▶️ Racing airplanes at 400 mph: Central Oregon pilot explains what it takes


“Rubbin’ is racing.” What may have been true for the fictional Cole Trickle in “Days of Thunder” on a NASCAR track is certainly not true if you’re racing an airplane against other airplanes at 400 miles per hour.

Central Oregon pilot Sean “Skippy” VanHatten has a passion for air racing. This week, he’s taking another shot at winning the Reno Air Races — a legendary event that is shutting down after more than 60 years.

“It’s all about the passion of how do you make a machine go as fast as it can possibly go,” Sean told us when we met with him at his hangar.

“This is the fastest motorsport in the world. We’re exceeding the speeds of any automotive sport by 2-or-300 miles an hour.”

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Reno Air Races

“In the history of human existence, there’s been less than a thousand people who have ever had the opportunity to go fly around the course at Reno,” Sean said.

“We take off with eight airplanes. We line them all up and we send them down the chute and we do a big left turn. Whoever crosses the finish line first wins.

“In the stands, you’re watching airplanes at 50 feet off the ground do 350, 400, 450 miles an hour when they’re stacked up right next to each other, going around pylons and it’s just very visceral. You can almost feel the sound that’s coming off of these things as they’re making an immense amount of horsepower and moving an immense amount of air to try to go as fast as they’re going.



“Calm but busy” mindset in the cockpit

“The mindset in the airplane is a very interesting one. I would describe it as calm but busy. The closest analog would be the swan floating along the river, right? You look at this very elegant, what’s very seemingly calm being that’s just floating along. But underneath it is this feet that are just furiously moving along.

“As the pilot, we’re coming down. I’m focusing on flying formation, keeping my lane but also spinning up the systems to be able to spin up power. The brain is working on all of the different things that have to happen to go from 250 miles an hour to 400 miles an hour. 

“The only thing that matters is the checkered flag on Sunday. So to finish first, first you must finish. And that’s goal number one, is to be able to go past Home Pylon when the checkered flag waves on Sunday and have an airplane that I can go fly home.”


Building “Mojo”

Sean and his team of mechanics, electricians and sponsors have been getting their plane, named Mojo. ready for the past year.

“It’s all about, you know, nitty gritty people working hard, getting, you know, grease under their fingernails and trying to make airplanes. You know, break an engine one night and you do an engine swap overnight so that you can go race the next day out in the middle of the Black Rock desert in Reno, Nevada.

“What we do is we take the 260 horsepower engine off the front and we take the cylinders off. We put some bigger cylinders on and we put some really big turbochargers on to be able to make a bunch of horsepower. So we’re pushing up more along the lines of about 800 horsepower. So that’s what takes us from the 250 to 275 mile range, up to that 385 to 400 mile an hour range for racing.

Sean and Team Havoc Racing have their sights set on bringing home the gold this year. And as for Sean’s future, he hopes to be racing for many more years to come.

“This is all about the passion for aviation, the passion for air racing, the passion for the competition, the passion for the September family that we have out there supporting the event, recognizing the history of what’s happened before us, and helping push it forward in the future.

“I hope to be here racing until I’m 80 years old, if not longer.”

The races will be taking place starting Wednesday, with the finals on Sunday. If you’d like to watch VanHatten race, you can stream the races live at airrace.org.


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