REPORT: Red Bull Air Race Indianapolis

The Red Bull Air Race is part airshow and part competition; a perfect combination for a spectacular and exciting spectator event. In 2017, for the second consecutive year, the World Championship was decided at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, in Indiana, USA, also known as the “Brickyard”. Before the race started, This is Flight took a behind-the-scenes tour of some of the facilities and technology needed to make the race possible, starting with Race Control. During our visit, the race director and judges were busy monitoring track and weather conditions in preparation for the start of the event. The team is lead by Race Director Jim DiMatteo, the man behind the much-quoted radio transmission “you are cleared into the track, smoke on”. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is also represented in Race Control. Not only are they overseeing track operation, but they are also in contact with Indianapolis international Airport less than 11km (7 miles) away.

One thing that sets Indianapolis Motor Speedway apart from many of the other tracks is that the pilots not only take off and land within the speedway, but begin the race with a standing start. The first gate is less than than 500 meters (1,500 feet) from where they take off. While this does mean a slower start speed through the first set of gates, it is exciting to watch all takeoff and landing action inside the track.

The 82 Feet/25M tall pylons used to mark the track in the air race have improved considerably since the sport was created in 2003. It used to take over 20 minutes to repair a busted pylon; today it takes only a few minutes. The exact time depends on the type of track and the location of the pylon on the track, with water-based tracks taking longer to repair. The people responsible for the pylon repairs are called Airgators. To minimize the time taken to repair the pylons, each team of Airgators carries pre-configured repair kit. The pylons are broken down into 9 different zippered sections. They simply grab the repair kit for the appropriate sections and zip it on. There are no zipper stops on the pylon zippers – and for good reason. Imagine an aircraft flying at 230Knots hitting a small metal zipper. The Airgators zip up the pylon sections and ensure the they take the zipper with them. In a matter of minutes, the pylon is repaired and the next aircraft can enter the track.

You may have also noticed how quickly a pylon appears to bust or pop when struck. There are several reasons why this happens and its all about safety. The pylons are pressurized and monitored by sensors to maintain the appropriate pressurization regardless of environmental conditions. The fabric used in the pylons does not contain rip stop. This means that pylon material will continue to tear throughout the seam when cut, allowing the pylon to quickly “pop” or tear free from the remaining base. The Pylons not only mark the course they also gauge the pilots adherence to the rules and as you can imagine, the rules are strict. Penalties range from one second for incorrect vertical turning maneuver or insufficient smoke to three seconds per pylon hit. Three pylon hits in a single run will result in a Did Not Finish (DNF). Exceeding the maximum load factor (G force) or maximum start speed, or deviating from the course, will also earn the pilot a DNF or disqualification.

You are not going to see a wide variety of aircraft during the Red Bull Air Race. Most of the Masterclass pilots use highly-modified Edge 540s, with one using the MXS-R, while Challenger Class pilots use standardized two-seat Extra 330s. Race rules require that all teams used the same Lycoming engine and three bladed prop but Masterclass teams are allowed to make modifications to the aircraft seeking aerodynamic advantages or weight reduction, although a minimum weight of 696kg (including the aircraft and pilot) must be adhered to. Even though the airframe may start from the same base aircraft, individual teams often customise their aircraft, and components such as the tail, canopy and air intakes often look remarkably different.

This year’s race in Indianapolis was the last of the season, but was plagued by less than ideal weather on the Sunday. A line of intense rain passed over the track four hours before the racing was scheduled to start. While we hoped that the first band of weather passing through would make for a dry race start, low ceilings, low visibility and drizzle continued until after 13:00. It was a tough call but the race directors ultimately cancelled the Challenger Class races and awarded points based on the previous day’s qualifying session. The Masterclass Round of 14 finally started at 13:30 with winds gusting and low cloud. The race pilots interviewed after the first round noted this was a completely different track than they had qualified on because of the change in wind speed and direction. Indianapolis International Airport reported steady 32km/h (30mph) winds with gusts up to 40km/h (30mph) from the north during the race. Just the previous day, they were qualifying with a steady 24km/h (15mph) wind from the south. The shift in wind direction along with the almost 72km/h (45mph) differential certainly challenged the pilots. Many pylons, particularly at Gate 2, took a beating throughout the day.

Going into the Masterclass Race, there were four pilots that could have potentially ended the day as World Champion. Yoshihide Muroya won the race and ultimately the Championship. Matthias Dodderer earned second place, Juan Velarde took third and Martin Sonka fourth. Sonka’s fourth place performance in Indy still earned him second overall for the season. Pete McLeod did not earn any points in Indy but still finished out the season in third place.  Because the Challenger Class race was cancelled due to weather, points were awarded based on Saturday’s qualifying session. Mélanie Astles won the challenger race – the first time a woman has won a Red Bull Air Race. The top four finish times were extremely competitive with only half a second total between first and firth place. Luke Czepiela earned second, Ben Murphy third and Florian Berger fourth. Despite this, Berger still took the Challenger Class Championship home. Daniel Ryfa was second overall and Luke Czepiela was third.

As mentioned previously, Indianapolis Motor Speedway is also known as “The Brickyard” and has declared itself as the “Racing Capital of the World”. Over 100 years ago the original track was paved with bricks. In the late 1930’s the entire brick track was paved over with asphalt except for a 36” strip at the start finish line left as a tribute the track’s racing history. More recently, winners of the largest races at the track, including the Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400 began the tradition of kissing the bricks as a sign of respect and a nod to the history of the track. The Red Bull Air Race was able to continue the tradition and we were there to catch it.

If you are planning on attending a Red Bull Air Race, here are some tips based on our observations. When purchasing a ticket with an assigned seat, check out the track layout beforehand, as some seats may offer more action than others. At IMS, the best seats appeared to be those that were highest in the bleachers; they not only offered a better view of the track but the viewing angle was above the protective auto race fence. Also, get there early: there is more to this event than just the air race so make sure you have time to take it all in. Last but not least, consider getting the Hangar Pass. Not only will it allow you a different vantage point for the race, but you also never know who might stop by. You’ll also have the ability to get up close during the award ceremony.

Jacob Rutledge is an IT professional by day, aviation and photography enthusiast by night. Jacob keeps his eyes on the sky from the Midwest US.