I was first introduced to Pylon Racing a number of years ago, at a club field where they raced two-pole AT-6 Texans. The course consisted of two poles, one at either end of the field, and we would race several laps around them flying House of Balsa AT-6 Texan kits (later ARFs) with Thunder Tiger GP-25 engines.
This was my first taste of racing. I heard stories about high-performance, three-pole Pylon Racing, using airplanes that could easily fly 200 mph. It sounded exciting, but it also sounded as though it was something that I would only read about in magazines. When the House of Balsa Texan was discontinued, the Pylon Racing scene seemed to fade away, and that was the only time that I ever raced.
Fast forward to 2012, when a couple of friends invited me to fly at a place that I didn’t even know existed. That place was Old Julian Airport (OJA), nestled deep in the middle of Julian, North Carolina. Owned by Mike Langlois of Aero Racing Engines, OJA is a beautiful flying site, specifically set up for three-pole Pylon Racing.
Mike and Jim Katz and a host of volunteers have groomed the property into a one-of-a-kind racing facility, complete with a lighting system and a short, paved runway affectionately nicknamed ... well you’ll have to visit to find out what it’s is called.
With help from friends, I scrounged together a Quickie 500 racer and competed in my first three-pole race. During the race weekend I also had my first glimpse into the world of Quarter 40 or Q-40, and watched in awe at these incredibly fast airplanes racing in tight formation around the pylons. I was instantly hooked, and marveled that this beautiful site was so close to my home.
Imagine my surprise and excitement when I found out that the first National Miniature Pylon Racing Association (NMPRA) Q-40 World Championship race was to be held at OJA. Q-40 is a different ball game from the Quickie 500. Q-40 models are scaled-down airplanes, based on full-scale racers, and feature composite airframes.
They use either a Nelson Q40 or Jett Q40 engine, and can reach 200 mph speeds. The race course consists of three pylons, with Pylon 1 positioned roughly 500 feet down from the start/finish line, and then approximately a 600-foot line back up to Pylons 2 and 3, which have a 100-foot separation between them.
The pilots and callers stand near to Pylons 2 and 3. The caller’s job is to launch the airplane, and let the pilot know when to turn at Pylon 1. The caller is assisted by lights at Pylon 1 to let him or her know when the airplane has passed. The length of time the light stays on lets the caller know how far beyond the pylon the airplane has gone.
Pylon Racing is a team effort, and a good caller can be worth his or her weight in gold. If the pilot cuts the pylon too short, he or she has to fly an extra lap. If the pilot gets a second cut, he or she is out of the race. It is amazing how quickly and frequently positions can change in a single race. The race is 10 laps long (eleven if you get a cut), and is usually over in slightly more than 1 minute.
For this inaugural race, 74 pilots arrived from all points of the globe to compete. This was amazing! We had pilots from Mexico, England, Canada, and the Netherlands, as well as from across the US. Pilots brought or shipped their race models and field equipment, and most brought backup airplanes.
In the days preceding the race, OJA was a hive of activity, with pilots testing, checking, and retesting their equipment and airplanes. OJA has a nice, shady pit area, but large rental tents were brought in to ensure that everyone had refuge from the sun.
The race’s format went something like this: while pilots were racing at the flightline, the next group was called into the ready box, and then ferried out to the flightline via a tractor and trailer. This kept the action moving throughout the weekend. The only pause in the racing was for lunch.
An army of well-trained volunteers staffed everything from the pylons to the food tent, and everyone appreciated their help. Pilots tested their airplanes early in the morning, amid the low-lying morning fog—seriously, you could only see heads at one point!—and after a brief pilots’ meeting, the racing began. The race matrix was randomly generated, and laid out all of the heats with the pilots’ names listed, which let everyone know who and when they would be racing throughout the weekend.
On the flightline, there are four lanes marked in colors that match the sticker provided for each model’s wing. The lanes are low green and low red, where the corresponding color sticker is mounted on the left wing of the plane, then high green and high red, which is mounted on the right wing. This gives the spotters, callers, and judges a clear indication of which airplane is which during the race.
When all four pilots are ready, the starter begins a 60-second countdown to the start of the race. The pilots and callers have that time to start their models and get into position. If an airplane doesn’t start, the pilot sits out the race and receives zero points. Four points are awarded for first place, then three, two, and one point for the other finishes.
To avoid unnecessary collisions during takeoff, the start is slightly staggered. For example, green will take off first, followed quickly by red. There is a split second between takeoffs and the sequence is rotated throughout the weekend.
After the airplanes are running, the pilot must drop his or her flight box, and position himself or herself for the race. When the clock hits zero, the callers release or push the airplanes before running back to their pilots. This is a crucial first leg of the race, because as the callers are running back to his or her pilot, they must also tell the pilots when to turn after Pylon 1.
The sound of four Q-40 airplanes running at maximum throttle on the start line gave me the feeling of watching a full-scale race as I listened to those engines screaming around the pylons.
The airplanes raced tightly, flying so closely together at times that they looked as though they would have midair at any moment. Midairs are inevitable, which is why the pit area is located a safe distance from the actual race course. When a Q-40 aircraft crashes, there isn’t much left! There were some spectacular collisions.
Throughout the entire weekend, the pilots demonstrated a willingness to help their fellow racers however they could, and the sense of camaraderie was palpable. Everything ran smoothly, but the fun didn’t stop when the sun went down.
After the airplanes were cleaned and put away for the night, everyone was invited to a banquet at Mike Langlois’ shop, the home of Aero Racing Engines where the famous Nelson engines are manufactured.
Racers and volunteers were treated to some great food and conversation, before settling down for some special presentations. AMA President Bob Brown offered some nice words about the event.
Some big names from the world of Pylon Racing attended, some of whom were inducted into the NMPRA Hall of Fame that night. Lloyd Burnham from the NMPRA board of directors was inducted along with Dub Jett, Mike Helsel, Darrol Cady, Jerry Small, and Henry Nelson. It was particularly nice to see Henry Nelson, creator of Nelson engines, to be standing with Mike Langlois in the shop where the engines are now made.
The following day saw some fast and furious racing. Some pilots were trying to keep ahead, while others were trying to make up for lost points. CD Jim Katz ran a tight ship with each race running smoothly into the next, and before we knew it, the racing was over.
While the pilots cleaned and packed up their airplanes, the results were finalized in record time. The awards ran 10 deep, with additional ones for the overall fast time, fast-time caller, precision landing, and the fast-time fly-off winner.
So who is the 2013 NMPRA Q-40 World Champion? That would be Gary Schmidt of Team Futaba. The fast time award went to Lee Von Der Hay, with an incredible time of 0:58.44—10 laps in slightly more than 58 seconds!
It was a great weekend, with some of the best racing and people in the hobby. We will be hearing much more from the OJA site in the future.
Aero Racing Engines
Nelson engines are currently produced at Aero Racing Engines, only a short trip away from the OJA field. The engine was originally created by Henry Nelson. Mike Langlois started making engine parts for Henry, and eventually took over production.
Mike’s machine shop has every imaginable tool, and each engine is tested at the shop before being shipped. Aero Racing Engines also manufactures high-quality spinners and mufflers for its engines and is a full-service repair shop.
1. Gary Schmidt, Utah
2. Mike Helsel, South Carolina
3. Randy Bridge, Florida
4. Dub Jett, Texas
5. Joe Hodgin, North Carolina
6. Bill Johanson, South Carolina
7. Marcus Blanchard, South Carolina
8. Moe Vereecke, Missouri
9. AJ Seaholm, South Dakota
10. Salvador Barrios, Mexico
Fast Time: Lee Von Der Hay (0:58.44), California
Fast-Time Caller: Terence Palaschuk, Saskatchewan, Canada
Precision Landing: Steve Baker, Maryland
Fast-Time Fly-Off: Matias Salar, California