone else to drive". While showing a beautiful belly shot of Strega, which led Steven to make a joking bondo comment, he remarked "the racers are pulling 6 G's on the course and you can see the ribs and the stringers on the wings. There is a lot of politics about the planes only pulling 3 G's, but they are pulling considerably more." Steven allowed that personally his favorite time at the races is after 5 or 6PM when everything quiets down and “you can talk with the fans, other competitors and team mates in a more relaxed setting."

His first couple of years on the team there was a run of bad luck, but it was a good learning curve. Next he showed a slide of the old 8.5 mile, pre 2012, oval course noting that the new 8 mile course effectively has no straightaway’s as you are always in a turn. Then he mentioned that one thing the diagram doesn't show is the altitude deadline, which Tiger knows really well. At which point the audience erupted in laughter. Steven then showed a picture of Strega at near pylon height, which he remarked was the proper height to fly the race course, more laughter.

"Strega has got to be the best flying plane I have ever flown and I attribute that to the several crews that have worked on the airplane since it was built in the 80"s, but with Tiger's direction or his vision of this being a race plane from the get go. From day one this has always been a race plane. He fine tuned it and you know he always says he's just a farmer, but let me tell you when you fine tune a plane to fly straight; to fly properly and go fast that takes a lot of effort, not only by the crew, but by the pilot." At this point Tiger interjected, “a lot of bondo", to which Steven replied, "or sanding of the bondo."

But it's a long effort and Strega has been the race plane that has been there since 82'. There is 33 years of development there and that is not going back and forth, it takes a long time to fine tune an airplane. I mean when Kerchenfaut started he had a full head of hair, now look at him."

Steven showed a photo of Strega's cockpit praising the layout of the instrument panel, with all the most important gauges lined up across the top, facilitating quick scanning. "This is very important in Strega because without telemetry you can't afford to spend time looking around for the proper gauge."

Next was a picture of Voodoo's cockpit:

"...and it is a little more stock kind of in the layout of things and a little bit busy, but at the same time there is a lot to learning an airplane. And that's what I enjoyed about going to Voodoo it was a whole new challenge." The reason that the old instrument layout still makes sense is that the plane does have telemetry, which is a life saver out on the race course. At this point Tiger heckled "you already know it doesn't work", to which Steven replied, "If you had telemetry you would have pulled out on lap one! The attendees responded with thunderous laughter as Tiger now in fine form retorted, "Holy Shit you ought to rip all that shit out it doesn't do any good. Steve ignoring Tiger's words of advice acknowledged that "it's a tradeoff between Strega and Voodoo. Strega flies very nice, but it's a very manual airplane. Voodoo does not fly nice, but it's got telemetry so you don't have to be in the cockpit as much.

There are three guys monitoring the telemetry during the race and another advantage of the system is that you can go back and review the data. Mike Luvara is in charge of the telemetry and Ben Marsh does the statistical analysis. It is a good tool not only in the races, but when doing modifications."

Speaking of modifications, Steven described their biggest offseason one, mainly changing the thrust line of the engine. While the change was only about two degrees it required the design and fabrication of new engine mounts. He showed slides depicting the old and new mounts while describing the many iterations it took over the three months it took to come up with the final product. The thrust line change also required a new inlet and heavy modification to the whole cowling which were crafted by "carbon guru", Andy Chiavetta.

"The other interesting lesson we learned last year based on how the airplane was flying was that the vertical was asymmetrical because there was 11 pounds of bondo on the right side and nothing on the left. So we stripped down the vertical and only applied bondo only were needed, it was a big, big lesson."

Steven then showed some cockpit cam footage from Voodoo of Saturday's race and of the start from the pace plane. These were followed by some behind the scenes filming of a Breitling commercial filmed post race down at Mojave.

Editors note:
There was no way to paraphrase Tiger's talk without diminishing the "Tigerness" of his talk, so here it is verbatim, enjoy!

Tiger began, "You know it was 1980 I started coming out there to Reno and over all these years I've done it all. Been bad times, a lot of those, good times we've seen it all happen. But, this last year let me tell you what, the years before that when I flew the airplane, I flew that airplane. Last year the airplane flew me! And sad to say it's just time for me to be out of that thing. And I proved it to myself and everyone else on Saturday. Yeah it was a heck of a race, (lots of cheering from the crowd). But in the real world there just comes a time when there are two kinds of can’ts you know, like you can't cut it and they can't keep me. So it's time for me to be over that."

"But, let me tell you over the years staring off with Mike Nixon way back in the day, he had a little shop out in Chino ... and then came along Dwight Thorn and Oh My!, look what happened to my hair.

Yeah, it was fun times, it was bad times, you know you never knew with Dwight were you stood. You would come in the hanger there one morning and he say, well, I can't exactly say what he would say. But the next morning you come in and everything was good you know, well ok. So we went along for quite a few years and Kerchenfaut was there and Mike was there. We all had some good times it was good.

Ok, so time went by and we got back together with Mike Nixon. Of course, a lot of years had gone passed and he had learned a lot about the Merlin engine and how to make one those things run. There for maybe ten years it was "mayday" every time, one or two engines while we're up there. I hate to say it, but I've got [more] mayday time than most pilots have total time. I'm telling you name it I've been there, so but then you know things came along and it was time. I already knew it was time to get out and I was looking for a new kid, (pause and laughter), I mean new pilot. One day I get this phone call from this young lad. He says, ding-a-ling-a ling, (mimicking the old phone ringer), you know it’s like, "Mr. Destefani", and I already knew we were in trouble right there. Mister, you’ve got to be shittin me, and it was Stevo.

Now we've got to back when Bob Pond was back at Mojave, doing first or exhibition flight of the Pond Racer. I remember Stevo and his twin sister there in a side-by-side push buggy cart and there is Karen (Steven's mother) pushing them. Time flies on by and the next time I meet Stevo at Reno, his dad brings him over an introduces him and I haven't seen him since he was in that push buggy. You’ve got to be kidding me, I can't be that old!, well yeah! So anyway I get the phone call he wants to come up and wipe on the airplane, well yeah come on. Well we all know the history after that. He came up and he got more involved and he got a little more time and this and that and the other and the next thing you know I've found the guy that needs to jump into my spot.

Did he do a great job? Superb job! Not only that he's the greatest kid going. He's not a kid any more, shit, but he was then. It was just great, I mean you know he's got the attitude and he just does it all. It was perfect, the proof was in the pudding, he goes out there and how many wins did you get with us, yeah four wins, hello! At this point Steve senior interjected, "You know exactly how many wins." to which Tiger replied, "I can't remember that far back I'm too old." Anyway it was great you know and so then comes the year when we don't really know whether we're going so he moves over to the Button airplane and that's been all fine too. Of course we are all good friends and we are all watching him and he's still doing the thing and then it came to that Saturday!

It's like all right old buddy. I did not want to be in this chair, but I had to [be] in this chair, I guess I had to, what the hell I don't know, I told you the airplane was flying me. Anyway that Saturday all I really wanted to do was be second place, because I've always looked at it like, ah, for Sunday's race if I get second place I don't care if I'm a half a mile behind, because come the next day it's been a 24 hour caution and I'm going to be next to him, so what do I care.

But, however I was gaining on him and I'm like holy shit, wow!, I'm just going to let it cook on out here and we did that. In the meantime you guys saw one heck of a good race. Wow! That was all fun and games."

A member of the audience then asked Tiger what was his power setting? To which the cagey Tiger replied "You know what, I was trying to keep, I didn't really want to overtake him I was running at 90 inches, (much laughter from the crowd), I didn't want to overtake him. I can't even see the panel anymore how in the hell would I know. It doesn't matter. The point was we already knew we were wounded. We were wounded come Friday after Friday’s gig. So we were just letting her run out there and when she blows, she blows. Well hey it made it all the way through Saturday, that's about it. But, it was fun for me and Stevo couldn't see it until he started seeing the shadow and I'm thinking I wonder if he knows what's happening?

Anyway it was great, and the main thing it was great for the people. You know I've always tried to please the paying customer, because really in the end we love racing and that's what we do, but it's all about we're putting on a show. I've always tried to do that and it's a lot more fun. I remember telling Stevo after 4 wins, shit, you've never even passed anybody! And he goes, I've lapped some, (in an exasperated tone) Tiger response was, that doesn't count! So for me it's always been fun to be in third or fourth spot and if I happen to be lucky enough to win the people really got a good show and that is what is really about. That way not only was it good for them, but it was good for me, because it's fun going around somebody.

So it’s been 1980 till 2014, and yeah I was off for a few years and I'm telling you I'm permanently off now. If you didn't see me too bad! I'll be back, but I'm not in that chair any more. It's been a fun ride over all of these years, just a lot of great people, a lot of great fans. Had the ability to end up being flying with a bunch of great pilots around that course which back in the old days was 9.2 miles and we didn't have all these restrictions. "Well you were flying to high", that was on Saturday, "allegedly", Well hell I was trying to find the space shuttle! What ever!

Wait a minute, we know we can only tie the record for low flying, the record for low flying, you hit the ground, so who cares if I, what ever. I already told you the airplane was flying me, I give up. Anyway, so I'm just telling you that over my personal career I have got to meet a lot of great pilots, had a lot of fun, hopefully I give everybody a chance to really maybe take air racing and try you know in that eight minutes it's very competitive we only have eight minutes a year to prove that you’re the "baddest cat" in town. Only eight minutes, it goes pretty quick, it's not like NASCAR which runs for two or three hours, every weekend, we don't get to do that."

Q&A time

The first question for Tiger was, "what was your hairiest mayday." After pondering for a moment Tiger's response was:

"You know it was probably for me, because I've had a lot of them, but was probably the first one. The course was longer, I don't remember what happened, it went to shit pretty bad. I think that’s when we popped a rod out of that sucker... Oh wait it wasn't the rod , the liner gave way and then things really started to go to hell. It was back there on pylon 5, which in those days was about a half a mile away from where is now. I pulled up off of the course and it's not that bad, you know not that bad and it starts to get a little more worse and little more worse and then pretty soon here comes the oil and then the coolant and then the smoke and I'm like holy shit, pretty quick I'm going for runway One Four, my favorite. Pretty quick I've got that thing down, I've got the nose down, I've got no gear out, I've got no flaps I'm going down and I'm like, "Oh Lord, Oh Lord, Please Lord". I got the gear down and touched down on that runway and just as I touched I told the Lord, "I cancel that", I didn't want to waste one."

A couple more maydays were reviewed.

Next came the question that was on everybody’s mind. Who is driving the Witch next year? Tiger's reaction:

"Oh man, I can tell you it’s not me. It looks like it’s going to be Hoot Gibson", (much supportive applause). Well you know the thing about it is that he has been tied up with the 232 airplane and what have you and I guess that airplane from what I understand has been sold and so forth and so he is available and so he is going to do the job, if we can it there." After some good natured banter about a drag race between Strega and Voodoo for pink slips there was one last question for Tiger. Who is going to build the new race engine? His response was an emphatic, "Tricky Dick, (Mike Nixon), or it won't be anybody, and he’s our guy!"

Tiger then turned the mike over to Steven to take questions. "How do you follow that, that’s it?" Any questions? To which Tiger says "I don't have no questions, well wait, I have a question, what power were you running?" Steven replied, "70 inches", I wasn't running as fast as you, so 70 inches." Tiger replied, "I like it."

The next question for Steven was, "You said that Voodoo doesn't fly as clean and straight or as correct as Strega. If it was your airplane and money was not an object, what would you do?" Steven replied, "I could tell you that, but we've already done it. We’ve actually worked on the plane quite a bit and we got a lot of bugs worked out that we didn't think we had initially."

Then came the question of changing the bottom scoop to be more like Strega's. Steven's response was "actually the radiator on Voodoo cools very well, aerodynamically there is always room for improvement on the airplane, but we're not at that stage of the game right now we're paying attention to other things, so we'll see if we get there. There are lots of options for scoops or no scoops and so forth so it’s on the list."

The question then came up of how fast, straight and level, was Voodoo? Steven then gave a brief overview on the cost and the wear and tear that a speed run would put on the engine. A 3km. record run would require a engine rebuild afterwards, cost for that alone,$150,000.

Valerie Moore then asked Steven to bring us up to date on the old Mangia Pane, which was Bill Destefani's first racer. Steven related that the old Mangia Pane, N# N72FT, just one number higher than Strega, now resides in South Africa, where its image appears on almost every air show poster.

Steven said that an interesting thing about So. Africa is that they have about nine air races a year, ranging from cross country to closed course ones. Steven flew Mangia Pane in an "unlimited race". Unlimited in this case meant any plane could enter it. The race was flown on a Formula course with six pylons. "It's pretty amazing in some respects in that everyone has a GPS transponder in the airplane and each pylon has a GPS transponder on it, so there are no timers, there are no pylon judges. You go out and run around the course and they calculate your race distance, it will tell you if there was a pylon cut, then calculate your speed off it." T-28s are racing Barons are racing, Aero Commanders, RVs, T-6s and it’s a time trail not head to head racing, but it’s a pretty neat event and very popular in South Africa." Karen Hinton then shouted out, "And who won that race?" To which a very embarrassed Steven mumbled, "Thanks mom."

Next at Valerie's suggestion Steven invited new RARA President and CEO, Mike Crowell up to the podium. Mike introduced himself as "the new CEO of RARA. Which I thought was a funny name, to start with. I started six weeks ago and we're really digging into everything we can to make this year a better race than we've had in the past. It's going to be difficult, because there have been just some absolutely phenomenal races and last year was just incredible." Smiling and shaking his head at Tiger he said, "Your retiring, hunh?" "Like I say it’s going to be a lot of work and one of the great things about the air race is all the volunteers. I was absolutely amazed at the 2025 volunteers that help put this on and our staff is all of five people. Without the volunteers there just wouldn’t be a race, so thank you all for the past and I look forward to the future."

Mike then with some trepidation bravely opened the floor to questions. Predictably given the make-up of the audience most questions concerned enlarging the unlimited purse, could it happen this year and if not how soon and what about TV coverage. Mike acknowledged that RARA recognizes the need for a larger, possibly more spread out purse to attract more unlimiteds. Not likely to happen this year, unless a big pot of money suddenly materializes, but they are striving to find that golden source or sources for next year and beyond. RARA is seeking more visibility through wider use of TV and media and a new PR firm had just been signed on. Good news is that ticket sales are up 25%

While attempting to up load footage of Saturday’s Gold Race finish as a fitting end to this incredible evening, Tiger remarked that "if they hadn't bought a ticket to Saturday's race don't let them watch it." Once again we all were mesmerized by the move Tiger put on Steven as they came down the home stretch. It was a tie, and who cares if Tiger got DSQ'd for "alledgedly" flying "too high", it was the greatest finish we can ever hope to witness.

By Frank Ronco

Discuss this article at the HANGAR!

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