Blessed with a Texan’s natural ability to tell you exactly what he thinks, Red Bull Air Race pilot Kirby Chambliss is not a man to mince words. Today, however, the transatlantic phone lines are doing their best to do just that for him.
As every third sentence whirls away in a whoosh of clanging electronica, it’s hard to pin down just what the double champion is saying, but when the veteran flier talks about his motivation to return to Red Bull Air Race again after the series took an almost four-year hiatus, he’s crystal clear.
“It’s just me, it’s what I do,” he says. “I’ll tell you, I don’t like the international travel, all the logistics, that’s a nightmare. And as regards safety, well, I have a 9-year-old kid now, so it wasn’t an easy decision. But I definitely want to be a part of it. I love doing it. I’m an adrenaline junkie … I have to go back to it.”
A couple of days later, fellow Red Bull Air Race World Championship pilot Nigel Lamb is echoing Chambliss’s enthusiasm. “I’ve earned a living for nearly 30 years doing air displays, but to me the Red Bull Air Race is the pinnacle of what I’ve done in that time,” he says. “To go back to air racing is really what I want to do. It’s a no-brainer.”
But while the decision to race again has been easy for those in the cockpit, for those behind the scenes the act of hoisting the mammoth series back into the air has been a far more complex procedure.
After seven years, the series had, by the eve of the 2010 championship, become an unwieldy beast. With average crowds in 2009 topping half a million at each stop, the logistics and finances required to haul the series around the world had become burdensome.
It wasn’t only on the ground that issues were becoming apparent, however. In the air, too, problems were arising as a technical arms race pushed planes to their limits. When logistical issues forced the cancellation of the final two rounds of the championship, enough was enough. The series was grounded.
Four years have passed since then, and the championship has been reinvented with new rules, new formats, and a fresh approach to safety, as new series CEO Erich Wolf explains.
“The real business started at the beginning of 2013, and from that moment on we had to sign contracts with all the locations and relaunch the sport from an aviation point of view,” he says. “However, we also realized we have to open it up to new pilots. We will have a Super License class of 12 pilots, who are competing in a certain schedule, in a certain format. But there will be a second class of pilots, the Challenger class, which is open for qualified pilots, male or female, on a global scale.
“We have also simplified the rules in order to make it easier to understand for the consumer, the spectator on site and for fans watching on TV.”
The safety matters that raised concerns in 2010 have been dealt with via the introduction of a number of standard parts, a change designed to put an end to the engine arms race that had begun to develop in the sport. Also, in a bid to improve safety, the fabric pylons used to delineate the course have been raised from 65 feet to 82 feet in height, a small increase but one that Head of Aviation Sergio Pla says will make a big difference. “It may not look like much, but in the plane, reaction time is much better than before. We didn’t have any surprises in training. The pilots have a big margin of time and the altitude to resolve it. It makes a dramatic difference.
New locations have also been sourced, with the city-based tracks the series previously favored giving way to a mix of circuits over land, water, and, in a new development, more races in controlled environments—such as U.S. speedways, which turn out to be ideal locations for air races as well.
“Red Bull Air Race is a motorsport, and we should go to the home of motorsports,” Wolf says. “We have to provide the spectators with the best quality venues, so they can see the whole racetrack. They should also have food and beverage services and parking. These locations are huge, plus the venue is prepared already. You have grandstands there that hold 200,000 spectators, and they have the best view of the track. U.S. speedways are a perfect venue for us. However you’ll still find us in city centers as well.”
The pilots, too, are enthusiastic about the changes that have taken place, with Lamb insisting that the standardized engines introduced will result in closer, more exciting competition.
“The engines thing I think is just fantastic, and it was something that I always argued for,” he says. “It makes sense on many levels. From a safety point of view it is definitely relevant, from a cost point of view it is relevant, but also most importantly it just creates a much better, even playing field, where it is not all checkbook driven. You will find that the margins of power are much less between the best and the worst, and I think it sets up the potential for an absolutely fantastic 2014 season.”
Chambliss is also optimistic, and while he acknowledges that Red Bull Air Race 2014 is likely to be a flight into the unknown, he’s more than happy to strap himself in for the ride.
“My goal is always to win. I’m not going to just play,” he says. “Some friends said it would be really nice if you could go, just cruise it and take it easy, but what I say is, sure, enjoy it, but remember why you’re there, that you’ve won the nationals five times and that you’re a very competitive person. So I’ll get the plane as close as I can, I’ll think about the fastest way to get from this gate to the next one. I’ll be doing the same thing I’ve always done—trying to win. That’s what I do.”
Getting the planes as close to the edge as possible is also what the Red Bull Air Race has been redesigned to do, this time in the right conditions and in the right arenas, as Pla insists. “This is the most exciting motorsport in existence,” he says. “We’re the fastest series in the world. You really shouldn’t miss it.”
Check out the March 2014 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands February 11) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app. Follow Red Bulletin on Twitter for more.