Air Guard pilot won cross-country race in first Reno Air Races

It’s been more than a half century since Reno pilot Wayne Adams flew a P-51 Mustang into National Championship Air Races lore.

Long before the races became a multi-million dollar event for the region — including the Blue Angels and even micro-drone racing this week at the 53rd National Championship Air Races — it debuted on a dirt runway at Sky Ranch east of Pyramid Highway.

In 1964, the inaugural event included pylon racing, aerobatics, static displays and a cross country race from Clearwater, Fla., to Reno.

Adams, 85, first heard about hopes to resurrect a race modeled after the defunct Cleveland National Championship Air Races during a dinner gathering of pilots in Reno in the early-1960s.

“I knew I really wanted to get into something like this,” Adams, a retired Air Force major general and former commander of the 152nd Reconnaissance Group, Nevada Air National Guard, said during an interview at his south Reno home this summer.

Adams, a major in the Nevada Air National Guard and training pilot supervisor in 1964, needed the endorsement of someone willing to provide him a privately-owned plane for the cross country race.

“Try as I may, the door was often just shut,” he said. “Nobody wants to have their airplane put in a race like that and beat up.”

A friend of Adams suggested he reach out to David Maytag, of Los Angeles. Maytag, an heir of the family who started Maytag appliances company, and brother of National Airlines owner Lewis Maytag, offered his P-51 Mustang D model, nicknamed the “Maytag Special,” for the race.

“The only bad part was the airplane hadn’t flown in a year,” Adams said. “So, we spent a whole summer disassembling that airplane to try to find out why it kept quitting.”

With funding from Maytag, Adams parked the plane in front of his office at the Nevada Air National Guard Base in Reno, pulling it into the hangar at night when he left the base. He recalls then-Nevada Adjutant General James May chided him on the project.

“He liked me so much he liked to mistreat me,” Adams said. “He’d say, ‘Adams, you little s---.’ You get that thing running or I’m going to fire you.”

After weeks of work on the plane, Adams and maintainers at the base determined the problem was the airplane’s magneto, which acts as a generator supplying electricity for the ignition. Brown-Milbery electric motor repair shop on Gentry Way in Reno overhauled the electric motors and generators, Adams said, and before long the plane was ready for the race.

Harold’s Club sponsored the inaugural 2,300-mile “dash” that included $10,000 in prize money, $6,000 for the winner, according to Reno Evening Gazette news reports. “The dash opened a program of air races held in conjunction with Nevada’s Centennial,” the newspaper reported.

As Adams arrived in Clearwater, he skirted parts of Hurricane Dora in his dissent as the engine quit when the plane’s aging wiring became saturated in the rainstorm, Adams said. It dried up when he exited the storm clouds and he successfully landed the plane.

“The ocean was so violent, I never saw it like that before, and I never would again,” he said.

Given his late arrival — last of eight pilots to land at the check point — Adams was scheduled for the final takeoff in the staggered departure, which he estimated put him about 12 minutes behind the lead plane.

While the other pilots started up the Florida coast, a safer route near the shoreline, Adams took a chance.

“I elected to just let it happen and go straight across,” said Adams, the only Northern Nevada pilot in the race. “I just went straight across the Gulf (of Mexico). The weather was beautiful.”

He stopped once in Albuquerque, N.M., where fellow Nevada Air Guardsman Harry Bengochea and other Reno airmen waited with two fuel trucks.

As he approached western Nevada, Adams kept an eye out for competitors in the area. There were no communications in the plane and Adams wasn’t sure if he was coming in first or last.

At one point, he flew inverted, paranoid a pilot might sneak underneath him at a lower altitude.

“I had some tricks I learned,” Adams said. “That is to roll the airplane inverted and let it descend very slowly and use your mirrors to try to spot the enemy.”

“But there was nobody there. I was baffled,” he said.

Adams completed the race in 7 hours, 4 minutes flying at an average speed of 370 mph, the Reno Evening Gazette reported in 1964.

Afterward, he celebrated at the Sierra Air National Guard Association bar at the Nevada Air Guard base.

“The reception was fabulous,” he said.

The cross country race was held again in 1965. Harold’s Club stopped its sponsorship of the race in 1966, but resumed it with races from Milwaukee to Reno in the late-1960s. It’s no longer held today.

Throughout his accomplished military and flying career, Adams remembers the cross country race as one of his fondest experiences.

“It’s still etched in my memory,” he said.


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