Jackpot 2000

Jackpot 2000

We’re on the last leg, eight miles to go! All the guys I passed on the way out are slowly but steadily catching up. In the previous Jackpot race here and at the Kanab race I hadn’t seen many planes along the way. But today a half-dozen or so of us drift along more or less together. What a country! With a little airbrushing Spielberg could use film of this race for the next Star Wars X-Wing fighter scenes.

What is the rest of the world doing and how can they stand not being here doing this?

Strategy is everything. I hear them talking about it as they tape the gaps on their planes. Shirl covers rules in the mandatory brief and then mentions strategy.
The race course is a large triangle so there is no problem with meeting folks coming back. There is a strict rule against making diving turns. The way I understand it, a level turn is required at the two turn points due to not being able to see if someone is under and behind you. So you have to make a level turn and then maneuver as you want afterward.

Getting into the best strategy Shirl explains that while the diving turn may seem faster at the time, any immediate gain is neutralized as you try to get running straight and level again. Not to mention the safety aspect.

During the brief I work through the group matching names on hats to stories in the Canard Pusher and Central States.

Good race strategy mainly means not having to climb at all. Before the race all sixteen or so planes in the heat take off and fly about ten miles away from the course. Turning in toward the runway starting line on heading for the first leg they fan out from the leader and line up abreast. The leader gives instructions as needed to arrive over the runway in a good line abreast.

The start is signaled with a radio call and by the leader pulling up. Shirl suggests that a racer hold the start altitude initially and then establish a minimal rate of descent that will put you just over the last ridge without having to climb over the course. I think there is about 1600 feet to be lost over the course. We are at about 8000 feet density altitude. Just keep a slight descent all the way, which results in plus six to eight mph over the course. Common sense. And easier said than done.

When the start call is made and the leader pulls up everyone slams the throttle forward and gets thrown back in their seats. Well, not really. I notice no big speed difference. Some of us were already almost at full throttle and the last inch of throttle doesn’t really do anything.

Everyone does start a gentle slide down and after half a minute or so you can see some start to pull away from the group. I guess that’s the biggest surprise, after not being thrown back in your seat, when planes start disappearing out ahead. Initially it seems to be almost imperceptible as they pull away, but after a couple of minutes they’re way out there, and they disappear. Probably at about a mile away. The next you see of them is their canopy glinting as they call Turn One.

I get to Turn One. It is a radio tower. I feel saggy making the turn. Turn Two is over an airport next to a dusty town. I hear that the locals there find somewhere else to fly on July 4th.

Starting out today I held what I thought was a good fifty foot a minute rate of descent. But without a Vertical Speed Indicator it’s hard to tell. Just a moment of inattention can result in getting too low. Thirty minutes of inattention is…probably normal. But from here on the last leg it’s very easy to see that I will be climbing to get over that ridge ahead.

On the desert floor a couple of hundred feet below, someone’s shadow is moving up on my shadow. I always hated that Beagle guy. He sets you up and then takes you down. Mr. Nice guy on the ground, helping everyone out, but now here he is sliding and probably smirking past me a hundred feet above with that turquoise nose from his higher experienced position.

Just like the last time in 1997 he will glide comfortably over that last ridge with his 22.5687 foot per minute rate of descent that he has held since the start call. And again I am in a 200 fpm climb for this whole last stupid leg. In the Brief I think I heard him say this was his twentieth Jackpot event. Or something ridiculous like that. Good grief, what have I been doing on July 4th all these years?

The fastest VariEze here this year has an 0-320 and is driven by a girl. (I’ll think of her name just as soon as I hit send on this note).

At the awards dinner everyone gets their speed announced and a cash award and a few endure a good verbal bashing. At some races I think the first three finishers get plaques or trophies, depending on how hard Shirl and his elves worked. My speed over the course is 201 mph, good for 4th in class. In ‘97 my speed was 185. Both had equally poor race strategy. I’m happy with the downdraft cooling and Batprop.

A bright young fellow with a German accent makes the outlandish statement that someone will soon be doing 250 mph in a VariEze. Ha.

After finishing the dinner with several very accomplished cigar smoking liars, just before sunset I head out to walk the EZ ramp again. I come upon a well-worn VariEze with level wings, downdraft plenums, a strange black prop and pins sticking forward out from the side of the wheel pants (it’s mine).

A dozen folks surround the plane. Several are sitting on the lip of the tarmac under the wings and several stand looking over the fastener-less cowls. I stop to listen.

A couple are in the middle of deciding whether the wide, flat prop spinner is floxed on or if it actually comes off. (It comes right off but I don’t think I’ve ever revealed how). Another fellow on the ground leans back on his elbow by the wheel pant and twangs a stainless pin and says “This rod has gotta be some kind of temperature probe.” (The three stainless pins pull out forward and the wheel pant lifts off). These fly-ins are very educational for me.



How the heck do you get to Jackpot?

I had never even heard of Jackpot. Several years ago I had finally found it on the map up in the northeast corner of Nevada. Literally in the middle of nowhere. No one had ever described what I was to see when I got here, but just the look in their eyes and the way they said Jackpot, Kanab and Wendover you had to know that it was something very special.

The stark mountainous desert scenery is other-worldly compared the ranchlands in Texas, but I feel right at home. Flying Marine choppers defending Hawaii and Japan and the east coast in no way overshadows what I find here.

It may have developed more by now, but my view from here is Jackpot with a tall casino hotel surrounded by some homes and a hardware store and a runway. Good fuel prices. I guess Shirl sets that up. In front of the hotel there is a sign on the flashing red traffic light that says something like- this is the only traffic signal within 500 miles.

Yesterday after winning my heat at Wendover, ha, I had turned north past the restricted area and hooked around a broad dark frontal system literally half the size of Nevada. Fortunately I stayed just ahead of it and was able to turn west for a clear shot to Jackpot.

From a distance the only thing in view are a few indistinct ridges and plateaus. There is no sign of civilization. But I know it’s there.

Watch out- I’m flashing through this spectacular de’jah vu all over again…
The rocky sand and scrub brush terrain passing below looks almost exactly like the ‘70s N7EZ cover shot on Air Progress, with the first little 390 lb VariEze dashing across the desert at Mojave. I still have the magazine. And here I am, at least close.

Now about twenty miles out on the GPS, approaching a plateau, I still see nothing. But I think I might see windows glinting in Jackpot. Now I see the runway just north of the plateau. I call for an airport advisory. The third call for info results in a small feminine voice saying “I don’t really know much, but just be real careful.” I find out later that she is in a windowless room in the hotel.

But she is right. I approach from the south passing over the plateau and don’t like the way things are feeling. So I go around to land from the north. There is a windsock at each end of the runway. Pointing different directions. The only thing they have in common is that they are both straight out and steady. I see Ezes on the ramp but no one speaks up on a handheld.

I fly the approach deliberately, with more than normal attention. Just after touchdown I hold the nose off on the downhill roll out. Without warning a gust lifts the plane about five feet above the runway. I catch it and hold it and grumble it back onto the runway and in a couple of seconds it lifts off again. She was right. The voice in the hotel.

Crosswind Flashback-
I remember a 35 mph direct crosswind landing back at home. I had made four approaches to the north checking out things and the degree of crab needed. Several cars stopped on the highway below to watch. I maneuver for the other end to see if it is any better landing to the south. It isn’t. By the third approach the cars have come around to this end to watch. On the fourth approach I get it on the ground with purely classic wing-low technique, along with gobs of purely crab technique, plus several dashes of contaminated techniques that I carefully work in. So much for pure technique.

It touches down fine and straightens itself out. On rollout I’m busy and holding full right aileron and the right wing starts lifting. Without thinking, several good joggles of right rudder bring the wing down. Without the quick rudder I am confident there would have been a whole lot of scraping going on, maybe flipping over at my home airport.

Hours of through-the-rainbow sunset wingovers, with and without rudders, have made the significance of rudders second nature and a comfortable part of most every landing.

Back to the landing at Jackpot-
Taxiing in I remember Bob Hoover talking about forced landings, saying to fly the plane all the way through the emergency. Heck, after this three-count arrival landing I’m quoting him and others telling myself to fly it all the way to the chocks. I tie it down good and join the rest of the rabble in the casino.

The next day a canard type rolls on short final and lands inverted. I can’t help but wonder how much time there was for rudder and how much was used and how well I would have done, or not.

On the last day at breakfast a CFI is debriefing several EZ pilots that he has just given BFRs. Evidently this is a ritual for them while at the Jackpot weekend. The instructor comments on the difference between the EZ drivers and the local chaps he tests back at his home airport.

Nothing against flying a spam can twenty miles for a hamburger once a month during the summer. But he says that in an EZ you can literally be almost anywhere in the country in a day, and encounter three or four weather systems in the process; or worse, one big one. He says that arena pushes EZ drivers to be on top of their game.

Broadened horizons

The trips from Fort Worth, Texas to Jackpot and Kanab are quite an experience and an eye-opener for me. All three of those RACE trips had excellent weather.

The first time out to Jackpot in ‘97 I overflew Montrose, Colorado and considered stopping in at the Scaled facility I had heard about there. I wondered if they needed any help.

Approaching Provo, Utah my eyes and brain weren’t big enough to take in Salt Lake City. There was so much history passing around and under me. I knew that each area that I focused on was dripping with significance, with me not comprehending a spot of it. (I had a wonderful fleeting image of my mother as she taught the stories in my high school literature classes. When I got home I pulled the books out and relived the adventures).

Everything was a highlight, but the real highlight was crossing the Great Salt Lake Desert. I had seen TV documentaries and had read about the wagon trains that crossed right here. For one group an expected two day trip across had turned into a gruesome six day ordeal. Everyone had trouble, but a double-decker wagon pulled by oxen turned out to be an especially bad idea with the wheels and oxen sinking completely in the wet sand.

On each trip to Jackpot a great point of interest (the real biggest) was the legendary Bonneville Salt Flats. During building it was a yearly ritual climb out of the garage for a break and to check up on the schedule out there with the idea of someday flying out to watch. And here I am, about to fly over Bonneville!

I had checked around with folks that lived “nearby” or who seemed to know something about Bonneville. Have you ever noticed that those who are the most familiar with the thing you are interested in finding out about are the ones that say it the fastest. And will only answer yes or no, if at all?

The information I got usually consisted of two or three sentences run together without a breath with no spaces between the words and very few vowels; spoken briskly in a conspiratorial rush, followed by “You can’t miss it”. Those of you that have actually seen Bonneville from the air are saying right now “Well…you can’t miss it”. But I did. Twice.

My talks with the “Salt Flats information center” back then, probably also from a windowless room somewhere, eventually revealed that there was no set schedule for the Bonneville Salt Flat runs, no specific weekend. One year Speed Week was in September and the next year it was in August. Each group kinda sets their own agenda, with some folks showing up at different times together. Today with google it’s much better. But it was about the third year of checking that someone admitted that there was an airport “nearby”. Wendover. There’s that word again.


Flying across the Great Salt Lake Desert

The first time headin’ out through here was for Jackpot ’97. Wendover was across the desert out West there somewhere. The Great Salt Lake spread out before me. I knew it was The Great Salt Lake because I had never seen anything like it before.
From Twelve-Five, Salt Lake City and the massive northern mountains pass on my right too quickly. And the Lake to the north… and the desert to the south! What is that? And where does that go? And what’s that there? What was going on there a hundred years ago? I’ll have to come back and stop in here for another look in a few days.

Below and to the left the impressive cloud covered mountain range that had been my horizon target all morning ends abruptly. From their feet out to the far horizon is awash in white sand. Or is it water? How deep is it, inches? A foot? As I pass over, some of the sand flashes a shiny reflection of the sun or blue sky.
I search every detail’s detail for meaning but too quickly have to look out ahead so as not to miss anything more.

I focus a moment on the highway for possible use as an emergency runway. It’s Interstate 80. It stretches out west to forever. Way out past the white, on the horizon there are more dark mountains. But part way across there on the right of the highway, there’s a dark mountain kinda set off by itself. Looks like I-80 goes right by it. There’s a restricted area there on the right somewhere.

45 minutes and I’m across and have no trouble finding Wendover. A typical WW II military air base sitting in the middle of the desert. But from here at Twelve-Five it is spectacular and intriguing and beautiful to me.

So where is the Bonneville Salt Flats.
They say to look on the north side of I-80 across from Wendover. Nothing but a single little paved road there, going nowhere. Which “across”? Where can that manicured Salt Flats be hiding? Oh well…I’ll find it on the way back.
But in ’97 I didn’t find it.

Leaving Jackpot 2000

Loading up and strappin’ in and having help with the shoulder belts and getting a once over and a thumbs up and waving adios,
Going through the ritual of departing, I have kind of an empty feeling in my stomach. For one thing, everyone is going west and I’m going east. What am I going to miss out on in the next few weeks? Over the next year. What would it be like, to just…go on out there. I know what I’m gonna miss, I know I’m not gonna go, and it hurts. And don’t even mention Chino…

Certainly another sliver of this empty feeling is getting into this little rocket knowing that in a few minutes it will disappear around me and I will again be floating weightlessly at Eleven-Five, out of sight and awareness of most humans, blasting over the barren half of this vast expanse of an amazing part of the world.


I know every fiber of this glassy shell
I rubbed every curve of foam to its shape
tightened every nut
and twisted every wire
and finger-licked every run of RTV smooth
and gritted my teeth at every spark plug gap.
But you know, ironically that is what allows us to climb in and strap on and throttle out to our destiny.

I’ve heard people say they would never fly in an airplane they had built. Maybe no one should fly that airplane.

But for some of us this glimpse of that EZ life is… irresistible, unquenchable, a race toward and over horizons, to be amid the clouds, at all… to again flash past a firm growing white cumulus curve, to get a congratulatory high five from a fleeting vapor horsetail wisp as it reaches out to caress and run its fingers through the canard tip flow.

The little empty feeling is OK, and should be examined more later.

At Eleven-Five Jackpot’s way behind and Wendover is out there to the south ahead. The restricted area is off to the left over there somewhere, maybe it’s because of what’s inside that mountain.

I push the stick and lean east over I-80 toward Salt Lake City. Some folks say going to the Wendover RACE is not that big a deal. It is if you haven’t been there!
Banked thirty degrees left, I make one last scan of the airport through the right side window, wondering which of those buildings is the hotel where I will make reservations for next May’s RACE.

Right, next year I’ll make it.

From a mile away in my left ear I hear “Bonneville. You cant’ miss it.” With the left wing low I again lean to the north and search the desert across from Wendover. “That“ across. To the north.


There it is.
The Bonneville Salt Flats. I see it. It’s tiny! The empty feeling grows a little. A thin paved road reaches out from the I-80 exit 4 just east of Wendover, four or five miles north and east into the desert. There is a round cul-de-sac at the end. I try not to be disappointed. I’m not, really. The mighty Bonneville Salt Flats are right there below me. You can faintly see where the salt is smoothed and prepped, or was prepped at some point. My description makes it sound kinda plain and simple. It is.

I look out at history and the six mile Speed of Sound span takes up a mere eleven inches over my shoulder here on the canopy. All that flat salt out there and it runs eleven inches. It’s kinda underwhelming. But, that’s what it is.

Slowly I come around.

As Bonneville drifts by I glance northwest back over my shoulder looking to see Jackpot one last time. Or maybe a desolate plateau. I don’t come close to seeing Jackpot but it strikes me hard that it’s different today, empty. Like the Salt Flats below. The magic that we experienced at Jackpot is not there. It is drifting out across the landscape, back to their garages and hangars and normal lives.

I look out below and see speed runs starting here in 1896, with world records since 1914. Craig Breedlove and Art Arfons say so, as I remember a recent documentary. They did some of their magic down below, but more so in their garages. It took me weeks just to smooth twenty-four feet of wing. These guys smoothed six miles.

I sit back and relax and push back the empty ignorant expectations, and they dissolve away. I nod in agreement with the work that is still going on hidden in garages and hangars that will be showing up down there for the crazy land racers, and at not-too-distant airports with the crazy air racers. ‘Reno again’ has a nice ring to it.

Now Bonneville is mine. I look forward to the spring and the ritual of again throwing out hopes for the trip out.


A note to the locals

To those of you that feel this is your back yard, you know that I have taken a big shot at your world, and missed the three pointer here. All air. But I don’t apologize. In talking of things as I saw and interpreted them, I hope that I haven’t stepped on your toes to badly.

You that easily navigate this western EZ world. You that found the perfect time machine and pull in the spectacular barren landscape from horizon to horizon, and still sleep in your bed that night. You that know how I haven’t even scratched the surface here; that there’s no way to capture your world, only try to grab some of it passing through.

You that enter the pattern at Wendover without even thinking twice, You that don’t need an airport diagram to taxi right up to the best parking and fuel.
You that can travel the desert blindfolded, that have the RACE course headings and turn points permanently in your GPS, and don’t even need them because you know the rocks out there like the back of your hand. You that run smart races.

You know what R.A.C.E. means because you were sitting there smoking cigars with Shirl when he decided to get it all going. You’ve probably seen his VariEze and his E-Racer and now his Corvettes.

You have played every John Wayne gunslinger part at the dinner theater in Kanab and you have your special part of the Grand Canyon that you show just to friends.

Those deprived-childhood flyers that haven’t been to one of Shirl’s events won’t know all that I’ve left out and messed up. Don’t tell. Let them come out and fill in the gaps now themselves.

Back at Eleven-Five, eastbound and down

Out to the left Salt Lake City is gliding by almost silently and almost without motion. The skyline sullenly reminds me of the promise to stop in for a few days. But the empty feeling leaving Jackpot is now a warm pull from home. To the hugs. For the smiles that wait. To try to show, to explain. To mark another path on the map. To wonder again was I really all the way out there, this morning?

I am inspired by those that have built and carry on the EZ movement. Each of their stories is the one worth hearing. This trip will soon be in the books as proof to myself of my part, that I was there and it was successful and it was good and I somehow made it back. I am again frustrated because everyone has more money and more time to put in their planes, but mostly because they are smarter, and thinner.

I vow (again) that when I get home it will be a fresh start and this time my closet and desk will get a good cleaning out this time, and I will truly have focus this time and the world will be perfect this time when I get home. Right.

Thanks Shirl.
Maybe next time I’ll get it better.

Bill James, Fort Worth VarEze

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