The last Reno. The words sound so stark and signal an abrupt end to the legendary competition (September 13-17, 2023) over the northern Nevada desert—particularly for the “September family” that calls it home. But at least one competitor keeps her eyes focused on the positive, the milestones to achieve, and what success around the pylons means for her future and that of closed-circuit air racing.
Vicky Benzing hails from Northern California, growing up in San Jose. After graduating from high school, she pursued a career in physical chemistry, eventually obtaining a Ph.D in the discipline from the University of California-Berkeley. But a lucrative position in the Silicon Valley tech industry failed to hold onto her heart. Recognizing we have only so much time on the planet, she switched gears about 20 years ago, turned toward aviation, and practiced full time the aerosports she loves. Today she is based at Monterey Airport (KMRY).
She’s a skydiver, holds an airline transport pilot certificate, and flies her 450 hp 1940 Stearman in air shows around the country. In 2008, she placed in the top 10 in the Advanced category at the U.S. National Aerobatic Championships in an Extra 300S. But it’s her past 13 years at the National Championship Air Races in Reno that spark her forward the most. Benzing first raced at the Reno-Stead Airport (KRTS) in 2010, winning her first heat flying a Glasair SH-3R. She went on to become the “fastest woman at Reno” in 2015 in an L-139. And recently she’s topped the Sport Class Silver division with her custom Lancair Legacy, Lucky Girl.
FLYING caught up with Benzing as she was preparing for Reno 2023—hopeful to mark one more milestone at the storied event in the Unlimited Class at the controls of a P-51 Mustang.
FLYING Magazine (FM): How did you transition from aerobatics and get your start at Reno? What was the first airplane you brought to the races?
Vicky Benzing (VB): At the behest of Lee Behel, I went to PRS [Pylon Racing Seminar] in my Extra and, of course, the Extra is too slow to race. The Sport Class was not yet oversubscribed…we hadn’t opened the class up to [Van’s] RVs yet…so he asked me if I would race if he could find an airplane for me. Vicki Cruse [an aerobatic champion who died flying her Edge 540 at an airshow in England in 2009] was a close friend. Lee purchased her Glasair from her estate, and I raced it in her honor. She had previously raced at Reno—it was Race 13— the Cruse Missile. That airplane…had gremlins, and we always attributed that to Vicki’s sense of humor. I won that first race against Scott Nelson—I had to pass him to win the race. I got the fire truck ride, and the second race, I was on the pole, and when you’re a rookie, trying to find the pylons is tough. In the chute, when I put the throttle forward, I had a prop overspeed and very nearly lost the prop. I managed to get the airplane on the runway. We rebuilt the engine on that airplane, and I raced it the following year, the race that the Galloping Ghost went in, so we didn’t get to finish the race. So it wasn’t till the third year that I actually got to race all the heat races.
FM: From there, you went on to progress into the Jet Class, as well as getting the right airplane to advance in the Sport Class. Tell us about those experiences.
VB: In 2013, I raced the jet, Kermit, the L-39, and the Cruse Missile. We tried to make the Cruse Missile go faster with modifications—and I had a number of Lancair “kills.” But it wasn’t as fast as all the Lancairs. I put a rearview mirror in my cockpit, and I put a label on it that said, “Lancairs belong here.” But I wanted to have an airplane that I could modify and work on my own, and so in 2014, I went out and bought Lucky Girl [a Lancair Legacy]. I think the Cruse Missile was jealous, because Lee took me to go look at Lucky Girl in Fresno, California, and on the way, the Cruse Missile threw a fit and had a prop overspeed, and we ended up landing at the former Castle Air Force Base—Merced Airport [KMCE] now. Lucky Girl’s a fast stock Lancair, and through the years I’ve just modified her bit by bit, with bigger pistons, and last year, nitrous [oxide, a performance booster], and we’ll probably run nitrous this year.
FM: In 2015, you became the fastest woman at Reno. How did you come by that milestone?
VB: I raced the jet again in 2014, and then Dianna Stanger called me up to race her jet, Darkstar, an L-139, in 2015, and that’s when I became the fastest woman ever at Reno, ’cause I was clocked on the course at 469.831 mph, which was the same speed as one of the other guys did. And he clocked it first before me, so I ended up behind him in the order. Last year I raced Robin, the yellow jet [L-39]. Jets [are] a different deal—it’s really high G loading, especially for the really fast ones. You kind of say, “400 mph, 4 Gs; 500 mph, 5 Gs,” but that’s continuous, so if you hit wake, or fly unevenly, you’re hitting even higher Gs.
FM: You moved up to the top of the Sport Class Silver rankings regularly over the past few years in Lucky Girl. But you’ve had other dramatic moments in the race that stand out.
VB: From 2014 to present, I’ve raced Lucky Girl. My engine quit in the cooldown [lap]. I came out on downwind in the cooldown and went to land, and the engine quit. I was like, “What? You’re kidding me.” And those airplanes come down so quickly. I was basically over [Runway] 8, and I made the left turn to land on 32, and I barely got on the runway, barely got out of the turn before I made the runway. They are not gliders.
FM: For this year, you plan to campaign a special airplane. How did you come to buy a classic warbird?
VB: So I bought Clay Lacy’s P-51 [Miss Van Nuys] in 2019, and Steve Hinton Jr. has been restoring it, and it became a much bigger project than it started out as. The idea of purchasing the aircraft was to put it on the racecourse at Reno because it’s an historic aircraft [see “In Depth,” Issue 938] but also to fly it at airshows, because I think airplanes like that deserve to be seen. I think, as a woman, there are not that many opportunities to fly warbirds. I would love to be the person who is at the [Commemorative Air Force] museum wrenching on airplanes, but I just don’t have time to do that with doing the shows. I had to make an opportunity for myself to fly a warbird. I went to Stallion 51 to get training—and I swore up and down to my husband I was not going to buy a P-51. He bought me a little model for my desk. But Clay is my neighbor at Pine Mountain Lake, and I heard that his Mustang was for sale. It took a little talking to my husband and asking Clay if he would sell it to me.
Vicky Benzing (center) tops the podium for the Sport Class Silver. [Courtesy: Jeff Benzing]
FM: But the care and feeding of a warbird takes time and investment. Share with us the story of bringing an historic P-51 to the Unlimited Class.
VB: [Miss Van Nuys] had never been restored since it was built in 1944—never been overhauled. The last time an engine had been put in it was 1976 [after Lacy’s last time racing it at Reno in 1972]. I would be surprised if there were 100 hours on that engine. We were just going to bring it back up to snuff, but then one thing led to another. And that led to paint, and can you paint the cockpit, can you change the instrument panel? And then going through the airplane, we found a crack in the tail, so it had to come off. Steve is in the process of painting it—we got delayed by paint because we had a custom color mix, [a purple that is an exact match to the original shade]. We ordered it in September , and we got it in April. We put in a water bar system for racing; the wing was profiled to make it smooth for racing. We put all the antennas inside the airplane. One of the things that I really like about racing is the modifications that you do to your airplane are there forever. If you’re using it for commuting or flying here to there, you’re going a lot faster because of the investment you’ve made in the airplane. My Lancair Legacy Lucky Girl cruises all day long at 2,500 rpm and full throttle, 5,500 feet, at 250 knots.
This column first appeared in the September 2023/Issue 941 of FLYING’s print edition.