The Red Bull Air Race is much like you would expect from a racing event: it is a competition that can be won or lost, and winning has nothing to do with flash and flair. It is all about precision, strategy and speed. In fact, the race times were so close at Indianapolis, it was difficult to discern with the human eye which pilot was the fastest.
I am not going to cover the race heat by heat as the results and footage can be readily found online, but I will discuss the experience as a spectator. Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) is huge. Bigger than huge, actually: gigantic. IMS can hold 235,000 spectators in permanent seating and more than 400,000 people if temporary seating is thrown into the mix, making it the largest sports venue in the world. Be prepared to walk long distances, especially if you are on the northeast turn three side of the track. Just to give you an idea how big the venue is, a walk from the hangar area to the farthest seat in the venue is right at a mile-long (1.6km) walk – entirely doable, but you have to factor in the time walking based on distance and crowds. Vendors line the walk path and it can get congested at times.
As with any outdoor event, the weather plays a huge factor. Only one pylon was busted on race day in 2018, compared to last year where many pylons were popped. The winds were certainly a factor in many of last year’s pylon hits. The pylons used in the Red Bull Air Race stand at 82 feet (25m), or 94 feet (28.6m) assuming a 12 foot (3.6m) platform. The optimal position for the pilot’s helmet – the fuselage reference point against which the pilots’ performance is judged – is around 78 feet (23.8m) off the ground in this case. While the pylons are only inflated to 12 millibars at race pressure, they burst easily and automatically deflate when hit.
During the race control tour, we got to see how head judge and race director are able to make tough calls. Race control demonstrated how they were able to view pylon passes one frame at a time.
Tickets to the Red Bull Air Race are more expensive than the airshows that I have attended in the Midwest US, many of which are free. Tickets range from $20 to $75, depending on when you bought your ticket and seating. That price does not include the hangar walk add on which could be another $60 to $75 depending on when you purchase. Keep in mind high seats are better than low seats for this event. When attending an auto race, the idea is to get as close to the track as possible. The same holds true for the air race keeping in mind the track is approximately 100 feet off the ground. Use Google maps and the Red Bull Air Race venue map to determine the best seating section. At Indianapolis Motor Speedway, each seating section offers something different but you will not have an opportunity to move around. We also recommend the hangar walk add-on; while you will not be able to walk around the hangars themselves, you will be able to walk around the front perimeter.
The pilots are accessible before the race and you never know who might stop by, but ensure you get along the fence early as once the pilots start working the crowd the fenceline will become densely packed.
If you’re looking for a variety of aircraft, you are not going to find it here. Most Masterclass pilots fly a heavily modified Edge 540 Version 2 or Version 3 with one Masterclass pilot flying the MXS-R. That is not to say these aircraft are not amazing machines orworks of art. The Edge 540 is capable of +/- 12Gs while the MXS-R can withstand +/-14G. Both the Edge and MXS can roll 420 degrees a second. The challenger pilots, who fly stock Edge 540 V2s, will race once. If there is someone that you are interested in seeing race, be sure you are in position to watch when the race starts. A whole run in Indy takes barely a minute so you will not have much time.
The Masterclass pilots will race multiple times assuming they win their heats, although almost half will only fly once during the day. Race day for the Masterclass starts with Round of 14. The pilots arepaired into seven heats based on Qualifying times from the day before, with the fastest pilots flying against the slowest. The seven heat winners and the fastest loser move on to the Round of 8, where the Round of 14 times are used to sort the pilots into pairs in a similar style to the opening round. The four winners then advance to the final round, where they simply race against the clock to see who can set the fastest time.
The Red Bull Air Race is about safety first and precision flying second. Penalties can beawarded for a variety of reasons. Safety inflicted penalties, such as exceeding maximum G, or deviations from the course, carry the most weight with a Did Not Finish (DNF). Pylon hits carry a three second penalty per hit with up to two hits allowed per run. Hit three pylons during a heat and the pilot earns a DNF. Flying too low, incorrect level flying or a short spike over the G limit add two seconds to the run time. Smaller one second delays are specified for insufficient smoke or incorrect vertical turning maneuvers. A one second penalty can also be slated if the pilot exceeds the start speed limit of 200kts within a 0-1.99kt limit. Anything above 201.99kts and the pilot receives a DNF. However, the Indianapolis track is rare in having a standing start within the racetrack, which meant none of the pilots could get fast enough to be bothered by the entry speed limit.
The Indianapolis race was won in emphatic style by American pilot Michael Goulian, who went on to take a sizeable lead in the World Championship standings. Pete McLeod and Nicolas Ivanoff finished second and third, with Ben Murphy making a career-best finish in fourth. The world Red Bull Air Race Wold Championship was decided at Indianapolis over the last two years. This year, no champion will be crowned until November 18th at the Texas Motor Speedway in Dallas-Fort Worth, with Goulian, Martin Sonka and Matt Hall all in contention.
The Red Bull Air Race feels foreign yet familiar to someone that regularly attends airshows. Just like at an airshow, there are headliners – in the case of the Red Bull Air Race, the Masterclass races. There are multiple side acts in between the races to keep your attention like Jim Peitz and his aerobatic F33C Bonanza. The races run on schedule, which makes it easy to plan your day at the track. Many airshows don’t publish schedules which can make itdifficult to plan breaks for food, check out the vendors or even plan something as simple as when to use the restroom. Because of the size of the venue, you’ll need to plan your day accordingly. By doing this, and attending with an understanding of what you can expect, you will walk away with a new appreciation for the Red Bull Air Race.
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.