The annual air race in Nevada's Valley of Speed in Reno has a new name. Fans returning to see vintage World War II fighter planes streak across the sky will sit farther away. And a redesigned course poses less risk as pilots make the final turn toward the finish line.
But for all the changes and new safety measures at the air race a year after a plane took a deadly plunge into spectators, the element of danger remains. Pilots will still be flying souped-up planes wingtip to wingtip, sometimes exceeding 500 mph.
"We never thought what happened last year would happen, but we know it's not knitting," said Marilyn Dash, a biplane pilot from the San Francisco Bay area who's the only woman in this year's competition.
Organizers for the 49th annual National Championship Air Races adopted a half dozen changes recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board following the crash last September that killed 11 people, including pilot Jimmy Leeward, and injured more than 70 others.
The course is now more than 1,000 feet from the grandstand, instead of 850, fuel trucks are set away from the landing strip, and the final turn of the race is less sharp as pilots head out of the valley on their way to the finish line.
The opening ceremony is today. The six classes of championships begin Thursday and run through Sunday.
The official name this year is the TravelNevada.com National Championship Air Races and Air Show presented by Breitling. The new name is the result of a one-time, $600,000 sponsorship the state tourism commission extended as a necessary component to keeping the event alive as insurance premiums soar.
"It really seems about the same," said Eric Zine, a pilot from Van Nuys, Calif. "There's increased focus on safety. But we're doing stuff people don't do. It's not normal to try to make a plane go faster than it's designed to go."