RENO, Nev. - A Boise emergency physician won the Silver Heat of the Formula One class at the Reno Air Races in mid-September in his rookie year as a race pilot.
Matt Conklin had been interested in racing since the late Caldwell crop duster Gary Hubler started winning his five straight Gold Heat Formula One Championships 10 years ago, inspiring a stable of Treasure Valley pilots to compete at the Reno Air Races.
Conklin joined veteran Boise race pilot Brian Reberry, who flies an Airbus A320 for Virgin America, to represent Idaho in the Formula One class.
Reberry introduced his custom-built gull-wing racer, "September Fate," at the 2012 races but a last-minute series of mechanical surprises convinced him to skip 2013 and begin planning for 2014. He did fly Jim Whiteley's Cassutt III-M "Tony the Tiger," admitting it's the slowest plane in the class. He flies it just for fun, even when his new racer is running.
Over the years, Conklin grew more interested in air racing as he honed his piloting skills flying in the Idaho backcountry and then acquired a seaplane rating from Hayden flight instructor Mike Kincaid.
He bought floats for his Cessna 180 several years ago and spent three weeks flying through Alaska via the Inside Passage with his family just prior to coming to Reno. He is also a Certified Flight Instructor and a Mission Pilot for the Civil Air Patrol. On top of that he is an FAA Aviation Medical Examiner.
Before a pilot can compete in any class at the Reno Air Races, he or she must attend the Reno Air Race Association's Pilot Racing Seminar (PRS), also known as "Rookie School," where the rules and techniques of pylon racing are taught and honed. Conklin attended this seminar earlier this summer enrolling at the last minute, according to Eric Hubler, one of Conklin's mechanics "on loan" from Reberry.
"I like to fly low, I enjoy formation flying and who doesn't like to fly fast?" Conklin said. "But when you cram these aspects of flight together around pylons with an uncooperative formation, the learning curve becomes very steep and challenging."
Conklin's first attempt to buy a Formula One race plane fell through.
Then just after PRS he heard that Steve Senegal of San Bruno, Calif., who had won four previous Formula One Gold Championships in his David Hoover AR-6 "Endeavor," wanted to sell his Cassutt III-M "Miss Demeanor," but he was second in line. The original offer fell through and Conklin had his race plane. It gave him little time to get to know his new mount but during qualifying heats he found his rhythm. His times were disqualified on Monday for "flying too low," but he turned in a respectable 210-plus miles per hour in two runs on Tuesday of race week.
His Wednesday race speed averaged 208.893 mph, on Thursday he averaged 206.357, on Saturday it was 215.613 mph and his Silver Heat win average was 221.989 mph. His racing technique continually improved over the course of the week and he flew a tight line on Sunday.
With the help of other Formula One teams he was able to borrow different blade-angle propellers as the week progressed and won the Silver Heat with a perfectly-balanced carbon prop loaned to him by Justin Phillipson that best matched his engine power and airframe design.
In the middle of race week, Conklin, who treats emergency patients at Boise's St. Alphonsus Hospital, took his required 10-year Idaho Medical Exam and studied in several friends' quiet RVs between qualifying race runs.
Now that's concentration.
After his Sunday Silver Heat win, the No. 1 cylinder's rocker arm and push rods needed to be removed for inspection. The rocker arm had to be the correct weight and the rocker arms the correct length to pass muster according to Formula One race rules. "Miss Demeanor" passed and the Silver Heat win was recorded for posterity.