It seemed like years since the two giants of modern unlimited-class air racing, Lyle Shelton's F8F Bearcat, #77 Rare Bear and Bill "Tiger" Destefani's P-51 Mustang, #7 Strega had actually squared off for the championship race.
Since 1987 when Strega took the gold, one or the other of these incredible machines has sat in the top seat of professional air racing - the Unlimited National Champion - crowned at Reno each September. Yet the last 5 unlimited races (including the Phoenix 500 races in March '94 and '95) featured one or the other airplane pulling out of the competition or being reduced to a lesser race due to mechanical problems.
The bearcat pulled out of the '92 gold race trailing ominous black smoke and Strega has broken an engine in the last four consecutive attempts to take the gold. The word was, Strega had reached her physical limits and could not go faster without breaking down.
It is a classic matchup all the way: air-cooled 18-cylinder radial vs. water-cooled V-12; Grumman's Bearcat vs. North American's Mustang; Navy vs. Army Air Force fighters highly modified and optimized for speed around the 9.1 mile closed course.
Early in the week, the ante was set high with John Penney piloting the Bearcat to a new Reno qualifying speed record of 489.802 mph. That the relatively unseasoned race pilot bested the previous record of 482 mph set in 1991 by race veteran and 6-time champion Lyle Shelton in the same aircraft did not go unnoticed by the competition!
In the Strega camp, interest was focussed on a brand new unusual looking prop fitted to the mustang. The white paint accentuated the width of the big blades which took over 5 years to design and build. A super-efficient design promised increased horsepower at race speeds. By mid-week however, the old familiar sleek polished metal blades were re-fitted to the racer after flight tests proved disappointing for the new prop. Strega qualified third overall at 457.353 mph just behind David Price flying #4 Dago Red at 458.182 mph.
Both airplanes faced off in the unlimited gold heat races on Friday and Saturday, racing in the mid 450's and finishing within a few seconds of each other with Strega in the lead. Most observers agreed however that the cards were being held close to the vest and neither racer was really showing all they had until Sunday's final race.
Sunday arrived with all the subtlety of a freight train. Anticipation was high as the afternoon wore on and the races progressed. Don Whittington blazed into first place in the unlimited Silver race in the Griffon-powered "World Jet" mustang and elected to forfeit the win to compete against the heavyweights in the Gold race.
As the big race started, the crowd was electrified to see David Price in #4 Dago Red take the lead from the dive start into the first two laps with Strega and Rare Bear in his wash. Cutting pylon 5 on the first lap didn't hurt Price's apparent lead either! Destefani and Penney caught Price and passed him on lap 3, but he never was far behind.
Destefani meanwhile, never let go of the lead once in front, turning laps of over 475 mph and averaging 467.029, almost 10 mph faster than his qualifying time! The Bearcat hung close behind but ultimately trailed Strega all the way to the finish, crossing 1.9 seconds after the leader. It was the third fastest race in Reno history!
In the end, it was Strega's year to return to glory and Bill "Tiger" Destefani's turn to claim the championship trophy after a true run for the money!