“MERLIN MAGICIAN” – The Story of Dwight Thorn - Part Two
1980-82 – Merlin Dominance but not the “Mouse Motor”
Skip Holm and "Jeannie" at Reno in 1981
Dwight’s newest creation, the Allison rod “Mouse Motor” had survived its first outing at Reno in 1979. It was somewhat ironic that it was installed in the same airframe that had been Chuck Lyford’s “Bardahl Special” and flown by “Miss R.J.” pilot Chuck Hall. Both men were advocates of Dwight and the magic he could perform with a Rolls-Royce Merlin. For Dwight, the irony that his ultimate Mustang, “The Roto-Finish Special” had been transformed into the Rolls-Royce Griffon powered “Red Baron”. Darryl Greenamyer had joined that team in 1976, and with his input as both a mechanic and test pilot, the RB-51 was transformed into a consistent race-winner. The contributions of Bruce Boland, Pete Law, Randy Scoville, and engine builder Dave Zeuschel to this winning effort cannot be overstated. It was in August 1979 that Steve Hinton set a new 3-km speed record prior to the Reno Air Races. The loss of the “Red Baron after the Gold Race created a void that needed to be filled. Perhaps the “Mouse Motor” could do that. The “Mouse Motor" and Dwight returned in Bruce Ellis’ P-51 Mustang “Section 8”at Reno in 1980. Chuck Hall was again the pilot. They were hoping for better results. Chuck and “Section 8” would occupy the number eight qualifying position with a speed of 387.36 MPH. This placed the airplane in the Silver Race where Chuck would finish in second place to Ron Hevle who won the race in Tiger Destefani’s “Mangia Pane”. His second-place finish made him the first alternate for the Gold Race. When Lyle Shelton and “Rare Bear” could not start the Gold Race Chuck and “Section 8” took over. However, their participation was short-lived as Chuck was forced to pull out of the race on the first lap with engine problems. Although they did make it to the Gold Race the results were not good enough for Chuck and the airplane to continue in competition going forward. Chuck Hall explained this in a recent interview – “I really enjoyed participating at Reno in 1979 and 1980 with Dwight's first “Mouse Motor” installed in Bruce Ellis’ “Section 8”. Unfortunately, after the 1980 Reno Air Races I could no longer afford to continue. Dwight was supplying the motor, but we were “renting” the airplane from Bruce and unfortunately air racing will do damage to an airplane. Bruce was no longer in favor of renting the airplane for the fee he was being given so the program had to end. The other thing was that it was obvious that the “Mouse motor” needed a benefactor that could provide the necessary resources to develop it into a competitive race engine. This was beyond my financial means so unfortunately this enjoyable time came to an end after the 1980 Reno Air Races.” No such benefactor came forward in either 1981 or 1982. Dwight’s time at Reno was confined to doing Unlimited Class tech inspections and consulting on problems for others when asked. In the meantime, the domination of the Unlimited Class was still by Mustangs. First was the Wiley Sanders Mustang “Jeannie”. Dave Zeuschel’s highly tuned Merlin was combined with aerodynamics refined by Bruce Boland and systems optimized by Pete Law which allowed first “Mac” McClain and then “Skip” Holm to achieve Gold Race victories in 1980 and 1981. Holm had hoped to repeat in 1982 but was thwarted by engine problems in practice prior to qualifying. The 1982 victory would go instead to Ron Hevle in a Mustang named “Dago Red”. Owners Frank Taylor and Tiger Destefani had combined efforts to create a new and better version of “Jeannie”. Bruce Boland and Pete Law again provided their technical support, but this time the engine was supplied by a former Dave Zeuschel employee named Mike Nixon. Dwight could only watch from the sidelines. He knew in his heart that his Allison-rod Merlin, properly developed, could beat this current crop of racers but so far, no benefactors were forthcoming.
But the Mustang dominance was about to change. Dwight would have a role in this change but not in the way that most would expect.
1983-84 – Round engine diversion
Since getting into Air Racing in 1964, Dwight had made several good friends among the participants. One of these men was Pan American Airline Captain and Unlimited Air Race pilot Lloyd Hamilton. They just seemed to enjoy each other’s company. Lloyd had long desired to build an R-4360 powered version of the Hawker Sea Fury. In 1982 Frank Sanders began the process of installing the massive 28-cylinder Pratt and Whitney R-4360 engine on a Hawker Sea Fury. Lloyd thought this to be an ideal opportunity to go into partnership with Frank and build a race plane for himself. He was also hoping that he could talk Dwight into working with him on this venture. Dwight did agree to help but it seemed an odd choice since Dwight had almost no experience working on radial engines, let alone the massive 28- cylinder R-4360. Lloyd talked Dwight into it by saying an “engine is an engine” and Dwight knew how to make engines work very well! Lloyd’s crew chief, Larry Rengstorf, commented on Dwight’s role in the crew – “Lloyd said that Dwight Thorn would be coming on to assist with the project. I was already the crew chief and was helping with a lot of the mechanical fabrication and assembly on the project. Dwight was brought in to be a systems consultant. It seemed that Dwight would be looking at any system problems we had, and he really did a fine job in this role in my opinion.” Both the Sanders and Hamilton Sea Fury projects were progressing very well as September of 1983 drew near. Both would in fact make it to Reno in 1983. The Sanders Sea Fury appeared in its immaculate silver and red paint scheme with the name “Dreadnought” painted boldly on the cowling. The name seemed very appropriate for the gleaming new racer, even it was considered a two-seat trainer by some! By contrast Lloyd’s new racer showed up on the ramp looking more than a little worse for wear. Dwight, with his penchant for giving everything nicknames, saw the immaculate Sander’s “Dreadnought” and went to find a brush and a can of paint. Then Dwight lettered the cowling of the Hamilton entry with the name “Havnaught!” It seemed very appropriate and the success of the two new Sea Furies did follow completely different paths. In fact, Lloyd had named the airplane “Head Gorilla” on the entry form, but it was Dwight’s nickname that people remembered. Neil Andersen flew Sanders’ “Dreadnought” to victory in the Gold Final while Lloyd was unable to qualify “Havnaught” due to engine problems. 1984 would be a different story Lloyd’s team vowed! Following 1983 Reno, Lloyd’s crew needed to find a replacement engine for (to replace) the one that had failed. They took a trip to Tucson where they purchased five replacement engines from engine scrapper Pete Franek. In October they took one of these engines to Reno so it can be installed in the Sea Fury to ferry it to Santa Rosa for further preparations for racing. Much work was done to make the plane ready for racing in 1984 including painting the airplane in an attractive new red and gold paint scheme. The colors chosen were the colors of the Stroh Brewing Company who Lloyd thought was going to provide sponsorship money in 1984. This did not happen, but the airplane did look beautiful and was given a new name. “Furias” came from Greek Mythology of three evil female spirits who unleashed unlimited power and fury to punish evildoers of unavenged crimes!
"Furias” arrived on the ramp at Reno in 1984 hoping for a much better result than 1983. Qualifying in 11th place of a field of 31 entries at a speed of 398.137 MPH at least allowed Lloyd and “Furias” to take part in the racing. Unfortunately for Lloyd, Dwight and the hard-working crew, race week in 1984 would be anything but fun as engine problems plagued “Furias” the entire (whole) week. Lloyd was forced to retire with a poorly running engine on the last lap of his first Unlimited heat race. The crew worked late into the night to correct the problems for the Friday heat race which again resulted in a retirement this time on the fifth lap. Another long night was needed to correct the issues for Saturday. Saturday was more of the same except that the retirement would be more spectacular when the engine sneezed and blew the cowling panels right off the airplane! The damage was too extensive to correct so Lloyd and “Furias” were eliminated from competition in 1984. Perhaps the only consolation was that “Dreadnought” had been eliminated the day before with a failure of the master bearing in the big R-4360. These results probably gave Dwight more determination than ever to find the necessary benefactor to continue the development of the “Mouse Motor” to its full potential. Help was coming and 1985 would see the start of this process.
Enter "Tiger" Destefani and "Strega"
Bill ‘Tiger” Destefani had entered the world of Air Racing first as an owner and then as a pilot. The first Mustang he entered at Reno was named “Mangia Pane” and was flown by Ron Hevle. In 1982 Tiger and his partner Frank Taylor had a new racing Mustang built. “Dago Red” was flown to victory in the Gold Race in its first year of competition in 1982. Tiger and Frank Taylor parted ways the day after that victory. Tiger immediately began the fabrication of a clone to take its place. “Strega” was on the ramp at the 1983 Races. Ron Hevle was again the pilot. “Strega” was fast but seem snake bitten as in both 1983 and 1984 it did not complete the final Gold race, retiring in each case with engine difficulties. It was perhaps the lack of results that encouraged Dwight to approach Destefani with a proposal to put the” Mouse motor” in “Strega” for 1985. Mike Nixon was building the engines for “Strega” and in an interview he supplied his side of the story of Dwight hooking up with Tiger – “Dwight had been out of the loop for a couple of years without having a competitive entry to work on. He was involved as an official and did consulting work for other teams. I believe he was really looking to get on with a competitive airplane. To that end he approached Tiger with a very competitive offer to rent the “Mouse motor” for “Strega” just to get back into things. “An interview with Dwight’s friend Dixon Smith confirmed in an interview that Dwight had commented that the negotiation with Tiger was difficult but he declined to go into specific details about why it was so difficult.
Dwight did not have to wait long to get going on “Strega”. Tiger Destefani had decided to get into Air Race promotion by promoting an Unlimited Class Air Race at his home field in Shafter, California. The race was held in late May and it saw a good field of competitive Unlimiteds show up to take part. The Sunday Gold Race saw an epic battle take place between Skip Holm in Stiletto” and Ron Hevle in “Strega”. Hevle emerged as the winner for the first victory for “Strega”. While they were victorious the appearance of “Strega” in victory lane with oil covering its sides meant that there were still issues to be resolved in the “Mouse Motor” before its potential could be fully realized. The resolution of the oil scavenging issues related to the installation of the Allison connecting rods were eventually resolved by not one solution but rather multiple solutions. Until these solutions could be developed and implemented racing would continue to be a frustrating endeavor for both Dwight and Tiger Destefani. Ron Hevle was still at the controls of “Strega” at Reno in 1985 and for Dwight the results had a lot of parallels with the experience of 1984 with “Furias”. Lots of work for disappointing results. The week at Reno started well enough with Ron Hevle qualifying “Strega” in sixth position in a field of 32 racers with a speed of 430.432 MPH. Things declined from there when Ron Hevle failed to finish any race, he was in with engine problems. The victory at Shafter quickly faded as a distant memory. 1985 again ended in disappointment. 1986 would see many changes for “Strega” and its crew. The first change was that the piloting duties were taken over from Ron Hevle by Tiger Destefani. Tiger had been competing in “Mangia Pane” to gain experience. In 1986 he felt he was ready for “Strega”, so Ron Hevle was out, and Tiger was in. The crew side saw the addition of Dwight’s good friend Bill Kerchenfaut as crew chief. Dwight really liked Bill and Bill was ready for a change. He had been the crew chief for John Crocker on “Sumthin Else”, but Bill felt the competitive spirit and will to win was declining in John. The offer from Dwight to join him on “Strega” was a challenge that Bill looked forward to. The 1986 Reno Air Races would be the first time this new combination was together. 1986 though would be another year of struggle for the “Strega” ” team. Rick Brickert had taken over the piloting duties of “Dreadnought” from Neil Andersen. This combination would prove unstoppable in 1986 as Rick
Rick would fly “Dreadnought” to first place with Lloyd Hamilton in “Furias” finishing in second place. Early in the race Skip Holm did his best in “Stiletto” to keep up but his effort ended in retirement. Tiger in his first Gold Race in “Strega” managed to get to the finish in third place. Finishing the Gold race represented a major achievement as this was the first time “Strega” had finished a Gold Race at Reno in four attempts. The week had not been without problems as “Strega” had been forced to retire from its heat races with different problems on Thursday and Friday. At some point the crew changed the race number to “007” in hopes of a change in fortune. It appeared to work as “Strega” would finish fifth in the Saturday heat race and then third in the Gold. Victory was the only result that mattered to Dwight and his crew, but it was better than another failure. It was hoped that 1987 would prove to be the breakthrough year for “Strega” Dwight and its hard-working crew.
1987 – The Mouse that Roared!
As soon as one race is over preparation starts for the next. Finishing a Gold Race was an accomplishment but finishing in third place was not the objective. Only victory would satisfy the competitive spirt of Dwight and the crew he had surrounded himself with. As the preparation for the 1987 Reno Air Races began in earnest several pieces of the puzzle were rapidly coming into place. Another new addition to the Crew was Jim Foss. Jim was brought into the crew to install real time telemetry on “Strega” to provide real time feedback on just how well the “Mouse Motor” was performing. The telemetry came about because of the difficulty in getting accurate feedback from Tiger Destefani on what was happening pushing “Strega” to its limits. Bill Kerchenfaut put it to the author in an interview that putting the telemetry took it out of “Tiger’s” hands. The data received from the telemetry helped Dwight and others understand the real time impacts of changes they made. Bill Kerchenfaut was working on the airframe, but Dwight was working full time to try to solve the problems associated with putting the Allison rods in a Merlin. One of Dwight’s prime helpers was a young mechanic named Mike Wilton. Mike came to Dwight looking for employment in the early 1980’s. Dwight received a strong recommendation on young Mike from a Snap-On Tools salesman. Rose Thorn recalls the story – “Mike Wilton came to us looking for a job. Dwight interviewed him and was not sure if he should hire him when the local Snap-On tool salesman told Dwight what an outstanding Mechanic and person Mike was, and that Dwight should hire him. This was on a Friday and based on this recommendation Dwight called Mike and asked him if he was still interested in working for him. Mike responded with a most enthusiastic and emphatic YES! He came back to Dwight with an unusual request. Could he bring his toolbox by the shop that afternoon and store it there over the weekend? Dwight told him sure, no problem. About 5pm or so Mike shows up with the biggest Snap-On Toolbox that Dwight had ever seen! It was filled with just about every tool Snap-on ever made! Dwight could not believe what he was seeing! Later, that same Snap-On salesman told us that one of the reasons he recommended Mike for a job was because he had bought most of these tools on credit and the salesman wanted to make sure he would get paid for all of them! Mike was charming, and he and Dwight worked very well together. We were glad to have him as part of the crew.” The most pressing engine problem to solve was the oil scavenging issues. The issue was being caused by the large increase in the actual size of the lower part of the connecting rod. Several changes were made in the lower end of the engine to help solve the problem. The first was go back to use a stock Merlin crankshaft. The weighted crankshaft that had been using in the racing Merlins was no longer required. The removal of the crankshaft weights provided a substantial decrease in the mass whirling around in the oil pan. Another modification was to add a second baffle to the oil pan and modify the breather assembly. These two modifications served to reduce the oil scavenging problems associated with the installation of the Allison rods. A second oil pump was also required to satisfy the demands of the oil system. Other modifications included the installation of extra stiffening members to improve the structural integrity of the crankcase. These were 1” thick by 4” wide 4340 steel plates that were bolted to both sides of the crankcase. It was also found that straps needed to be added to the engine nose case to provide the needed strength in the nose case. One problem that was not solved was the increased compression ratio that was caused by the increase in rod length. The Allison rod was 0.100” longer than the Merlin rod. A very small amount but it did provide a significant increase in the compression ratio which was eventually discovered to result in a loss of horsepower from too much manifold pressure! All the pre-race testing went well, and the team was eagerly anticipating the trip to Reno to demonstrate the upgraded performance of airplane and engine. It was also at this point that the Allison rod engine was officially christened the “Mouse Motor”. Stories vary but the version told by Dwight was very believable. Tiger Destefani had contracted a bad case of “Griffon Fever." He really thought that “Strega” would never be a consistent winner until a Griffon was installed. To that end Tiger acquired lots of parts and pieces to install a Griffon on “Strega”. One day with Dwight and Mike Wilton hard at work building the race engine for 1987 Tiger called to tell Dwight that they really needed to get a turbocharged Griffon ready to put on “Strega”. Walking back from the phone call Dwight said he muttered to Mike Wilton that the way Tiger was going on about the Griffon he must think we are building a mouse motor or something! Dwight said the name stuck and soon the Griffon was aptly named the “Rat motor” as well! Arriving at Reno that fall the smart money was on Rick Brickert and “Dreadnought” repeating as champion. Steve Hinton in John Sandberg’s “Tsunami” was given an outside chance. Last year’s biggest challenger was “Stiletto” with Skip Holm at the controls. “Stiletto’s” prime mover Dave Zeuschel had tragically perished in the crash of his F-86. Because of this “Stiletto” was sold to Denny Sherman. “Stiletto” would be on the ramp, but it would be piloted by Denny’s son Scott. Scott would prove to be up to the challenge, but he was an unknown quantity as the racers gathered on the ramp at Reno. Speculation was that any other challenge to “Dreadnought” would come from the new R-3350 powered Sea Fury sponsored by the Levelor Blind Company. “Blind Man’s Bluff” was to feature alcohol as its fuel. Crew chief Larry Burton was an experienced Indy Car crew chief with plenty of methanol experience. With Joann Osterud as the pilot there was lots of prerace speculation about this new entry. “Strega” and Tiger were not viewed as a serious threat for victory. That would change very early in the race week.
Tiger did not wait long to show his hand. Steve Hinton in “Tsunami” was on the course flying a lap that was programmed to yield a qualifying speed of 465 MPH. This lap would raise the Reno qualifying record by 15 MPH, that record being set in 1981 by “Jeannie” with Skip Holm at the controls. Steve and “Tsunami” did their job as planned and crossed the line at a speed of 464.649 MPH. Imagine the surprise Steve Hinton felt when his crew told him that Tiger Destefani and “Strega” had just completed their qualifying lap at a speed of 466.674 MPH! That the crowd in the pits were startled was an understatement! It was a quantum leap in performance from a plane and pilot it was least expected from. Immediately the speculation began as to what Dwight had done to the Merlin in “Strega” and that there was no way that this performance could be sustained for the entire race week. Of course, Dwight had named his company Mystery Air for a reason! The only people who really knew were the crew on “Strega” and they were not telling anybody what the real reasons were for the quantum performance jump. Most of the speculation centered around the use of nitrous oxide which of course was absolutely not the reason. As the week progressed and it became apparent that “Strega’s” qualifying performance was not a fluke and completely sustainable the smiles in the “Strega” pit grew larger and larger.
Scott Sherman flew Stiletto at Reno in 1987 (photo by Jim Larsen)
The heat races for “Strega” started on Friday evening and the performance in this one and the next one on Saturday showed to the crowd that “Strega” and Tiger Destefani was for real. “Strega” led every lap of each of these races and set new race records in doing so. Friday’s performance being a race average of 441.498 MPH and Saturday being 445.318 MPH. Rick Brickert in “Dreadnought” closely followed “Strega” to the finish line raising expectations for Sunday’s Gold Final to a high level as most of the ramp figured that “Dreadnought” would finally break the “Mouse Motor” in Sunday’s Gold Race. Sunday’s Gold race began as the previous heat races with Tiger and “Strega” jumping into the lead with “Dreadnought” in pursuit. Things differed when Brickert finally pushed “Dreadnought past “Strega” briefly to lead the race but Tiger was having none of that and
Rick Brickert and Dreadnought at the 1987 Reno Air Races (photo by Tim Weinschenker)
quickly pushed “Strega” past “Dreadnought” to win his first Reno Gold Victory with another new record speed of 452.559 MPH. The Mouse had roared! The next day, Monday, Tiger, Dwight, and the entire “Strega” were fully relaxed and able to bask in the glory of that victory on that beautiful Monday morning. Tiger was in his glory deflecting the questions about the reasons for “Strega’s” incredible performance. Dwight of course was also very happy and very satisfied to see the long hours of work to perfect his “Mouse Motor” to deliver record setting performance. Of course, the glow did not last too long and soon race fans were wondering if “Strega” and the “Mouse motor” would be able to repeat this success in 1988.
The rise of Rare Bear was coming but not in 1987 (photo by Jim Larsen)
1988-91 – Chasing the Bear
Dwight knew that the competition would be working on a way to take victory away from “Strega” and the “Mouse Motor” in 1988. Both he and crew chief Bill Kerchenfaut were not content to rest on their laurels. Bill Kerchenfaut was always looking for an aerodynamic solution for victory rather than rely on horsepower. He was grateful for the “Mouse Motor” being so strong, but he was always doing his best to reduce the strain on the motor. In preparation he found a 15 mph increase in straight line speed by modifying the exit coolant door on “Strega”. This, in combination with the proven power and reliability of the “Mouse Motor” gave the entire team confidence that they could repeat their success of 1987. That chance would come earlier in 1988 as the Unlimited Class racing season would start in May at Hamilton Field. The usual suspects appeared there to compete for victory minus “Tsunami” which remained in Minneapolis. The surprise at Hamilton would be the reemergence of Lyle Shelton and “Rare Bear” as a serious threat for victory. Lyle and the “Rare Bear” had been in the wilderness for about a dozen years. Things went downhill for Lyle after his Gold Race victory at Reno in 1975. An engine failure followed by a belly landing at Mojave combined with a lack of financial resources kept Lyle on the sidelines. In 1986 financial resources arrived in the form of Jack DeBoer. This, combined with technical prowess of new crew chief Dave Cornell, started the rebirth process of the airplane. The Bearcat appeared at Hamilton thoroughly prepared with a strong R-3350 and new aerodynamic modifications to optimize the entire propulsion system. The final race was a very competitive affair between Lyle and Tiger with the Bearcat beating “Strega” for victory by a close margin. The winning speed of the Bearcat being 412.492 MPH against the speed of 412.284 of “Strega” in second place. Dwight and the “Strega” crew were disappointed at losing to Lyle and the Bearcat and planned for things to go better at Reno in September. Unfortunately, things would get worse as the “Mouse motor” that had served so well at Reno in 1987 and again at Hamilton in May was destroyed in practice at Reno before they could even qualify. Reasons were not divulged to the public but the engine was removed, and “Strega” would remain in its pit with no engine for the remainder of race week. They could only watch as Shelton and the Bear repeated their triumph of May in September. Racing in the 1989 season would be confined to Reno which gave Dwight and company an entire year to build another “Mouse Motor” and get ready for the races. Their confidence in regaining their crown was high even though Lyle and “Rare Bear” had just set a new 3-km speed record at Las Vegas, New Mexico in August. The 528 MPH record provided a big boost in confidence for the “Rare Bear” crew in repeating their 1988 Gold Race crown. The Unlimited field in 1989 would again be competitive with three airplanes in stiff competition for victory. The three contenders were “Rare Bear”, “Tsunami” and “Strega”. “Tsunami” certainly held the potential for victory, but its troubles started in August when owner John Sandberg made his own attempt at the 3-km record. The attempt resulted in a landing accident that nearly eliminated “Tsunami” from the competition. His hardworking crew got the airplane to Reno. Steve Hinton qualified well but the race engine blew as he finished the qualifying run. They were able to change the engine, but the replacement just did not perform to the same level. Tiger did not want a repeat of the previous year so “Strega” was qualified in 8th position at a speed of 395 MPH. This was not enough to lock “Strega” into the Gold race forcing Tiger to work his way into the Gold Race. This he did quite successfully and so the Gold race on Sunday would give the “Mouse Motor” a chance for redemption and return to the winner’s circle. The race began as epic battle between the two racers. Shelton took the lead at the start with Tiger in close pursuit. Both pilots were pushing their airplanes hard chasing victory. From the stands it was really to tell who was pushing harder. From the pits Dwight felt that Shelton was really having to push the Bearcat to the limit to stay ahead of “Strega”. “Rare Bear” relied on nitrous oxide to boost performance and from his vantage point in the pits Dwight could see in the exhaust stream from the R-3350 the black streaks indicating the rich fuel mixture that said the nitrous was on. The question was how long could the R-3350 sustain the large volume of nitrous and just how long would the nitrous supply last. Unfortunately for “Strega” a leak developed in the coolant system which meant Tiger had to retire from the Gold race. The “Mouse Motor” was fine. It was just a failed gasket in the cooling system that put them out of the race. Lyle was thankful for the retirement and quickly pulled a “whole bunch of horsepower" off the R-3350 by shutting the nitrous oxide injection off sped to another Reno Gold Victory. For Dwight and the entire “Strega” crew it would be another “wait until next year.”
The year 1990 would see a total of three Unlimited Class Air Races. Sherman, Texas and Denver, Colorado would host Unlimited Class Air Races that year prior to Reno. The races in Sherman were held early in June of that year. “Strega” would again be the bridesmaid, this time to Steve Hinton and “Tsunami”. This would be the only Gold Victory that “Tsunami” would have as Steve Hinton won the Gold race with a speed of 420.730 MPH over “Strega’s” 417.576 MPH. “Strega” would return the winner’s circle at Denver in mid-August winning the Gold Final there with a speed of 408.636 MPH over second place finisher Bill Rheinschild in “Risky Business” at 405.291 MPH. “Rare Bear” was not in attendance at either of these races and other significant competitors were missing as well. The real showdown would be at Reno. “Rare Bear” was at Reno and it appeared with a new, massive three blade prop installed to improve performance. At the end o f qualifying the number one qualifier was “Strega” with a speed of 470.246 MPH. Not a new record but still better than the 468.369 MPH from number two qualifier “Rare Bear”. Skip Holm, who replaced Steve Hinton in “Tsunami” was the number three qualifier with a speed of 465.187 MPH. That would be the bright spot for Dwight and the crew of “Strega” as the heat races were dominated by Lyle Shelton and the Bear. The Gold Final would see the Bearcat again in victory circle with a resounding victory over Skip Holm in “Tsunami” with a new race record speed of 468.620 MPH. “Strega” did finish the race but its race average speed of 454.797 MPH. It was beginning to seem that “Rare Bear” was unstoppable. Dwight could only hope for better results in 1991. The 1991 Racing season was back to having Reno as the only Unlimited Race on the calendar. “Strega” arrived at Reno with the “Mouse Motor” running its best. “Rare Bear” was of course there looking as good as ever. “Tsunami” arrived with Skip Holm at the controls and a brand new, stunning orange and blue paint scheme. Qualifications that year did not give an indication of what was to follow as the three top competitors chose to underperform in qualifying and not show their true capability. Shelton qualified in the number one spot at a relatively sedate 475.889 MPH. “Tsunami” was second at 456.908 MPH with Tiger and “Strega” occupying the number three position with a speed of 449.840 MPH. Twenty-seven racers were entered by the real race for the Gold would be between these three. The “Bear” and “Strega” would trade heat race victories with Tiger winning on Friday and Lyle winning on Saturday. Skip Holm would finish in third place in each of these races, but his pace was well below that of “Rare Bear” and “Strega”. Sunday would see perfect racing weather and it was with great anticipation from the fans that these three highly competitive race planes took to the air with six other competitors for the Gold Final on that beautiful afternoon. The fans would not be disappointed!
Strega at the 1989 Reno Air Races (photo by Tim Weinschenker)
The race began with “Rare Bear”, “Strega” and “Tsunami” coming down the chute battling for the lead. “Rare Bear” held the advantage from the pole position to take the lead with “Strega” and “Tsunami” following closely behind and that was the way it would stay for the entire race. What made it incredible were the record speeds being turned in by all of three of the frontrunners. The crowd kept waiting for one of the three to fail but none did. The closest thing to a pass occurred on the last lap when Skip Holm pulled the power back on “Tsunami” and sped up and nearly took second place from “Strega”! The reduction in power had translated to increased prop efficiency which in turn meant more forward thrust. The race ended with all three of the top finishers averaging what would have been a new race record, but that record went again to Lyle Shelton and “Rare Bear” with an average speed of 481.618 MPH. “Strega’s” average in second place was an impressive 478.680 MPH. Dwight had the “Mouse Motor” running better than ever and had to be wondering just what more had to be done to return “Strega” to victory lane at Reno.
The 1991 Reno Air Races was one of the most competitive ever and Dwight and the Mouse Motor were right in the middle of it. Below TIger Destefani is all smiles as he debriefs with Dwight after victory in the Friday Unlimited Gold heat.. (photo from Rose Thorn Collection)
John Sandberg's Tsunami on the ramp at Reno the day after the 1991 Reno Gold race final which saw Skip Holm finish in third place. (photo by Tim Weinschenker)
Strega at speed at the 1991 Reno Air Races. (photo by Tim Weinschenker)
1992-93 – Return to Victory lane
After many years in the wilderness Lyle Shelton and his hardworking crew had returned “Rare Bear” to the winner’s circle at Reno in 1988. Since then, Lyle had won Gold four times, set a new Gold race record and a new 3-km speed record. The next step was to surpass the record set by Darryl Greenamyer and “Conquest I” of five consecutive Gold Race victories. Lyle and crew fully expected to tie Greenamyer’s record in 1992 and then surpass it in 1993. Fate would have a different plan. If it were up to Dwight and the “Strega” team they would bring the Bear’s run of success to a halt in 1992. “Strega” and the “Mouse Motor” were running as good as ever. Preparation for Reno in September was progressing well for “Strega”. The same could not be said for Lyle Shelton and “Rare Bear”. The big three-blade prop on “Rare Bear” might have been intimidating but it was also destructive. The fusel occurred by using it.age of the airplane was taking a pounding from the vibrations that occcured from using it.
When "Rare Bear" showed up in green paint for the 1992 Reno Air Races the Strega crew sensed victory was near as green was considered to be unlucky. (photo by Tim Weinschenker)
After Reno, the decision was made to disassemble the airplane and truck it back to California for structural repairs. Sometime during this process Jack DeBoer departed as primary sponsor. The sponsorship was picked up by Thomason Aircraft. The change in sponsorship meant a change in paint job. The Bearcat appeared at Reno in a new white and green paint scheme, the green very similar in shade to that of the ill-fated, Bill Odom flown, “Beguine”. Green had been considered an “unlucky” color for a racing vehicle since the death of Gaston Chevrolet in a green race car in 1920. Many fans saw the new paint on the Bear and immediately felt there would no victory for Lyle that year! Things did not start that way as Lyle was number one qualifier with a speed of 482.892 MPH. Not a new record but very respectable. “Strega” was the number two qualifier, but the speed of 452.130 MPH was far below its demonstrated capability. Fortune though quickly changed the Bearcat’s chance when an evening practice session with alternate pilot John Penny at the controls resulted in a burned piston on the Bearcat’s engine. It was the beginning of a long race week for Lyle and his crew. They changed the burned piston but the R-3350 was never the same after that. “Strega” and “Rare Bear” would closely contest the Saturday Gold heat leading up to the Gold Final on Sunday with “Strega” coming out on top. The Sunday Gold heat mirrored the Saturday Gold heat. Tiger forcing Lyle to push his damaged engine beyond the breaking point resulting in a DNF by withdrawing from the final on lap five. After the retirement of the Bearcat Tiger and “Strega” could coast to victory at a speed of 450.835 MPH over second place finisher Brian Sanders in “Dreadnought”. The return to victory circle was welcomed by Dwight, Tiger, and the entire “Strega” crew. They enjoyed and savored the return to the spotlight hopeful for a repeat performance in 1993. The 1993 Reno Air Races were for the most part a repeat of the 1992 edition as far as the result. “Rare Bear” and Lyle Shelton were absent. “Dago Red” returned to competition with piloting duties being split being Alan Preston and David Price. The “Mouse Motor” was running to perfection so “Strega” was the number one qualifier, winner of both of its heat races and the winner again in the Gold Trophy race with a speed of 455.380 MPH. The top three were the same as 1992 with “Dreadnought” in second place with Brian Sanders at the controls and Bob Yancey in third in his Yak 11. In late October, a second Unlimited Class race was organized and held at Olathe, Kansas. This was another attempt to get a major air racing event established besides Reno. Tiger and “Strega” were the winners of this race with “Dreadnought” in second place. The event was not well supported by spectators and 1993 would be the only year that this event was held. 1992 and 1993 had been very rewarding for Dwight as he was finally able to see his "Mouse Motor" achieve multiple successes. The engine was finally achieving the results that Dwight had dreamed of when he first began the process of developing the engine. The only thing that was missing from the success was that Lyle Shelton and his Bearcat was not on the scene in 1993. This was soon to change in 1994.
1994-95 – Three in a row – Losses The 1994 Air Racing season would open in late March in Phoenix, Arizona. The “Phoenix 500” was a multi-class air race held at the deactivated Williams Air Force Base. The site was modern and spacious and with the right promotion and organization could be developed into a spring alternative to the races at Reno in the fall. The Unlimited class field was enhanced by the return of “Rare Bear” to the Unlimited Class. John Penny would be the pilot in place of owner Lyle Shelton. The Bearcat was in fine form and Penny was surely a threat to remove Tiger and “Strega” from the throne of the Unlimited Class in 1994. Things started well enough for “Strega” at Phoenix as Tiger and “Strega” were the number one qualifier with a speed of 465.745 MPH. Dwight and the entire “Strega” crew were confident that the “Mouse Motor” was more than up to the challenge posed by the return of “Rare Bear”. The races were notable for the loss of the “Super Corsair” as an engine fire forced Eldridge to successfully bail-out during one of the Saturday heat races. This did not stop the sizeable crowd from anticipating a Gold Final showdown between “Rare Bear” and “Strega”. Unfortunately for the crowd the battle in the Gold Final was over before it started as a sheared blower drive resulted in a retirement for “Strega” before the race even had started. Penny flew the Gold Race to victory giving the “Rare Bear” crew a big boost in confidence for Reno in September. The 1994 Reno Air Races were less than memorable for many reasons. The Unlimited class was searching for ways to make the races more suitable for television. ESPN was in its infancy and looking for ways to enhnace the show. The Reno organizers made a decision. Things started well enough at the 1994 Phoenix 500 for Dwight and Strega. After qualifying in first place Tiger was forced to pull out of the Gold Final with a sheared blower drive. Dwight is seen in the pits prior to that race discussing things with noted Air Racin g writer and promotor John Tegler. (photo from the Rose Thorn Collection) to add the “Super Gold Shoot Out” to take the place of the traditional Gold Final. The last two years had seen the same three airplanes feature in the Gold Final. With the return of “Rare Bear” the thought was to limit the field of the “Super Gold Shoot Out” to the fastest three racers. The assumption being that two of these would be “Rare Bear” and “Strega”. Great in theory but “Strega” failed to survive its Friday afternoon heat race. A cracked crankcase meant that the race engine was replaced by the stock ferry engine. With this engine installed “Strega” was the winner of the Silver Race. The “Super Gold Shoot Out” consisted of John Penny, Brian Sanders, and Bill Rheinschild. The winner of this “Shoot Out” was John Penny at the Final returned the following year and has stayed that way since. All these things contributed to 1994 being a less than memorable year for Dwight and the “Strega” team. They could only for a return to success in 1995. uninspired speed of 424.407 MPH. Thankfully for race fans the normal Gold final returned the following year and has stayed that way since. All these things contributed to 1994 being a less than memorable year for Dwight and the “Strega” team. They could only for a return to success in 1995. The trail of oil on the side of Strega is telling everyone that a Mouse Motor is in serious trouble and about to expire. This photo was taken during the 1994 Friday Unlimited Gold heat and the motor was gone at the end of the race knocking Strega out of serious competition at Reno in 1994. (photo by Tim Weinschenker) The Phoenix 500 would open the 1995 racing season. A strong Unlimited class entry was supplemented by the return of Don Whittingon’s Griffon powered “Precious Metal” and Bob Button becoming the owner of the former Bill Speer owned Mustang “Pegasus”. Things did not go well again for Dwight and the “Strega” crew. Tiger was able to qualify in second place with a speed of 435.271 MPH, but the post qualifying run inspection revealed that the engine block was again cracked. The spare engine was installed but it was of course down on performance compared to the race engine. Tiger’s qualifying speed meant he was qualified into the Gold Race. Despite the loss of performance from the replacement engine he managed to finish the Gold Final race in third place with a speed of 409.039 MPH. Dwight could only hope that things would improve for Reno as John Penny and “Rare Bear” raced to their third consecutive Gold Race title at Phoenix and would hope to make it four in a row at Reno. Dwight is in the cockpit of "Strega" as it towed out for the flight home at Phoenix in 1995 (photo by Tim Weinschenker) The broken "Mouse Motor" in the trailer at Phoenix in 1995. (photo by Tim Weinschenker) Return to the Winner’s Circle – Reno 1995 Reno started well for “Rare Bear” as they were the number one qualifier with a speed of 489.802 MPH. “Strega” had to be content with the number three position of 457.353 MPH just slightly lower than David Price in “Dago Red” with a speed of 458.182 MPH. In practice the “Strega” crew installed the “Tiger Claw” propeller that had been developed by Bill Kerchenfaut and friends to see if they could more efficiently harness the power being generated by the “Mouse Motor”. “Strega” did qualify with this propeller in place, but Tiger did not like the feel of it, so it was replaced by the previously installed Hamilton- Standard cuffed propeller. The two heat races leading up to the Sunday Gold Final were closely contested between “Strega” and “Rare Bear” and in each heat “Strega” was the winner with the speeds increasing with each race all of which raised the anticipation of the crowd for the Gold Final on Sunday. The real unknown was if the mechanical reliability issues of the “Mouse Motor” had been resolved and would it continue to deliver the power necessary to return to the winner’s circle on Sunday after three consecutive disappointing races. A pre-qualification engine run is performed prior to Strega's qualifying run for the 1995 Reno Air Races. The red spinner and white prop blades mean that the special "TIger Claw" prop is in place. It was used for qualifying only. The standard Hamilton Standard prop was installed for racing. (photo by Tim Weinschenker) Don Whittington returned to competition in 1995 in his Griffon powered Mustang "Preciojus Metal (photo by Tim Weinschenker) The answer came on Sunday afternoon as Tiger and “Strega” defeated Penny and “Rare Bear” in a closely contested Gold Final. “Strega’s” winning speed was 467.029 MPH to the speed of 465.159 MPH achieved by “Rare Bear” in finishing second. Dwight and the entire “Strega” crew were delighted to be back in the Victory Circle! Now the question was would the streak be able to be continued. Racing never stands still and changes were coming in 1996 that should help the “Mouse Motor” to retain its competitive edge over the big radials. Behind the scenes Dwight was continuing to refine the “Mouse Motor” to reach levels of performance that had never been achieved.