Airplanes fill pit-row instead of cars at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway during the 2016 Red Bull Air Race World Championship. The final race of the season had an unexpected ending.
The Red Bull Air Races consist of eight race events held over the past year in different cities all over the world. The final two air races take place at Indianapolis and Las Vegas (the only two North America locations) with Las Vegas being the final championship race.
Unlike last month's Reno Air Races held up north, Red Bull pilots and planes compete individually against the clock on a predefined course consisting of air-inflated pylons. Time begins when the plane passes through the air gate (smoke on!) and ends after two laps through the slalom-style course and upon exiting through the same air gate. At 230 mph, flying 50-75 feet off the deck, a typical posted time is about 50 seconds. Pilots can get penalized or disqualified for many reasons including flying too low or for pulling more than 10G's!
Folks, I can't tell you how excited I was when I got my press credential notification the week before the races. I spent a whole afternoon online catching up on the race standings, getting familiar with the pilots and trying to memorize their names and plane numbers! Pilot Matthias Dolderer from Germany (#21) pretty much had 1st place in the bag but there was a tight battle for 2nd and 3rd place... or so I thought. You see, in the end the weather did not cooperate and this led to a rather peculiar ending that no one foresaw coming. Trust me on this and read on...
Nigel Lamb (second from left) of Team Breitling was in fourth place going into the weekend. Could he catch 2nd or 3rd place? Would this retiring air race legend make his final race season one for the books with a win?
Last year's 2nd place winner, Australian Matt Hall (#95) was again in 2nd place but upon arriving in Las Vegas his team discovered irreparable damage to his aircraft and he was unable to race on either day. This led to 2nd place being up for the taking.
While in Peter Podlunsek's hangar (Slovenia, #37) I damn near tripped over this stuff. I wasn't sure what it was so I took a photo of it. Later while in post editing I realized it was a map of the Vegas race course using Red Bull cans to represent the pylons.
Unfortunately, due to high winds on both days a full race (with all pilots flying at least once) did not happen. Saturday saw some practice flights which made for good photo ops, but the wind made it impossible to get a full round of racing in. Sunday was more of the same but a full race ALMOST happened.
You see, on Sunday everyone got to race except for leader Matthias Dolderer and the retiring Brit, Nigel Lamb. Both pilots were literally in the air doing a holding pattern while waiting for the wind to die down so they could get their run in... but the wind was relentless and the pylons kept blowing over. Both pilots landed, refueled and went up again for another try... but the wind did not succumb and the race was called off with the standings from the previous race in Indianapolis staying the same. And this, my friends, is where things took a bittersweet turn that I had little knowledge about despite my diligent research on the pilots and standings.
In the end, third place went to Hannes Arch (Austria, #22) who was killed in a helicopter crash in September and despite not racing at Indy in early October, still posthumously retained his third place standing. Had any single race happened in Las Vegas, retiring Brit "Old Man Lamb" most likely would have finished in 2nd or 3rd but instead he remained in 4th place and was unable to fly his swan-song farewell race into the sunset. Aussie Matt Hall, with his broken plane, stayed in 2nd place. Matthias Dolderer deservingly won the championship as expected. During the awards ceremony Hannes Arch's girlfriend accepted his third place trophy and it was an emotional roller-coaster to witness. She held it together quite well and exuded grace and beauty. It was a moment that I won't soon forget.
Even though the weather was foul, I had an absolute blast. Media hours in the pits/hangars were the highlight of the weekend because I got to mingle with the pilots and their crew while taking some close-up photos. I even got a selfie with Matthias... we have the same birthday but one of us is a year older!
Master Class Winners. Hannes Arch's trophy was accepted by his girlfriend, German model/stunt woman Miriam Holler who had two broken feet from a July stunt/photo-shoot accident.
I took about 1,000 photos over the weekend, not to mention another 500 at a wedding I covered on Saturday night. Needless to say, I've been an editing fool over the past week! If you'd like to see a small photo gallery (100 photos) of the air race highlights, you can do so by clicking:
I'm looking forward to next year's races. The construction of the pylons has changed over the years and it'll be interesting to see if any changes are made for next year's races to keep them from blowing over in high, yet still race worthy, winds.
I took my whole arsenal of cameras and lenses with me but mainly used my 24-105mm 4.0 and a 70-200mm 2.8. I'll know to pack lighter next year!