After dreaming of it since childhood and chasing it for 30 years, five-time space shuttle astronaut Robert “Hoot” Gibson rode a different kind of rocket to win the Unlimited Gold in Reno’s National Championship Air Races. Flying Tiger Destefani’s severely modified Mustang Strega, with more wins in its column than any other raceplane in history, Gibson dove into the course on the inside position, and pounded around the first of eight laps at 503 mph, just ahead of six-time Unlimited champion Steve Hinton in last year’s Gold winner Voodoo. Hinton had the formidable F8F Bearcat Rare Bear breathing down his neck in third place. On lap number 2, a 498-mph adrenalin-pumper with all three airplanes battling for first position, Gibson felt the pressure. “Steven Hinton was right behind me, and I had to fly a perfect course,” he told the media swarm who encircled him when he hopped down from the Mustang after the checkered flag. “I had to concentrate. I couldn’t make a mistake. I couldn’t cut a pylon. Steve Hinton is too good a pilot.” He also said several times, “I can’t believe I’m standing here.”
On the third lap, after Gibson had widened the distance between his airplane and Hinton in second place, Hinton pulled Voodoo up and out of the race. Word is that the airplane was leaking oil. The last five turns around the pylons were all high-speed victory laps for Gibson and Strega. (Hinton landed safely.) By the end, even die-hard Voodoo fans and Rare Bear loyalists, screaming “Bear!” as the big Bearcat chased Strega around the course, were on their feet for Gibson. In a long career in air racing—his first race at Reno was in 1984, while he was still a NASA astronaut—Gibson had barely knocked on the door marked “championship title.” Flying yeoman’s service in Mike Keenum’s Mustang Riff Raff, he achieved a respectable record, usually ending in the middle of the pack. He came closest in 2012 with Rod Lewis’ Hawker Sea Fury 232. This year, when it came his turn, Gibson didn’t bother knocking. In Strega, he just broke the door down.