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."