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A promo video of NBC Sports' one-hour special about the Reno National Championship Air Races that will be broadcast on March 27, 2016. RARA/Special to the RGJ

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The Reno Air Racing Association is literally hoping for clear skies this week as it celebrates more than a half century of its marquee event.

Early attendance numbers for the 53rd National Championship Air Races are tracking ahead of last year’s event by 10 percent, said Mike Crowell, president and CEO of the Reno Air Racing Association.

Attendance at the event last year grew by 8 percent to 150,000. Crowell hopes that attendance will range between 160,000 to 175,000 for this year’s event, which is taking place from Sept. 14 to 18 at Reno Stead Airport.

“The weather right now — knock on wood — looks good with beautiful mornings and nice afternoons,” Crowell said. “If we get great weather, I think we’ll see a boost in attendance.”

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The Reno Air Races also managed to get the Blue Angels to perform at the event for the first time since 2009, which, combined with micro-drone racing, should drum up additional interest in the event. A jump in attendance would be good news for an event that was hit by the one-two punch of a struggling economy and a tragic accident in 2011 that claimed the life of one pilot and 10 people while also injuring dozens. The tragedy put the event’s future in doubt, impacting not only attendance but the costs associated with holding the air races.

At one point, insurance for the event cost well over $2 million, Crowell said. This year, insurance is down to under $700,000 but the figure is still twice what it cost in 2005. Prize money will continue to total $1 million.

One piece of good news from last year involved the association’s bottom line as the event generated $100,000 in profit after initially projecting a $630,000 loss. The change in fortune was accomplished mostly through aggressive cost cutting. Crowell, however, expects this year to be different.

“We anticipate making at least twice as much as we did last year on the profit side,” Crowell said. “We’ll be putting some of that money away for a rainy day.”

The association also managed to pick up a new key sponsor just in time for this year’s event. Earlier this month, power equipment manufacturer STIHL committed to sponsor the air races for two years from 2016 to 2017. STIHL’s arrival is a big deal following the loss of former title sponsor Breitling.

What's new this year

The Reno Air Races also inked a deal for the first time with Costco to sell tickets for the event at 25 of its stores throughout the West. NBC Sports, which broadcast a one-hour special on March 27 about last year’s event, will make a return this year as well.

This time, NBC Sports plans to film material for three one-hour specials that will be shown two weeks apart next year, with the final special broadcasting in April. The idea is to get more eyeballs tuning in for the specials compared to this year’s lone Easter time slot, which was not quite ideal, Crowell said. The agreement entails significant cost for the Reno Air Racing Association, which is paying $400,000. Despite its limited finances, Crowell said the such deals are necessary to ensure the event’s future because local attendance is not enough to support it.

“Reno is growing by leaps and bounds but we still need to go outside of the local area for our survival,” Crowell said. “There’s still a huge audience out there that we haven’t touched.”

One way the association is trying to boost attendance is by adding drones to the mix. In addition to a “Drone Zone” exhibit, which is expected to draw 7,000 to 12,000 visitors this year, there also will be events involving smaller unmanned aircraft, including a micro-drone race that attendees can take part in. Event organizers wanted to have an event involving large drones as well but did not have enough time to comfortably comply with new Federal Aviation Administration drone rules released in August.

"Two weeks was not enough time to critically plan for it," said Warren "Bum" Rapp, business director of the Nevada Advanced Autonomous Systems Innovation Center at the University of Nevada, Reno. "But I can pretty much guarantee at this point that we'll have it for next year's event."

Large drones also will still be on display at the Drone Zone. Even without the large drone event, the 2016 air races have more than enough action with 130 planes taking part, according to Crowell. The aircraft run the gamut of classes including biplanes, Formula One, sport, T-6 and jets. There’s also the Unlimited class typically dominated by World War II fighters such as P-51 Mustangs and F-8F Bearcats.

Although popular, the Unlimited class has not seen much growth in recent years, largely because of the high costs associated with its aircraft, Crowell said. Getting an Unlimited plane working and ready for the event can cost anywhere between $3 million to $5 million, which is a challenge given the reduction in sponsorships, Crowell said.

Despite the challenges for event organizers and pilots, Crowell remains optimistic about the future of the event, which he considers an economic asset to the community.

“This event brings in $65 million in economic value to the city in a week, and those are hard numbers and not just pie in the sky projections,” Crowell said. “What we would like to see is an extremely safe race with no accidents and a good turnout where people come out and have good time.”

More about Reno Air Races

For more information on tickets, schedules and other details about the National Championship Air Races in Reno, visit http://airrace.org/. The entry fee for the Drone Zone air races is $40 and includes general admission to the National Championship Air Races on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Interested fliers should contact CKRC Hobbies at info@ckrchobbies.com or via phone at 775-786-7733.

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