Reno National Air Races Champion Steve Hinton in his plane "Voodoo."  Photo by Alan Baker.

Reno National Air Races Champion Steve Hinton in his plane “Voodoo.” Photo by Alan Baker.

Every September a group of committed volunteers assemble in Reno, Nevada, and dare to officiate the fastest motor sport on the planet. Global Aviation’s Alan Baker is part of a unique volunteer crew of Pylon Judges at the National Championship Air Races where for one week, the high desert becomes home to hundreds of aircraft, their pilots and crews.

Baker has been attending the air races since 2002. Four years ago he reached out to find a way to be more involved and became a Pylon Judge. With aircraft speeds ranging from 220mph to over 500mph, being a Pylon Judge is not for the faint of heart. Baker, an avid aviation photographer, enjoys the excitement and the week-long, close-to-the-action access to one of the premier air shows in North America.

National Air Races photo by Alan Baker

National Air Races photography by Alan Baker

The National Championship Air Races is the last event of its kind, carrying on the tradition of the Cleveland Air Races of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. In 1964, Bill Stead organized an air race near Reno, Nevada, and the Reno National Championship Air Races were born. 47 years later, the event is still going strong.

For those interested in attending the National Championship Air Races, the next event is scheduled for September 16-20, 2015. Baker recommends bringing lots of sunscreen and buying a pit pass for Saturday and Sunday. Pit passes allow attendees to check out the planes up close and get a chance to talk with pilots and get autographs.

While Baker attends the entire event, his favorite day is Sunday. “On Sunday the pilots push their planes harder than any other day for the Unlimited Gold Race. Speeds typically reflect that intensity as well as the number of mechanical malfunctions and maydays,” said Baker.

National Air Races photography by Alan Baker.

National Air Races photography by Alan Baker.

Air Races are filled with speed and drama. A highlight for Baker this year was a historic showdown in Saturday’s Unlimited race between champion Steven Hinton flying Voodoo and Bill “Tiger” Destefani flying Strega. Hinton had won three years in a row with Destefani’s plane but switched to Voodoo to win again in 2013. Destefani came out of retirement this year to fly Strega and try to win the title back for his plane.

The race was heated and just a few lengths separated them in the last lap. “It was intense! Everyone was yelling and all of us with cameras pulled them away from our faces just so we could witness the finish,” said Baker. The race was so close that officials couldn’t make the announcement until hours after it was over. Hinton in Voodoo won by a spinner’s length. Destefani pushed his plane so hard that he called mayday, blew his engine, and could not compete on Sunday.

“I will never forget that race,” said Baker.

You can enjoy more of Baker’s photography of the Air Races in his Facebook gallery.

National Air Races photography by Alan Baker.

National Air Races photography by Alan Baker.

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