The Adventures of Billy Possum

Reno or Bust, Another Attempt:
“Bomber” Heads for the Reno Air Races

By Bill J. Castenholz

Copyright 2007, Castenholz and Sons


Having gone to the Reno Air Races last year with my son Daniel and some of his friends, it seemed only fitting that in 2007, this year’s air races should be a “Bomber” affair.

Because of school, work and other commitments, neither my partner Mike nor any of the grandkids could go. And both Daniel and I were limited on time. So, it was decided to spend only Friday at the air races.

When the week of the races arrived, I greased “Bomber,” put two new tires on the front of the car and packed all of the usual tools and spare parts in the car.

The final plan of the trip was for me to leave Tuesday afternoon and drive to San Luis Obispo where Daniel and his family live. Wednesday Daniel and I would leave SLO and drive to Jackson in the “Gold Country.” Thursday would bring us to Reno. Friday we would spend all day at the air races, leaving just before the final race to miss the traffic and drive to Auburn, about 100 miles west of Reno. We would arrive back in San Luis Obispo on Saturday and on Sunday I would drive back home to Pacific Palisades, a suburb of Los Angeles.

Tuesday: Day One

“Bomber” packed and ready to go.

Tuesday, after a morning computer class, and then lunch, I kissed his wife Jeanette “goodbye” and headed for Daniel’s house in San Luis Obispo. And 194 miles later, “Bomber” and driver arrived at Daniel’s house. Total time: 5 hours and 30 minutes, including a stop for dinner and one gas stop. Or, better than 40 mph.

Wednesday: Day Two

Leaving San Luis Obispo. First stop: Drop Izzy off at school.

The first part of our drive was to drop off Isabella, Daniel’s youngest daughter, at school. This wasn’t much of a car trip for “Izzy” but it was the best we could do. Daniel’s other kids have all been on extended “Bomber” trips: Miles went from Chesterton, Indiana to Athens, Georgia; Anna went from Athens, Georgia to Fort Morgan, Colorado and Sam went from Fort Morgan to home in California.

After dropping “Izzy” at school we headed up the Questa Grade. It is not a long climb but it is steep and we were in second gear for about 3 or 4 miles. But soon we passed Atascadaro and at Paso Robles we turned east on highway 46. After reaching Interstate 5 we decided to go to Fresno and see our friends at Baskin’s Upholstery shop. They do some very nice work on auto interiors. Some of the hot rods we have seen there are trophy winners!

We said “Hi” to Dick and his son Bruce and then had lunch in downtown Fresno. Then back on the road, this time Highway 99. At Stockton we turned east on Highway 88 and began our approach to the Gold Country.

Nearing California’s Gold Country.

The Gold Country of California is one of the most beautiful parts of this great state. When the ’49ers came for gold, many came from the east and had to cross the Sierras. It is a very rugged climb over the mountains, especially after crossing the “Great Basin” of Nevada and Utah. But those gold seekers who came by sail around Cape Horn or across the isthmus of Panama entered the Gold Country from the west. They had the beautiful journey through golden straw and green trees of the rolling foothills west of the Sierras.

Today the road that passes through the main towns of the gold rush area is appropriately called Highway 49. It lies in the foothills of the Sierras, not far west of where the mountains begin to rise quickly to the ridges separating California from Nevada.

The rolling hills of the “Gold Country” are actually the foothills of the Sierras.

The “Gold Country” could have been named for the late Summer’s golden straw.

Golden straw, green scrub oak . . . and “Bomber.” What a beautiful sight .

We arrived in Jackson, the town that lies at the crossroads of Highway 88 and Highway 49, in the late afternoon.

Yesterday . . . and today. A 78 year-old car, a month-old phone and a 155 year-old hotel.
The National Hotel & Saloon, established in 1852, is in the background at right.

Thursday: Day Three

The main street of Jackson. A major town on Highway 49.
The beginning of another exciting day in “Bomber.”

After a leisure breakfast and a short stop at the fabulous Hein & Co. book store in Jackson’s old town, we rolled onto Highway 88 heading east again. It is interesting that reentering 88 was like turning onto a back country road - one lane each way, winding through dense trees and swerving around rock outcroppings. The road hardly looked like one that would take us over the mighty Sierras! One would have the feeling that little has changed in a hundred and fifty years except the asphalt and the occasional auto passing us. We traveled quite a ways before we noticed any appreciable grades. But then the scenery began to change from oak and brush to the colors of the evergreens.

Climbing up over the Sierras on Highway 88.

The scenery changes from moment to moment going over the mountains.

The drive over 88 went by rather quickly as we enjoyed the scenery. The views seemed to grow from a narrow world surrounded by trees, with the road in front of us as the only way out of the forests, to a growing panorama with miles and miles of mountains, lakes, trees and, of course, the ever-beckoning road. Driving “Bomber” can turn one into a white-line junkie.

Another brief rest for “Bomber” and its occupants.
Very near the summit at Carson Pass. Elevation: 8573’.

After passing Carson Summit, we descended rather rapidly down into Carson Valley, crossing the border into Nevada only after entering the valley. Carson Valley contains Minden and Gardnerville, two towns that began as separate little settlements but over the years have grown into what appears as one sizable city. There is Genoa, about 2 or 3 miles to the west, where 88 joins Highway 395. Genoa, formerly known as Mormon Station, is the oldest settlement in Nevada. But California wealth has moved in and now there are beautiful mansions in a planned community where only cow pastures existed a few short years ago when we first took “Bomber” there.

Lunch in Gardnerville was followed by a trip a couple of miles to the east of the main highway to see Lester Harris. His fabulous inventory of vintage auto parts surpasses just about anything we have encountered in over a quarter of a century of hunting parts.

It is always a delight to see Lester. We pilfered around his warehouse for a couple of hours before departing for Reno, via Carson City.

Having first become acquainted with Carson and Reno in the late 1940’s I can compare what these towns were back then to what they are now. Actually, my 8th grade graduation celebration was a trip to Carson City from Smith Valley, a tiny settlement about 50 miles southeast of Carson.

Where are the sleepy little towns of yesteryear? Carson City has traffic like a Los Angeles suburb. And Reno is criss-crossed with freeways, serving a growing sprawl that is impossible to compare to what it was even a few years ago.

In downtown Reno, using Daniel’s new phone as a map book, we found the freeway off-ramp and quickly located Virginia Street. Ah! There it was - the RENO sign at what used to be the northern end of Virginia. Years ago there were railroad tracks on the northern side of the cross street in front of the RENO sign but they are not there anymore.

We passed under the sign a couple of times. And once Daniel got out of the car so that he could take a picture of “Bomber” as it approached the sign.

Virginia Street in downtown Reno. The sign reads “Reno, The Biggest Little City in the World.”

Next we found our motel, unloaded our gear, and headed out to eat. After dinner we didn’t take long to spiral into oblivious sleep. It had been a long day: very enjoyable but tiring just the same.

And tomorrow we go to the air races!

Friday: Day Four

Even though the air races began early in the week they did not end until the final Unlimited Gold race on Sunday afternoon. The Unlimiteds are the“Big Boys,” the highly modified Mustangs, Bearcats and an occasional Yak or other WWII fighter. These are the planes that inspired the T-shirts with the signs “Reno, speed limit: 500 miles per hour.”

Our plan was to spend only Friday at the races. We would leave around 4 pm and then drive for a couple of hours over Interstate 80 which, when heading west, would carry us to Auburn, another town on Highway 49 in the Gold Country.

The day began about 7 am. First thing: Oh no! A hole in my sock. Being well equipped with an extra carburetor, spare generator, fuel pump, rear axle, head gasket (in fact, most of the gaskets for the engine), light bulbs, tranny and differential grease, chassis grease gun, generator cut-out, all of the internals for the distributor, nuts and bolts, not to mention all of the tools we normally carry on a trip, it was obvious that we would have a needle and thread!

Early Friday morning. If my wife caught me mending sox she wouldn’t think
I am as helpless as she does. That could mean BIG trouble!

We arrived at the Reno Stead Airfield about 8 O’clock, found a reasonable parking spot and soon we were in the racing grounds. A race was in progress, involving small biplanes.

The grandstands are on the south side of the field and the pylons that the planes race around are immediately in front of the stands. The total course is about 8 miles long. Taking our seats in the stands, we watched some planes flying around but soon decided to walk down to the static displays: beautifully preserved and restored planes of all vintages, war birds of WWII and the Air Force’s display of some of their current fighters, including an F15, F16 and F18. The KC135 refueling tanker was also very interesting to walk through.

The static display of planes included this Air Force F18 fighter jet.

Dan was obviously having a great time. We were able to go through the KC135 in the background.

An F15. Spectators were able not only to looky-looky but touchy-touchy.

A beautifully restored vintage airplane powered by a 3 cylinder radial engine.

This is the kind of airplane you keep in your living room. It was awesomely flawless.

Just like a 1929 Chevrolet, the Mustang always impresses the observer.

The static displays were at the east end of the field and that was directly across from the first turn of the race course. Daniel and I were completely consumed with the static planes when a race of Formula 1 planes began. They are tiny as planes go, but quite fast. One of these planes would easily fit in a modest-sized living room.

As the planes entered the first turn someone yelled out “They hit!”

I looked up to see debris in the sky and a huge cloud of dust rising up. One of the planes had apparently moved in front of another and the resulting collision left the forward plane without any control. Travelling at several hundred miles per hour, it plunged directly into the desert floor from an altitude of perhaps a hundred feet. The other plane survived and landed. We had just observed the third fatality in about as many days. In the history of the air races in Reno this was the most costly week ever.

I believe it was the FAA that ruled out all racing for the remainder of the day.

“Strega.” The highly modified Merlin engine has it’s valve covers removed.
There’s a lot of rockers up there on that V12.

Daniel and I spent the rest of the morning down at the pits, looking at everything from the miniature Formula 1’s to the super unlimiteds. The famous racing planes were there: Rare Bear, Strega, Dago Red and many more. Sadly, there was an empty pit at the end of the Formula 1 area.

The Snow Birds, the Canadian Air Force Aerobatic Team.
The starting tower for racing is in the foreground.

The Canadian Team put on an exceptional display of precision flying.

The grand finale reminded me of a 4th of July fireworks display.

Normally, intermingled with the racing are many displays of stunt and precision flying. And although the racing had been cancelled for the day, there were the expected skilful performances such as a small single-engined plane which flew to a height of perhaps 5000 feet and then shut down its engine. For several minutes the pilot spun and looped the plane before landing precisely where he intended, all dead-stick.

Another pilot, during his stunt exercises, put his plane into a stall, falling backwards and then recovering. This was repeated over and over. The stunts were truly amazing.

About 1:30 in the afternoon Daniel said he was ready to leave whenever I was ready. So we walked back to the car and left the race grounds. Soon we were on the freeway heading south and then through the interchange to the West bound Interstate 80.

Flash back: Sometimes I wonder how anyone survives being 13 years old.

When I was about 5 years old my Mom and Dad divorced. Just before my 8th birthday Mom became very sick and my Dad took me to live with him and his new wife. One day my Dad’s wife phoned Dad in Reno (He had gone “back on the road” with the Civil Aeronautics Administration [CAA]). She must have said something like “I’ve had it with Billy. He will be on a bus this evening. Pick him up at the Reno Grayhound station in the morning.” The school year wasn’t quite finished but for the next few month I lived in a government bunk house on the very top of Donner Summit, roamed the streets of Reno, searched the great Nevada desert for coyote skulls and Indian artifacts, fished the Truckee River and sometimes just killed time. I had just turned 13 years old.

For some reason I can’t explain, I have returned many times to the places that I knew as a 13-year-old. When “Bomber” took us across the Nevada desert to places like Battle Mountain, Elko, Lovelock and then to Smith Valley it was a trip of nostalgia (See Part 4 of our trip around the country in 2003-4).

Back to the Present: Well, once again I returned to the Reno, Truckee, Donner area. Only this time it was with Daniel, my oldest son.

The condition of Interstate 80, as we approached Donner Summit from the east, was appalling.
We estimated that the ruts were up to 2 inches deep in places. Governor Schwarzenegger take note!

We had planned to go up the old Donner Pass road but somehow missed getting off Interstate 80 until we were committed to going up the new highway. What we encountered was a major American highway in an extraordinary state of disrepair. Apparently, during the winter, the trucks with tire chains have caused the surface of the concrete to be eroded away. And cracks in the concrete have filled with water, which when frozen, opened up to let more water in, and so on to such an extent that severe fissured criss-crossed the right lane of the highway. And there is no way that “Bomber” could drive up the grade fast enough to move out of far right lane. So, bumpity, bumpity we went.

Fortunately a couple of miles up from where the grade began there was a turn-off to Donner Lake and we took it.

A brief rest for “Bomber” and its occupants. Daniel had not been on the old Donner Summit road before.

After a few minutes at the side of the lake we began the climb up the old Donner Summit road.

Climbing as fast as we were, the scenery changes very rapidly.

Towering mountains, railroad snow sheds . . . and “Bomber” faithfully taking us to the summit.

Old Donner Summit road. The country is bigger than life.

Donner Lake as we climbed to the summit on the old road.

Notice the modern sheds that protect the trains from snow avalanches.

As we proceeded up from Donner Lake we could see the modern tunnels (really concrete sheds) that protect the trains from snow and avalanches during the severe time of winter. I recall, in 1948, seeing the huge cab-forwards, sometimes in double headers, puffing up the Donner grade. Back then the snow sheds were wood and the slats on the top of the sheds were spaced such that you could see the puff-puff-puff as the smokestacks of the giant steam engines passed under the spaces in the slats.

Climbing the Donner grade . . . about to cross the picturesque bridge about half a mile from the summit.

Looking east toward Donner Lake from the Old Donner Summit road.

We came to the old bridge, a really beautiful design. And looking back from the road above the bridge we saw a breathtaking view of Donner Lake and beyond, almost to Truckee.

All that remains of the Civil Aeronautics Administration broadcasting station on Donner Summit.

The foundation of the old CAA bunkhouse. As a 13 year-old-boy, Bill lived here for several weeks in 1948.

Reaching the summit of the old road we parked “Bomber” and hiked up the little knoll to where the CAA transmitting station used to be. And 75 yards or so beyond the remains of the station was the old concrete slab of the bunkhouse. You can’t go back in time . . . but you can drive your old Chevy. That’s even better! You get the best of both worlds.

After a few minutes on Donner Summit Daniel and I got back in “Bomber” and headed west again. We had dinner just east of Sacramento and then proceeded down to Stockton for the night.

One thing we noticed on the drive from Sacramento to Stockton: the sun had set and it really got dark. The lights on “Bomber” use the usual 32 candle power bulbs. But on Interstate 5 they just didn’t seem adequate. Then, when we pulled off for the night in Stockton, I realized that I had on my dark glasses all of the time!

Saturday: Day Five


“At this rate we might get home yet .”

The next morning, Saturday, we had breakfast and then continued on down Interstate 5. It must be one of the nations straightest, least interrupted roads - very few roadside stops or businesses, almost no towns. Just a gazillion 18-wheelers doing 70 miles an hour. However, “Bomber” joined right in, although at only 50 to 55 mph. Still it was very enjoyable driving.

235 miles of Interstate 5. It all looks the same - flat, straight and with very few roadside stops.

We turned west at Avenal and by late afternoon we were headed down the Questa grade just north of San Luis Obispo.

The beginning of the steep Questa down grade, heading south, only a few miles north of San Luis Obispo.

We arrived back at Daniel & Shari’s home in time to take the whole family out for dinner. It was a very pleasant evening with my son and his family but I said “Goodbye” that evening because my plan was to leave early the next morning.

The alarm was set for 5 pm but I awoke and checked the clock. It said 4:22 am. I layed back in bed and thought “I’d rather be driving “Bomber” than sleeping.” So I got up, got dressed and loaded my bags in the car. Usually it takes about 5 minutes to warm up “Bomber’s” engine. But this morning I immediately eased up the driveway and onto the road. My watch read 4:55. Over the next 10 minutes or so I began moving up the speed as the oil warmed up and the pressure came down. A stop for gas in Arroyo Grande and “we” were on the freeway (Highway 101).

Sunday: Day Six

One of my very favorite views - the sun coming up over “Bomber’s” proud hood.
Early Sunday morning on Pacific Coast Highway north of Santa Barbara.

Soon we passed Santa Maria but in Boulton I stopped to wipe mist from the windows. It was there that I noticed one of the screws that holds down the headlight stanchions was loose. A dime just fit the slot and after tightening the screw, we were back on the road. That loose screw was the only “repair” made on the whole trip!

It was just after reaching the coast at Gaviota that the sun peeked up from behind the coastal hills. This is always a favorite time when driving the old Chevy.

“Bomber” didn’t make another stop until Oxnard. Once gassed up, the next stop was home. It was just a few minutes before 9:30 am when I pulled into my driveway. As always, it was good to be home.

The entire trip had encompassed 1390 miles.

Starting with a full tank of gas and counting to the last gas stop, “Bomber” averaged 15.941 miles per gallon. That included crossing the Sierras twice!

Do we . . .

. . . need to say any more!