Welcome to Air Racing, The Fastest, Flashiest, Most Dangerous Sport You’ve Never Heard Of

Las Vegas is exhibitionism taken to its extreme — the explosion of lights, the hotels as temples of sin so huge they soar toward the heavens, the casinos teeming with broke hustlers and millionaires, businessmen and showgirls, the freshly 21 and blue-haired bingo ladies. It’s a place that prizes entertainment (and money) above all else; a city that has successfully made the patina of danger part of its appeal.

In sum, it’s the perfect setting for a championship competition of the fastest, flashiest, most dangerous sport you’ve never heard of: air racing.

When I told friends I was heading to Sin City to cover the penultimate round of the Red Bull Air Race series, I was uniformly met with the same response: party emoji, cocktail emoji, flying money emoji, brief pause, then “Ok but what is air racing?”

The short answer? If tuna is the Chicken of the Sea, then air racing is the NASCAR of the Sky. Well, sort of.

The sport, which has actually been around in some iteration or another for over a century, consists of small but potent planes that take turns racing around a looped “track” in the air. Pilots must navigate through and around huge, inflatable pylons that mark the course (similar to the way gates mark tracks for skiers), alternating between flying shockingly low to the ground and performing vertiginous, aeronautic-inspired maneuvers.

This is not for the faint of heart.

Like NASCAR, the speeds can exceed 220 mph; but whereas drivers may have to withstand four to five Gs (one G being the normal force of gravity, or weight you feel just standing around), pilots can reach up to 10 Gs during flight. That’s enough force to literally push all the blood out of your head and make you pass out. This is not for the faint of heart.

(Or as I heard someone murmur beside me in the press box: “Para hacer esto hay que tener los huevos bien puestos.”)

This is what happens to pilot faces during these kind of G forces.

Last Saturday and Sunday, some of the world’s best and most seasoned pilots convened at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway to duke it out in the second-to-last race of the season. I was there to take it all in and try to answer the age-old question (one a litigious consumer also recently raised): does Red Bull really give you wings?

Here’s what I learned.

The History

If tuna is the Chicken of the Sea, then air racing is the NASCAR of the Sky.

Red Bull officially launched their World Championship series nine years ago, nearly a century after France held the world’s first air race in 1909. The brand, which by that point had become basically synonymous with extreme sports, was aiming to create “the most exhilarating…[and] advanced aerial challenge the world had ever seen.”

Hand-picking pilots from around the world — Japan, Chile, England, Malaysia, Hungary and beyond — competitions have been held in visually stunning locations across the globe: over the Adriatic sea in Rovinj, Croatia; with the Christ the Redeemer statue as a backdrop in Rio de Janeiro; and before crowds of nearly a million in Dubai.

With its championship, Red Bull didn’t just spark renewed interest in the sport, it also contributed important technological advancements to competitive aviation. Aerial racetracks were specially developed after extensive research and testing; inflatable pylons were pioneered specially for the race; and the fluid technology that is now standard in G-Race suits (special suits created to prevent downward flow of blood during high G forces) were conceived of in collaboration with German specialists.

By 2011, however, the rising speeds and daunting aerobatics that these technological advancements had made possible also meant more danger. In Reno, where an unaffiliated national air race championship takes place nationally, a tragic crash resulted in 10 fatalities and 64 injuries. Though the Red Bull air race itself has only had one accident in its history (with no serious injuries), the race was suspended, in part to revisit safety restrictions.

2014 marks its return after a three year hiatus; this time with new standardized engines and propellers, as well as new rules limiting how low pilots can fly and what trick maneuvers they can perform.

The Rules

Speaking of the rules, there are lots of them. In a nutshell, pilots must fly through the racetrack of pylon “Air Gates” to try and finish with the fastest time possible. But the potential penalties are many, and they result in precious seconds getting tacked on to race time. Pilots can be penalized for everything from flying too high, to hitting pylons, to not emanating enough smoke from the back of the plane (I’m told smoke adds to the spectacle and also allows judges to more easily visualize the race plan a pilot is taking through the course).

When the margins between race times are mere tenths of a second, there is literally no room for error. That’s pretty crazy when you consider that winds, temperature, and even the altitude of the race locale can impact how a flying session goes.

The winner of the championship is determined via a point system, with points awarded depending on where pilots place in each race of the series — 1st place = twelve points and last place = zero. The pilot who has amassed highest aggregate score at the end of the series goes home a champion of the skies.

The Competitors

This year, twelve pilots are competing in the “Master Class” series — the highest level of the competition. There’s the rookie, Canadian Pete McLeod, who at 30 years old is the youngest competitor, and the Godfather, Hungarian Peter Besenyei, who at 58 is the OG of the game.

With the average aerobatics course priced at $350-450 per hour, this is not a sport for the 99%.

The rest fall in the middle; unlike other sports, where athletes peak relatively young, air racing requires years and years of experience, and the top pilots are usually middle-aged. Perusing their bios, I noticed many of them were decorated military pilots in their home countries; but even years of combat flying can’t prepare you for the challenges of the air race — it’s that intense.

To even be considered for the competition, pilots — most of whom have already clocked decades of flight experience in commercial or military planes — need intensive aerobatics air display training, top achievements in international flying competitions, and to make it through Red Bull’s Air Race Qualification Camp, which garners them the special license required to compete.

And, of course, money. Lots of it. With the average aerobatics course priced at $350-450 per hour, this is not a sport for the 99%.

I was a little disappointed to learn that there were no Latino pilots (or women, for that matter) in the Master Class this year, though the Challenger class — pilots who compete in a less rigorous race, kind of like a baseball’s minor league team — had a Chilean (Cristian Bolton) and a Spaniard (Juan Velarde) wheeling through the skies.

Kirby Chambliss
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And then there was Kirby Chambliss, the pilot I was most eager to meet. With two World Championships under his belt, Chambliss is one of the most successful pilots in the history of the Red Bull Air Race. Plus he’s from Corpus Christi — which will always be known in my book as the birthplace of forever idol Selena Quintanilla. I actually had a master plan to present Chambliss with a gigantic sticker of Selena’s face to place on his plane as a good luck token, but I was unfortunately roundly shot down by team members in airplane hangar. Something about plane branding and aerodynamics and whatnot.

I’m not saying it’s the reason he didn’t win the race, but I’m also not NOT saying it.

The Scene

The Las Vegas Motor Speedway is where the annual, gargantuan Electric Daisy Carnival is held, and the air was still suffused with the remnants of fist-pumping, EDM molly-sweat when we arrived on Saturday for qualification day.

Or maybe it just felt that way to me because I was on my third Red Bull by 10 am, surrounded by thumping dance music (it’s impossible to escape thumping dance music anywhere you go in Vegas). After you’ve cracked open that third can you feel amped up about literally everything in life. If you’d asked me if I had wings, I’d have said YEAAA BOIIII BYAHHHH PRA PRA PRAAAAA.

While Saturday’s Challenger class race and Master class qualification were held before mostly empty stands, plenty of Vegas partiers turned up on Sunday to see the Masters compete. It was hard to discern any qualities that drew the crowd together — unlike, say NASCAR, which definitely has a distinctive demographic. But maybe that was just because Vegas is already such a motley crew of tourists, with nothing in common but the desire to let loose.

Unfortunately, the competition was cut way short due to dangerous wind conditions that kept knocking down pylons, making flight impossible.

But based on the opulent after parties that Red Bull threw all weekend, you wouldn’t know anything had gone amiss. Clubs outfitted with giant fog cannons and speakers, confetti that drifts down from vaulted ceilings just when the bass drops, aerial dancers, and elaborate mixology had us dancing off our Red Bull jitters until the wee hours of the morning.

Or at least, I can only assume it was morning. After you’ve been in a casino for more than 12 hours you start lose all concept of time.

Does Red Bull Give You Wings?

If the ability to survive three days in Vegas on a total of 10 hours of sleep = wings, then yes. Yes it does.

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As for air racing, it may not be the easiest sport to understand — at least not at first. But I think the spectacle and danger and razzmatazz of the whole thing are enough to overcome the technical minutiae that may only be of interest to the hard core aviation nerds. And once the pilot pool opens up a little — would be great to see some women and more people of color up in there! — they’ve got my vote.