SAN DIEGO, CA – Jimbo Reed’s path to becoming the technical director of Red Bull Air Race is culled from a Coen Brothers spec script. Pulled from the plains of Kansas, Reed worked in a grain elevator after high school with torches and cranes and heavy machinery that could severe fingers or entire limbs at a moment’s notice. He seemed destined to stay in town. It’d be a noble story and far from a tragedy.
But for Reed, a large man with a large beard and an even larger personality, that wouldn’t be enough.
“It was heavy lifting and it was hard work,” Reed says. “And after five years, you think, ‘there has got to be a f*cking easier way.’ You can feel your feet getting sore. And my wife told me there was an aviation maintenance program at Kansas State. It never even crossed my mind to become a mechanic. This is really bringing me down, so let’s go. After six years of hard labor and having that guillotine hanging over your head, it was easy to get pretty good grades.”
When he was a senior, Steve Fossett’s GlobalFlyer – the airplane that flew around the world nonstop – came through Kansas State and used it as the launchpad for the flight. Reed volunteered to work with that plane, and Fossett needed more help after that. That set in motion of a chain of events that saw him doing everything from flight world records to working on space shuttles in the Mojave Desert to traveling with some of the best American air race teams in Abu Dhabi or Budapest. We’re not in Kansas anymore, indeed.
Even with all the new responsibilities and oversight in his new role overseeing all the tech at Red Bull Air Race, Reed is the same as he always was. He took his tricks and tips for cheating the system as a member of a race team into his current responsibilities, trying to figure out how teams would bend the rules before they could, and ensuring everyone runs a clean – and more importantly, safe – race.
The spirit of the grain elevator in Manhattan, Kansas is still in everything he does. His end game now is to keep everyone alive, make sure everyone plays by the rules, and have a couple few beers after the competition is over – no matter where those beers are consumed across the globe.
“Red Bull Air Race is like a United Nations,” Reed says, “except it’s actually effective. It’s all a big excuse to drink with 300 of my closest friends.”
Reed stares off at the runway, as the Air Race teams prepare their planes for qualifying in the year’s second race of the series.