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The New World: Behind the North American Sweep

Since the Red Bull Air Race first took off in 2003, there had never been a stop in Russia. And there had never been a North American sweep of a race podium, either. Those statistics were simultaneously erased on 23 July 2017, when Arizona’s Kirby Chambliss, Ontario’s Pete McLeod and Michael Goulian of Massachusetts went one, two, three at the World Championship’s Russian debut in Kazan.

The sport has seen many stellar pilots from the USA, and McLeod, the only Canadian, joined up in 2009. But until now, the prowess of the international field made sure that every podium had some European – or Asian, or Australian – flair.

And all geographical puns aside, it really is a “new world” in the battle for the World Championship. It’s been years since a North American was in the thick of the title fight with only three races to go, but now there are two in the mix. Chambliss is at the top of the leaderboard for the first time since he claimed the 2006 title, stalked by McLeod in fourth. Yoshihide Muroya (JPN) and Martin Šonka (CZE) hold the second and third spots, and with the quartet neck-and-neck within a tiny two-point spread, expect fireworks at the next stop in Porto, Portugal.

What did it take to bring everything together for the North Americans on Sunday? Incredible flying skills, and a bit of luck. Tough weather and mounting competitive pressure caused many international favorites to stumble. All three podium finishers cited one additional factor in helping them to prevail:              

“Teamwork. It’s huge,” McLeod asserts. “A lot of things have changed for us this year, and a big part of that is teamwork – all the way from Jeff Hack’s data analysis. Pat [technician Patrick Phillips] continues to have the plane perfect for me, Charlotte [team coordinator Charlotte Sandgaard] has everything arranged; I just show up and race. Putting down record times and things like that, that’s my job.”

Goulian, who last earned a podium with a win in 2009, declares, “In the Red Bull Air Race, there are pilots flying in the sky, but everybody has to work together. Our tactician Steve Hall is at home sending us data. Our TC, Pablo [Branco] never sleeps. And it’s been a very meteoric road since [technician] Warren Cilliers came along last season. It’s been fantastic.”

Full disclosure: All three North American pilots have key team members from outside the continent (and conversely, several other teams include North Americans). When Chambliss thanks his team for helping him clinch two consecutive wins after a nine-year drought, he’s crediting not only Americans Kayla Layton (TC) and Jason Resop (technician), but Brazilian race analyst/tactician Paulo Iscold, who formerly worked with retired triple World Champion Paul Bonhomme.

“It’s not really about being the fastest one, but the most consistent one,” says Iscold, noting that Bonhomme wouldn’t necessarily try to deliver the fastest time from the get-go in a race week, but instead improved every time he went into the track. 

“Kirby has a different nature from Paul’s: he’s aggressive, he moves on adrenaline, and to slow that down takes a lot for him. Now it’s working, so we need to keep going,” Iscold reports. “I’m honored to be here because he’s Kirby Chambliss, one of the best pilots in the world.”

Another factor in any team’s success is the support of sponsors and fans. Chambliss and Goulian flew directly from Russia on a 2:00am flight to the EAA AirVenture convention at Oshkosh, USA, where they are getting to thank many of those supporters in person. McLeod is coming, too.          

“I remember the first time I flew to Oshkosh – you look down and there’s 10,000 airplanes,” Chambliss relates.

“Taking the podium to Oshkosh, that’s the greatest feeling,” Goulian shares. “There are 800,000 air show fans. We may be tired, but the adrenaline of being on this podium – and being on this podium with Kirby, one of my great friends in life – will carry us through.”

Then it will be just a few weeks until the Red Bull Air Race return to Porto on 2-3 September. In the air over the Douro River, the pilots won’t be thinking about what country or continent they’re from. They’ll be wholly focused on what they have to do in the racetrack.

“I’ll look forward to bringing some speed,” says McLeod. “I’m sure the other guys will as well.”

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The New World: Behind the North American Sweep
Since the Red Bull Air Race first took off in 2003, there had never been a stop in Russia. And there had never been a North American sweep of a race podium, either. Those statistics were simultaneously erased on 23 July 2017, when Arizona’s Kirby Chambliss, Ontario’s Pete McLeod and Michael Goulian of Massachusetts went one, two, three at the World Championship’s Russian debut in Kazan.
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