What Stead was able to do was recruit many of his fellow Unlimited Hydroplane drvers, who were also accomplished pilots and then helped them get nationally known sponsors to provide the funding for their aircraft entries.
Never really given the credit he deserves for starting the races, Stead singlehandedly persuaded his good friend Charles Mapes to be one of the founding sponsors, and then strolled north on Virginia Street to talk Harold’s Club public relations man Roy Powers into joining the short sponsor list that eventually included John Ascuaga’s Nugget in Sparks.
Always looking for an opportunity to spread the Harold’s Club name nationwide — and with the budget to accomodate that goal — Powers came up with the idea of his property sponsoring a cross-country air race that would begin in Florida and end in Reno in time for the opening of the Reno races.
This called nationwide attention to the Reno event and made it easier when Stead walked into my office at the Mapes and wondered what events he could get to round out the program. He mentioned that it would be great if we could get one of the Armed Services demonstration air teams to come to Reno (actually Sparks) and perform. I noted that my previous client, U.S. Senator from Nevada Howard Cannon, was a great pilot himself and had a lot of aviation clout in Washington, D.C. Also, it was the same year, 1964, that Howard was seeking re-election to his second term in the Senate. We placed a call to Cannon, who was very receptive to the idea and in a few hours he called back to confirm that the Thunderbirds aerial demo team could make it to our event.
Another strong tie to the Thunderbirds (whom we housed in the Mapes) for me was the fact that their announcer/public relations man was an individual I had worked closely with during my newspaper days.
The next big contributor to the Races was the state of Nevada, which was celebrating its centennial year. Also, Powers and a group of influential locals got together and formed a board of directors to help Stead manage the event.
The ever-opportunistic Stead then went out and somehow got a hot air balloon group together to add to the program, so in a way he was in effect the first organizer of the Great Reno Balloon Race. (Incidentally this year’s version of the GRB races is being sponsored by the Reno Air Racing Association since the ballooners have lately run on hard times).
All told the initial races were primed to go and the enormous publicity generated had only one drawback: The promoters greatly underestimated the crowd that would attend and cars were parked for miles on both sides and in both directions along Pyramid Highway. (Scanning old local editions of the newspapers one is treated to the sensational coverage afforded the first Air Races). Conincidentally, the prior year Pyramid Highway was equally congested by fans going to see the Unlimited Hydros race for the Gold Cup (boating’s equivalent of the Super Bowl) on Pyramid Lake. As noted, many of the boat drivers in ‘63 were the same pilots competing in ‘64.
Over the years the Air Races have gone through good and bad times, the worst when they were cancelled for the only time following 9/11.
Current CEO and president of the Reno Air Racing Association, Mike Houghton, has done a yeoman job of overhauling the event to the point where it is solvent enough to support an Air Race Foundation that returns money to the community through its donations to local charities.
In addtion to the thrillling heats in various classes leading up to the finals on Sept. 14, the specialty acts that perform and the static displays have grown year by year and are themselves easily worth the price of admission.
Two big attractions this year will be the return of the Thunderbirds demo team after an absence of several years and a first-hand look at the latest plane in the Air Force arsenal: the Raptor.
It is estimated that more than 200,000 fans will attend this year’s event and the weather prognosticators have promised sunny skies for the week.
Of all the area’s special events, the Air Races are not only the most thrilling they bring the highest monetary group to town, many of whom fly in in their own private aircraft. To illustrate the caliber of attendees, many years ago the later super photographer Don Dondero took an aerial shot of the private places parked at the Reno airport. Two days later he took a similar shot of the same area and put them side by side.
The only thing the Air Races still lack after 45 years is some form of visible tribute to the founder, Bill Stead.
Harry Spencer is a freelance writer in Reno. His column about the past and present of northern Nevada appears weekly in the Tribune.
Editor’s note: Harry Spencer’s column is sometimes a mix of reporting and opinion. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Tribune.