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.
While all of this sounds like a boutique sport with only the most dedicated individuals, it’s far from it. Red Bull Air Race has spread to eight races in seven countries, with the final race coming back to America in Indianapolis, which has its fair share of motorsports history.
The race in San Diego is a special one for many of the people involved. It was a massive undertaking to get the “track,” if you can even call it that, on the bay. The San Diego Bay is a living organism through which much of the city’s energy is derived. Flights take off, both military and commercial, boats are always running, and there are swarms of people on both shores.
Every single variable has to be considered before the planes can start their journey from an airport near the border of California and Mexico to the course.
Pylons are put out on the water to resemble overinflated Wacky Tube Men, with supremely delicate and sophisticated technology ensuring they stay rigid, maintain pressure, and have the fabric compounds that will allow them to break at the slightest impact from a plane.
These pylons help determine the winner, and are almost as important as the planes themselves. And as such, teams on boats scurry to get the pylon back up and active in mere minutes, over and over again, every time a pylon is struck over the course of a race. In a normal race, it’s precision. On the water, it’s sheer beauty, and only adds to the mystique and sheer playfulness of the Air Race.
“It’s my local race,” race director Jimmy DiMatteo says, “but look how beautiful it is. It’s unlike any other sport, where they’ll show a stadium, and then the outside. But for the most part it’s just the stadium. You may not even know where you are in the world. But here you know where you are because all the video shows the iconic scenery and the backdrop.”
This is before you even get to the planes themselves, dancing, diving, dipping, and fluttering in the wind with the grace of a dragonfly. Humans and machines aren’t supposed to merge together to be able to do this, especially not in something with this much technology and this much of a price tag. And yet, it’s that melding of power and agility that makes for why people love the movie Top Gun so much, or why the Blue Angels still get rousing ovations every time they show up anywhere.
Stunt flying takes a certain breed, but that breed has our full attention from the moment we spot a plane off in the distance.
“The cool thing is it’s a race,” American competitor and living legend Kirby Chambliss says. “A seven-year-old can understand. You don’t have to know all about it. You just have to appreciate the work and effort that goes into it. The takeaway would just be to have a good time and enjoy watching the airplanes. I think people would be surprised to see how fast an airplane can turn.”
Chambliss has been obsessed with planes since he can remember. There are photos of him as a two-year-old inside the cockpit. He later flew commercial planes before taking training to allow him to safely flip a business aircraft over in the event it was upside down. That led to more stunt training, and he was hooked. Before long he was flying in air shows, winning competitions, and looking for any excuse to chase adrenaline.
His closest call – and every stunt pilot has a laundry list of them to go along with an equally exhausting and painful list of injuries – was in El Salvador. His engine quit, and he had to bury his plane between two trees. He walked away with a bruised shoulder.
When the Air Race first came together in 2003, it was the top 15 show pilots in the world, and Chambliss was the only American. It was far from the organized (read: safe) body it is today.
“It used to be more seat of the pants,” Chambliss says. “It was just instinct. Now we’re listening to tones, we have a certain amount of G-forces. When I started there were no rules. You flew as close to the gates as you wanted, as low as you wanted. It was super fun. It was crazy. People were like, ‘holy sh*t’ with airplanes falling out of the sky. But that’s why they had to have you being 1-15 in the world. You had to be pretty good to balance all this crazy sh*t with that experience.”
Much like with Reed and his traveling nature, the spirit of the Air Race is the same as it ever was. The end game is in making it into a sport, a certifiable modern day spectacle to compete with everything else we’re inundated with choice-wise for our viewing pleasure. While the major sports still reign, there’s something to be said about the poise of a jet plane flying over a bay in between inflatable would-be traffic cones.
When you see it, you’re hooked. You get it. It’s the closest humans have come to recreating a cross between Mario Kart and Star Fox, and this is only the beginning.
The planes will get faster, and the technology better. And as we find more and more ways to capture it all, we’re brought into the experience even further. This is racing for the future. As long as there are engines – with wings or otherwise – and people crazy enough to race them, we’ll be watching.
“If you’re a motorsports fan at all and you come out to an air race,” American competitor Kevin Coleman says, “you’ll leave being an air race fan. It’s the ultimate motorsports experience in the sky. It’s still developing, and it’s going to be awesome.”