The warplanes start high and lazy, circling like hawks on the hunt. They are clocking 300 miles per hour, nearing the limits of what they were designed to do. Soon, the announcement comoes over the radio: "Gentlemen, you have a race."

The hawks spy a mouse on the desert floor – the first of eight pylons that mark today's Reno Air Races course – and dive, screaming toward the sand. Their propellers chew the air in meaty chunks. Outpacing gravity, the planes start to shimmy and buck, now approaching 500 miles per hour. At those speeds, the pilots say it's like having petroleum jelly smeared across your eyeballs. From a distance they look like birds of prey. The pilots call them warbirds.

I was waiting peacefully beneath pylon 4, about four miles away. When I asked the pylon judge where the planes would appear, he pointed and said, "Over the ridge." Then he laughed. "You'll see."

They hit us before we even heard them, driving hard against the bubble of sound. I was actually looking away, but I knew the planes had arrived because they tore the air out of my lungs. The sound came after, so heavy and loud it knocked us all back a step. The ants in your yard may tell stories about lawnmower blades, but even they don't know the terror of a WWII-era Mustang passing over you at close to 500 miles per hour, sideways, at spitball altitude. Earplugs fail. You can only hope for an even number of planes to pass by, because each one successively takes you by the ear and turns you inside out.

And this was just a qualifying round at last fall's Reno Air Races, the fastest show on earth. It's also one of the most dangerous. Three years ago a plane called Ramblin' Rose disintegrated at 300 mph in front of the grandstand. Former fighter pilot Tommy Rose had thousands of hours of joystick time in military and civilian planes. He died instantly. After a pause to clean up the wreckage, the day's races continued. Since the Reno Air Races' inception 41 years ago, a dozen pilots have died.

As the air folded back around us, we stood and blinked at one another, stunned. Watching the planes whip away toward the next pylon I wondered, Who on earth do these guys think they are?Here's a subculture growing out west, an obsession with warplanes from aviation's heyday in the 1940s. Wealthy guys snap up old fighter planes, restore them, and race them in the desert, a staggeringly dangerous undertaking.

Just about every American man carries a little sliver of air racing buried in the base of his brain, whether he knows it or not. The pilots of the first world war begat the biplane barnstormers, who begat fighter pilots of the second world war, who begat test pilots like Chuck Yeager, who begat the astronauts of today and the future.

Anybody with a little spare time and a thimbleful of courage can earn a pilot's license today. Some 600,000 ordinary civilians are currently zooming around the country's skies, and more than 12 million fans turn out for air shows around North America each year.

Back in the '50s racers flew warplanes like Mustangs and Bearcats and De Havillands because they were plentiful and cheap. If a pilot trashed a plane, he could pick up spare parts at practically any airport junkyard. Now only a handful of such planes survive. Though there are also categories in the Reno Air Races called Formula One and Sport (comprising generally inexpensive, home-built kit planes) the stars of the Unlimited class are multimillion-dollar treasures that only super-rich patrons can afford.

Reno's mid-September desert air races are the warbird culture's culminating event – the Kentucky Derby of the WWII-era thoroughbreds – but much of the year-round scene plays out farther west, in California. Pilots offer several reasons: the abundance of airports throughout the state, the uninterrupted flow of cloudless days, dry air that won't rust the planes, and so forth. But here's the truth: Only in California will you find great numbers of men with the necessary qualities that being a warbird pilot requires – substantial wealth combined with a touch of insanity.

I met Steve Maiman at the Santa Monica Airport. He made his money in apparel, and owns a hangarful of motorcycles and exotic warplanes – everything from a Czech jet on down. Maiman's hangar is near Jerry Seinfeld's, and is not far from where Tom Cruise is said to keep his own priceless P-51 Mustang, called Montana Miss. A race-worthy Mustang cranks 3,800 horsepower through its V-12 Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. During a 15-minute run a plane like that consumes more than 300 pounds of fuel.

Several other puggish old warplanes dot the tarmac, sitting alongside cushy business jets like swollen-eyed, tape-fisted prizefighters who have wandered into a tea party, ambassadors from historic eras in American aviation: Mustangs, fierce Grumman Bearcats, diminutive Bird Dogs, a T-6 Texan, on and on.

The biggest problem with owning one is that nobody makes them anymore. Owners have to comb the globe for orphaned engines and spare parts. Federal regulations make it difficult to import newer warplanes, driving some desperate buyers into the embrace of sometimes shady international sources. Who else can sell you a used Yugoslavian fighter jet these days? One California pilot bought a whole fleet of airframes from the Philippines air force, and now waits for the necessary paperwork to be processed before he can ship them here for restoration.

You can pick up an old biplane for around 30 grand. For more money – starting at a quarter million – you can pick up a single-engine warplane, sometimes with hardware mounts for bombs and machine guns intact. The guy who's dealing with the Philippines air force keeps three camouflaged fighters in his hangar now, and flies them in simulated dogfights over the desert with a group of ex-fighter pilots.

I looked forward to climbing into one of Maiman's planes. Would we blast off in his Cold War-era Czech jet? Or the T-34, a fighter-training plane?

Maiman tapped the body of a yellow Stearman biplane trainer left over from World War II. "The covering is made of fabric, you know," he said. "Go ahead. Poke it with your finger. See? I survived my last crash in one of these."

He whipped a photo from his wallet, like a proud papa. In the picture he grinned woozily, standing beside a fresh pile of red biplane. "See?"

I sat in the biplane's front seat, with a Snoopy cap buckled under my chin. Steve cranked up the engine and hollered over the roar: "Oh, one little thing. I'm going to need you to keep an eye on your oil temperature gauge." His had been acting up lately.

Now, women may love puppies, and they adore babies, but puppies and babies won't be able to get the time of day if there's an old biplane looping around nearby. As we zoomed along the Pacific coast I saw women run waving at the plane, blowing kisses, clutching their hands to their hearts like silent-film starlets. Maiman grinned in my tiny rearview mirror. "Great feeling, isn't it?"

I thought we were clipping along nicely, but then a flash of red appeared out of the south and blew by, rolling wing over wing. The radio in my cap crackled. "Afternoon, fellas."

Maiman keyed his radio. "Hi'ya, Todd."

Todd Robinson, a film director, acquired his red SIAI-Marchetti SF-260 warplane, once flown by the Burmese air force, through an airplane broker.

Robinson pulled into formation on our left, with his wingtip no more than five feet from ours, and gave a little nod. I asked him later about the appeal of flying warplanes. "It's twofold," he said. "It's ultimate control, and calculated risk. So it's one of the few things in my life that truly puts me in the moment. I'm certainly not thinking about what's happening on the ground."

Maiman pushed down the nose of the biplane and we dove hard toward the Pacific, like a roller-coaster escaped from its rails. Later I talked to a woman who saw us in the air that day who had listened for the sound of an explosion as we disappeared below the cliff line.

Men who make a hobby of warplanes tend to ignore boundaries. A couple of years ago Maiman took a little joyride through downtown Los Angeles, in among the buildings, happily whoopty-dooing in his little red biplane. Unbeknownst to him, he had attracted the attention of local law enforcement and television news choppers. They tracked him back to touchdown at the airport. The news footage shows Maiman climbing out of his plane just as the cop cars screech up. Later that night he listened to phone messages from his buddies, congratulating him on how stylish he looked on TV.

And now here we were again, bearing down on the downtown area. I reminded him of the other time. "Nah," he said. "That got blown out of proportion."

We curled safely around the high-rises, then finally touched down back at the airport. "That was fun, right?" Steve said. I thanked him – but as we climbed out of the plane and I turned to place my Snoopy cap in the cockpit, I felt a chill grip my gut: I hadn't looked at the oil temperature once.I hitched a ride to Reno with Todd Robinson in his candy-apple-red warplane, rocketing over the Sierra Nevada. After puttering around in Maiman's biplane it felt as if I'd been launched from a slingshot. We dipped low to follow the contours of pastures, making better than 240 mph, leaving hosts of cows mooing in confusion. We blew past the control room of one little country airport, flying at eye level, and as we pulled up and away a woman's voice gushed over the radio. "Oh, wow," she said. "Thank you so much."

As we approached the site of the race we could see rows of warplanes on the ground. Mustangs, Bearcats, and Yakovlevs sat as neat and organized as minivans in a mall parking lot, except these vehicles bore names like Czech Mate, Miracle Maker, Russian Roulette, Speedball Alice, and Voodoo. The radial-engine, air-cooled Bearcats looked like cannons with wings, and the inline, liquid-cooled Mustangs looked sleek as sharks.

We found the race pilots at the Pylon Bar, where they gather each evening after race heats. The Pylon sits inside the mammoth Reno Hilton casino, but feels like another world. Full-size replicas of warplanes hang from the ceiling, forever suspended in midloop or roll, and on the walls, legendary pilots buzz the room in murals.

They come from Nevada, Texas, Florida, California, and other corners of the country. There's an oil man, a Porsche dealer, an investor. But there's also a mechanic, a fisherman, and a truck driver. Middle-aged guys dominate, but there are a handful of silver-haired Vietnam vets, and young guys who can't afford their own planes but fly on behalf of rich owners. I met one pilot in his 20s who flies a Czech jet that belongs to a Hollywood special-effects mogul. It's a symbiotic relationship; the owner gets the trophy, the pilot gets the girls at the Pylon Bar.

We took a table with a race pilot named Brent Hisey, a brain surgeon from Oklahoma who flies a plane called Miss America. He gained fame in Reno a couple of years ago when his engine caught fire during a race. He crash-landed off the end of the runway, spinning his plane into the desert. True to air-race form, a rival team, after confirming that Hisey had lived, asked whether they could use some of Miss America's spare parts, because he wouldn't be needing them now.

Talk turned to this year's favorite, California race pilot Skip Holm. He test-piloted spy planes for the air force, and one day Holm's U-2 conked out over the Sierra Nevadas – at 70,000 feet. He wheeled around, tilted up the plane's nose and glided hundreds of miles back home to Edwards Air Force Base.

Holm is a short, trim guy with intense blue eyes. His main competitor is another legendary race pilot named John Penney. The rivalry between the two extends to their mustaches, as both sport big, dueling floor-sweepers. Penney flies commercial planes for United Airlines and embodies the paradox of the race pilot: He can be supercompetent or wild in equal measure, like a neurosurgeon in a knife fight.

I noticed that one character kept popping up in each pilot's stories. He won the Reno Air Races Unlimited class gold race 11 years ago. He's the kind of guy who says things like, "You like women? I can introduce you to a Mongolian girl with skin like silk. Thinks the reason for her whole existence is to please you." His name is Alan Preston, and he enjoys a sort of Paul Bunyan stature. In a pilot's hangout in Santa Monica, I had wondered aloud if maybe people weren't stretching the truth a little about him. The table went silent. A curly-haired film producer and pilot named Bill Macdonald leaned in, stone-faced. "It's all true," he said.

Macdonald told a story about the time he and Preston took a commercial flight to an air race in Tasmania. Near the flight's end Preston stood up and disappeared down the aisle, into the plane's bathroom. A couple of minutes later he emerged, wearing his own flight suit and helmet, and ran toward the back of the plane screaming, "We're going down! We're all gonna die!"

"Needless to say," Macdonald said, "the authorities were waiting for us when we landed."

I finally got my chance to meet Preston when a barrel-chested man strode up to my table at the Pylon Bar. His face looked like a switchblade, ready to spring. "Alan?" I asked, and introduced myself. Preston fixed his swivel on me and opened with, "If you print anything I say, I will cut out your organs and eat them."

I gave a nervous chuckle. He stayed fixed. "I'm not kidding. They will taste good to me. Understand?" (He later rescinded the threat.)

This year Preston wasn't going to be racing, and rumors were flying as to why. Some said he had contracted Lyme disease, a condition that supposedly wreaks havoc on spatial orientation, which is, obviously, a drawback for a pilot. Another speculated that an old bullet wound was giving him trouble. It's tough to ascertain exactly what Preston does for a living, although he mostly does it in the former Soviet Union. I asked him if it's true he was shot in the back last year in Central Asia.

"Physically, yes. I was shot in the back. Geographically, I can't tell you."The final race day arrived like a slap from a wet mitten. About a quarter-million people had turned out, bundled and shivering in the stands. A thick fog was rolling across the desert. Tension filled the pit area. After several days of elimination rounds, no one had crashed. Inevitability hung in the air with the fog.

Only the top pilots remained in contention. The last and most prestigious race would decide the champion of the Unlimited class, made up entirely of piston-driven WWII-era planes. Only nine hopped-up fighters had made it, like a bunch of ticked-off old veterans stripped to their undershirts and ready to go at it one more time.

In the Unlimited class no modification is outlawed. The pilots and crews trim and twist the planes into speed machines, swapping skinny propellers for fat paddles and injecting the cylinders with exotic fuels like steroids. They slice several feet off the wingspan and sometimes remove the flaps altogether. They shrink the windscreens down to tiny bubbles just big enough to cover their heads. In short, they tighten up the planes until they're barely airworthy, then dial it back a touch. In the end the planes weigh practically half as much and fly twice as fast. One year a pilot named Gary Levitz flew a Mustang modified with a Learjet wing; he crashed and died after a catastrophic structural failure.

Never mind that the total purse – $745,000 – wouldn't cover the costs of maintenance. As Todd Robinson had told me, "These guys will race you to hell and back to win a case of beer – and then tell you they don't drink."

Just after the start, a monster called Dago Red beat the others to the first pylon. It was flown by the almighty Skip Holm. Dago Red looked like a fireball in the sky, painted all red except a chrome nose and technicolor flames licking its fuselage.

Earlier that morning in the pit area I had found Holm gathering his thoughts. He had won the previous three Unlimited finals. In person, he's a humble man, so quiet you have to lean in to hear him speak. He'd never mention that he test-piloted spy planes and Stealth fighters. And it turns out the most dominant pilot in the sport doesn't even own the plane he races in.

He invited me to step into his trailer and began slathering his face with cream. Cockpit temperatures can get so high, he explained, that you needed something to keep the perspiration out of your eyes.

"So," I began. "When you're out there racing, what are you doing, exactly? Is it just a matter of going fast and turning left, like auto racing?"

He regarded me for a long moment. "Son," he almost whispered. "I dare say it's a bit more complicated than auto racing. We work in three dimensions, not two."

Midway through the race something went weird due to the fog, and one plane got wobbly. When planes fly within a few feet of one another, the margin of error grows slim; the whole pack is flying two and a half football fields per second, 60 feet up, and a pilot who makes any miscalculation would likely never know it – he would just evaporate, either in midair or dashed against the ground.

The plane veered toward another, kissed disaster when its wingtip came within inches of another's, then pulled up and out of the stream of racers. Often pilots who pull out of a squeamish situation will trade airspeed for altitude. But this plane dove back in, unrelenting. The crowd winced. What is he doing? Should we flinch or cheer? Then he pulled up again, out of the stream of planes, into safety. Somebody said, "That guy's a smoking hole waiting to happen."

Meanwhile, the frontrunner Holm charged ahead in Dago Red. His nemesis – John Penney, the commercial pilot, flying a warbird called Rare Bear – pressed him, just one second behind. The two battled hard, skimming the dunes.

Holm tore across the finish line just ahead of Penney, but the announcer came on to deliver a stunning piece of news: Dago Red had cut a pylon. Rare Bear won. The mighty Skip Holm lost.

No matter. They all earned a round of backslapping and handshaking, and a spot at the table for another year. Everybody outraced the law of averages. They cheated fiery death one more time.

For the warbirds, it's the only way to live.

The Reno National Championship Air Races and Air Show

The annual event runs this year from September 11–15 at Reno Stead Field, 12 miles north of downtown. From the grandstands you'll watch the fastest-moving machines in motorsports. You can also stroll through the pits and watch teams work on their aircrafts. For tickets and information, go to airrace.org.