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The race course at Reno Stead field is actually several courses overlaid on the same piece of ground. The various courses are all roughly ovoid with seven to ten course pylons and additional guide pylons. All courses share a southern stretch that runs along the north side of Stead Field's east-west runway directly in front of the pits and grandstands.
Note: The race course measurement method was changed after discussion with the Class Presidents in 2003, before the 2003 National Championship Air Races. The new course measurement method uses a constant-g curved path around the pylons at speeds considered typical of each class, and is intended to provide a more accurate measure of actual aircraft speeds during a race. The new course also has an entry point for the T-6 class down the same "chute" as the Unlimited Class on the east side of the course [T-6 racers previously entered the course from the north on the west side]. Updated race course layouts are provided on the pages for each class of racing aircraft.
Beginning in 2006, the T-6 course entry point was changed again. The race course entry "chute" for the T-6 class is now over the approach end of Runway 8, so racing aircraft enter the course over Stead Field's main east-west runway heading eastbound.
The pylons – "sticks" and "cans"
The pylons are actually telephone poles about 50 feet tall [the "sticks"], with specially made, marked drums [the "cans"] mounted at their tops. Many of the pylons have bright orange-red panels to increase their visibility to pilots, who may be traveling anywhere from 150 to almost 500 mph as they circle the race course.
The Home Pylon, clad in blue-and-white checkered panels, marks the finish line for every lap and race. It is attached to a concrete pad by removable large pins so the pylon can be swung down and laid on the ground, which is where it spends all of its time, except during the Pylon Racing Seminar in June and Race Week in September when it stands just across the runway from the Reserved Seating Grandstands.
Guide pylons are located along the longer legs of the Unlimited, Sport, and Jet Class race course to provide pilots additional clues as to the best line to fly towards the next pylon.
Manning each pylon on the race course, and positioned at various other locations to report deadline cuts or other infractions of the race rules, are the pylon judges. Many of the pylon judges have been in the role for decades, and as a group, the pylon judges comprise the most experienced volunteers at the Air Races.
Pylon judges endure long hours "at the sticks" in all kinds of weather. Their main job is to ensure that racing aircraft remain to the outside of the pylons and above the minimum altitude prescribed in the rules. During each race, the judges gather at the base of each pylon, looking directly up through the can mounted on the top. If any part of a racing aircraft appears "inside the can" a pylon cut has occurred.
If, at the end of the race, the judges at that pylon unanimously agree that a cut has occurred, they report the aircraft's race number, which pylon was cut, and on which lap to the scorer by radio. The scorer then makes adjustments to the offending aircraft's official time and standing in the race, according to the penalties described in the rules for that racing class.
The ground above which the pilots fly is high desert — tough and dry, with mostly sagebrush and some desert grasses hugging the rocky ground. The elevation of the race course varies slightly from about 4900 ft MSL to just above 5100 ft MSL at the north side of the Unlimited course. The land inside the race course is crisscrossed by roads that support rapid access to most areas by emergency vehicles which are stationed at various locations.