On the ground in Indy with the world's gutsiest pilots.

We Felt the Need for Speed at the Red Bull Air Race

Nurburgring, Monaco, Le Mans, Laguna Seca, Indy. You can debate which one should top the podium, but if you’re making a pantheon of celebrated motorsport tracks, you’re putting the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on it. From the brick finish line to the iconic Pagoda, it’s as close as North America gets to our very own motorsport mecca. Every year, race fans of every stripe make the trip to Indiana to pay homage to the track that made legends out of drivers like Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt and the Unser brothers.

It’s a history you can’t help but think about as you wind your way through the road to the Speedway, past places that get license to call themselves “Pitstop Liquors” or the country’s “most famous gas station” by virtue of their sheer proximity to the world-renowned oval. It’s an entire sub-economy built on the backs of metric tons of burnt rubber and gallons of motor oil.

Only, this past weekend, the action in Indy wasn’t taking place on that hallowed stretch of asphalt. It was happening about 25 meters above it.

The Red Bull Air Race — first launched in 2003 and then rebooted in 2014 with new rule changes and standardized engines and new pilots — is a true world championship, consisting of eight races held across the globe: high above the streets of Budapest and the French Riviera and alongside Abu Dhabi’s glittering skyscrapers. But for all those glamorous locales, the circuit’s crown jewel remains that famous 2.5-mile oval in central Indiana.

“You can feel the history and energy here,” explained Pete McLeod, one of the Hamilton pilots competing in Sunday’s race (and the tour’s lone Canadian). “A lot of times, we’re in very spectacular locations, but they’re not pure motorsports. There’s very few pure motorsports locations in the world.”

According to his fellow Hamilton pilot Nicolas Ivanoff, there’s really not much difference between the actual tracks — at least, not in the air. “When I’m on the track in Budapest or Abu Dhabi or here, it’s the same.” But there’s still something special about competing at the Speedway, he said. “The Indianapolis 500, it’s the second-best race in the world after the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It’s on the same level. It’s really a legend of the racing world.”

“The people that work here — everyone from the security guards to fire rescue to the catering — they know motorsport,” agreed McLeod. “They’re also fans themselves.”

When it comes to its own storied motorsport tradition, the Air Race may be relatively young, but it’s gaining steadily: in addition to the 14 Master Class pilots competing for the overall championship, there’s also a Challenger Class of up-and-coming racers (including the sport’s first female pilot, France’s Mélanie Astles). Headed into the season’s penultimate race in Indy, the final standings were still very much up in the air (sorry), and Sunday’s race was decided by mere tenths of a second, with McLeod and Ivanoff going on to finish second and third on the podium, respectively. But it was American Michael Goulian who wound up kissing the bricks and taking a celebratory swig of milkRed Bull, picking up valuable points going into the final race in Fort Worth next month.

With temperatures hitting an extremely unseasonable-for-early-October-in-the-Midwest 90 degrees Fahrenheit1 on race day, the slight breeze that picked up midway through the afternoon was a welcome break for those baking in Indy’s soupy, humid grandstands, but much less so for the pilots. “The conditions can change a track dramatically,” said McLeod. “A wind change from one day to the next will make a huge impact. You’ll see times go up and down as a track speeds up or slows down.”

McLeod compares it to attempting to drive on a conveyor belt.2 Unlike a regular street race, the course layout may stay constant, but the “road” underneath is constantly changing. “Imagine all those curbs and barriers, they stay in the same spot, but the pavement moves. That’s what the wind does for us,” he explained. “The pylons are fixed to the ground, but the plane is flying in the air, and the air is moving relative to the racetrack – and not always just in one direction.”

Plus, added Ivanoff, “If it’s really humid, the plane can stall really easily.” Which means pilots have to dial it back when there’s a threat of inclement weather. But they also can’t play it too safe. “It’s really hard to find the boundary between too fast or too dangerous or too risky and too slow,” he said.

So much money and time and technological innovation goes into attempting to find that balance: four-person teams include technicians and tacticians, all in pursuit of the elusive “perfect” line, and the average plane costs a cool million3 and is outfitted with telemetry systems that instantaneously beam precious data back to the ground. Talking to McLeod in the hangers — the Air Race’s version of pit lane — he ran through his pre-race checklist. His team was currently getting the plane’s oil temperature up to ensure the engine had the right RPM setting on takeoff. “Normal aviation? That’s a total non-factor,” he laughed. “We’re not talking noticeable performance to me, it just shows up later in the data.

At the end of the day though, a good run comes down to a good pilot, not good data. “Because we’re not programming a drone to go fly the track, and say, ‘Oh, I’ll just do 7.5% more G on this corner.’ I don’t have an SD card slot inside my head,” McLeod joked. Still, he admitted, “if you ignore the technical side in today’s race, you have no chance.” But if you overdo it, you can easily end up overthinking a run.

That’s where visualization comes in, explained Ivanoff. Walking around the hangars, you can see some pilots had set up a mini replica of the course using cans of Red Bull to stand in for the inflatable pylons, literally walking through the track. (Others use VR simulators in the weeks leading up.) That’s because pilots only get a handful of times to practice-run the course before race day. “You have to think about the track in your mind,” he said. “You cannot try a lot of things in the air.

With the average race clocking in at just over a minute,4 it’s a little like being a downhill skier, according to Ivanoff, where the focus is more on tight, precise turns than straight-ahead speed. In the sport’s early days, races would be won and lost by seconds. Now? They’re decided by hundredths — and even thousandths — of a second.

This is a sport where having a watch company like Hamilton as an official timekeeper isn’t just a matter of sponsorship dollars5; precision timing is baked into every aspect of the Air Races. And it’s not just pilots that feel the time crunch. Everyone is on the clock, from rescue teams that practice getting to downed planes in 40 seconds or less, to the judges and timing crew that calls out penalties ranging from easy-to-spot (taking out a giant 25-meter inflatable pylon) to, well, much less so (pulling up a fraction of a degree too early through a gate).

“The pictures and the data, all of this is coming up one-tenth of a second after the gate crossing,” explained Bernd Prantner, part of the official timing team tracking the race from the top level of Indy’s fabled Pagoda. “It has to be super fast because they have about five seconds after the finish to call the results.

Otherwise? “We’re slow,” he laughed. And slow is the one thing you can’t be at Indy.

The Hamilton Pilots on Racing Planes for a Living

Favourite track?

Nicolas Ivanoff:“I like Budapest, because it was there that I did the first two races of my career. I also like to do the races in downtown, flying under the bridge, it’s cool. It’s nice, more for the location, not really for the track, because it’s not really any more technical.”

Pete McLeod:“I always joke, but my favourite place to compete is usually where I do best. It’s great to see the world and I really have fond memories of racing in Canada in the past. Racing at home is special. But not to de-romanticize it, we get in our bubble, between our hangar and the plane and the hotel. Every once in a while, we stay a few days and check out the cities. It is exciting to get to travel, but also you just gotta try and keep it focused.”

The hardest part of the sport?

Ivanoff:“Everything. [Laughs.] When you see someone flying well and when you see it seems to be easy, it means it’s really complicated. When it’s really windy, bumpy, you can see the plane is going everywhere, you can say, ‘OK, the guy is struggling with the plane.’ But when it seems to be really smooth, it’s not easy. It’s really complicated.”

McLeod:“When you watch someone on the track, if it looks easy, that’s hard. The guy that’s a little all over the place, maybe erratic but looksfast? That’s easier than making things absolutely smooth. The guys are so good now, we have a tendency to get out there like, ‘Hey, that track’s not hard. Look at these guys, they’re just like Sunday afternoon cruising out there.’ Because smooth is fast. To do a super technical thing, but in a really graceful way, that’s the big challenge.”

References   [ + ]

1. *Cough cough*
2. So, in other words, a real-life Mario Kart track.
3. Capable of reaching top speeds of over 425 kph (or just slightly higher than Indy’s usual 370 kph).
4. Sunday’s winning time was a tight 1:06.2.
5. And this is the part where we point out that Hamilton’s celebrating its 100th year partnering with the aviation industry in 2018.