Reno Air Races Reno Nevada USA Steed Airport
Credit: Alamy
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.