RENO " It's billed as "the world's fastest motor sport."
Critics have another label, calling the Reno National Championship Air Races "the world's most dangerous motor sport" after three pilots were killed during competition last year and another racer was killed during a practice flight Saturday.
The crashes have prompted the Federal Aviation Administration to place greater scrutiny on the races, and local school officials for a time reconsidered whether to continue student field trips to the event.
Mike Houghton, president of the races, insists that organizers go out of their way to make the event as safe as possible in an inherently dangerous sport.
"Safety, safety, safety is the one thing people get tired of hearing me talk about," Houghton said. "But in every competition there is risk, and ours is the same. If you did away with the risk, you'd have checkers and pingpong."
About 150 of the nation's top racing pilots will compete Sept. 10-14 for $1 million in prize money at Reno-Stead Airport just north of Reno.
Mark Daniels, a former Army helicopter mechanic and air traffic controller from the central Nevada community of Dyer, contends organizers have made the races more dangerous than any other motor sport.
"They put on a good show of safety, but that's all it is," said the 52-year-old aviation buff. "Absolutely, the event's future is threatened by the safety issue. People don't want to come out and see other people die."
The competition is like a car race in the sky, with planes flying wingtip-to-wingtip as low as 50 feet off the sagebrush at speeds sometimes surpassing 500 mph. Pilots follow an oval path around pylons, with distances and speeds depending on the class of aircraft.
Reno has the world's only multi-class air races, with six classes of aircraft competing, said Don Berliner of Alexandria, Va., president of the Society of Air Racing Historians and author of several books on the sport.
At one time, air races were staged all over the U.S., but only the Reno races remains, Berliner said. He said two air races are still staged in France, but they feature only a single class of aircraft, called Formula One.
"Reno is the center of the air racing world," Berliner said.
There have been 19 fatalities since the Reno event began in 1964, including the three last year in the deadliest single week.
On the ground, Daytona International Speedway has had 27 race-related deaths since it opened in 1959, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has had 67 deaths, dating to the pre-500 races of 1909-10. But officials point out that both speedways hold more races each year than Reno's single event.
Berliner said he was unaware of any overall statistics on air racing fatalities since the sport began at Reims, France in 1909.
"Sure, it's a dangerous sport " it always has been," Berliner said. "Air racing crashes aren't that common so they get attention. We just have the law of averages catch up with us."
FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said his agency is stepping up its presence at Reno in an effort to promote safety.
He said an FAA inspector provided briefings at organizers' "Rookie School," which is held each June. Rookies must pass certain criteria before they are allowed to compete.
"The briefings stressed the need to comply with federal regulations and remain focused and concentrate during the event," Gregor wrote by e-mail.
In addition, inspectors will give pilots safety briefings at the beginning of the races, pay closer attention to pilots' records and place more scrutiny on aircraft modifications, he said.
The FAA thinks organizers are complying with rules and regulations, and taking sufficient safety measures, Gregor said.
"Organizers have been very pro-active and have taken every foreseeable measure to make sure safety is the number one goal," he wrote.
Ray Sherwood of Placerville, Calif., a Formula One racer at Reno from 1986 to 2005, suggests the pilots should be more closely examined.
"I can tell you, in my opinion, there's a time when guys get involved in air racing and they shouldn't get involved in air racing. It's not for every pilot," Sherwood said.
Organizers have "re-emphasized" to pilots the importance of both "situational awareness" and "wake turbulence," Houghton said.
The latter involves training on how to avoid air stirred up by other aircraft, while the former involves training on how to keep fellow racers in sight and stay within theirs.
Daniels questioned the FAA's past oversight of the event, and urged organizers to put underground many telephone poles around the airport.
The recent Reno crashes prompted local school officials to meet with organizers and re-examine whether to continue student field trips to the air races, said Steve Mulvenon, spokesman for the Washoe County School District.
"Part of it was the potential psychological impact a crash would have on students," Mulvenon said.
However, school officials eventually decided to continue the field trips because they allow students to learn about aviation, Mulvenon said.