Imagine crawling into the tiny cockpit of a 520-pound airplane—that is a tad more than ten percent of the average SUV’s weight. Then think about taking the plane into the sky, where it will race with other aircraft on a course marked off by pylons while traveling at speeds of more than 200 miles per hour.
That’s exactly what Jon Sharp did in Formula One contests throughout the 20th century’s last decade. For more than nine years, the pilot triumphed in 47 of 50 races aboard his Sharp DR 90 Nemesis and won nine consecutive national championships in the Formula One class. After retiring that airplane in 1999 and donating it to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, Sharp and his wife Patricia brought to life, a newer, faster sibling to the original Nemesis—the Nemesis NXT, which is also now held in the museum’s collections. Both serve as sleek and colorful symbols of what air racers can achieve.
The Sharp DR90 Nemesis will be representing air racing in the upcoming exhibition, “Nation of Speed,” curated by Jeremy Kinney, and on view when the Air and Space Museum reopens this fall. The show, which includes examples of speed on land and on water, as well as above the Earth, Kinney says, will be “an exciting opportunity to talk about a story that transcends not only the museum but also American history, and this idea of speed and the American fascination with fast-moving technology.”
Whether we look at an Indianapolis 500 racecar, a NASCAR racer, air racing, land speed records, motorcycles, he says; “it’s that idea of people, stories and technology.”
History of air racing
As in many facets of American life, there have been great advances in air racing during the 20th and 21st centuries. (Read this related story about the record-shattering airplane that launched Rosco Turner's meteoric rise to fame.)
“The 1920s and ‘30s witnessed the rise of air racing as a national and international pastime, and World War II cut that off,” says Kinney. After the fighting had ended, the sport built a growing and passionate American following in the late 1940s, when it was centered in the Cleveland area.
Then, there was a crash in 1949 that effectively ended the competition. Pilot Bill Odom’s World War II fighter crashed into a house in the Cleveland suburb of Berea, killing Odom as well as a mother and child. This tragic accident led to bans on air racing.
“It’s not until 1964 that officially sanctioned air racing in all different classes really forms again in what was then a very desolate place—Reno, Nevada,” Kinney says. The National Championship Air Races and Air Show became “a mecca for air racing,” attracting hundreds of thousands of people each September. “There’s a very distinct culture that’s in the spirit of the 1930s of that popularity, that awe and wonder, and the speed of it.”
Reno National Championships
In the national championship, pilots fly six laps on a course ranging from three to eight miles and marked by 32-foot-high pylons. Each pilot must fly above and beyond every pylon. The winner is the pilot who has the highest score when penalties for errors are subtracted from the speed. The sport, of course, is hazardous, Kinney says: “All racing is dangerous, and you add the third dimension here.” (A Reno crash in 2011 killed nine people, including spectators and the pilot. Jon Sharp called it a great loss for the air-racing community of about 120 Americans.)
However, danger does not necessarily imply recklessness. Tech inspectors look for signs of potential failure before races, and pilots must attend racing school to learn how to skirt the pylons and maintain a high speed with maximum safety while flying close to other racers. For those who love it, air racing becomes a passion. “This is their lifestyle in many ways, and that means they carry it over decades and years, so that they grow with it,” says Kinney.
Building a Formula One racer
Before his racing career, Sharp was a materials engineer at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works, where he worked on some of the nation’s most-advanced military planes. When he bought his own plane, he did not intend to race. Nonetheless, when approached by another racer about competing, he jumped into the fray. Over time, he and Patricia, who became an accomplished composite fabricator in the process, pulled together Team Nemesis, a collection of experts and race crew. The first Nemesis was a single-seat monoplane composed of lightweight pressure-molded graphite epoxy foam core that was sandwiched together, and it was powered by a 100 horsepower air-cooled engine.
Through 1996, Team Nemesis captured a surprising record of 30 consecutive victories. In addition, the racer set a world record on a three-kilometer course in August 1993 at 277.26 mph and again in 1996 at 283.75 mph. Over the course of the 1990s, Sharp became the greatest champion in the history of air racing. Continual tweaking of its aerodynamics is credited for the plane’s unmatched success. After retiring the aircraft, the Sharps decided to try to build a racer that was even more formidable.
The team began work on the new racer in 2000, creating a computerized design that enabled the team to fly the plane in a simulation before it had been built. Patricia Sharp used her composite designs to fabricate parts, and others assembled and fine-tuned those parts. The plane is primarily made of molded carbon fiber, which is cured in an oven for eight and a half hours. The fiber is flexible, lightweight and 10 times stronger than steel. Plane parts are not bolted together: They are glued with a strong adhesive.
The Nemesis NXT flew for the first time on July 10, 2004. Jon Sharp spoke for his team, telling a documentary maker, “I think we’re all equally terrified.”
This single-engine plane, the Nemesis NXT, would fit into a new racing category—the sport class.
“The sport class was created to reflect late 20th-century innovations in personal airplanes,” says Kinney. Much like the way auto racing bolstered safety innovations in passenger cars. “If you race these sport class airplanes, you’re going to learn more about how to make airplanes safer, faster, more efficient.”
Because rules for the new class required that participating planes be available for consumers to purchase, this Nemesis was built with a kit that could be sold to other fliers. While air racers are still built to achieve maximum speed with minimum engine power, this plane weighs 1,600 pounds.
“NXT carries two people," says Kinney. "The idea is that it’s not just for flying around pylons to win a race; you can fly cross-country.” Much like a sports car, “when you’re not racing it, it’s about enjoying it.” Furthermore, it is the first airplane that travels at 400 mph and can be assembled by a buyer in his own garage.
The team set out “to evolve to a higher level of racing,” Jon Sharp said. Its path to race victories was littered with shakedown problems. The plane collapsed on landing while qualifying for Reno’s 2004 races, and the pilot had to withdraw during the 2005 championship race because of vibrations that suggested parts might fly off.
Nemesis NXT triumphs
Nevertheless, the team met its goal: Nemesis NXT triumphed at the National Championship Air Races in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009. In the final year, it established five speed records and achieved the highest velocity in the competition—415.75 mph. A year earlier, it had become the first kit-built airplane to exceed 400 mph. “If you’ve got to have two Rembrandts in your collection to be a museum, two Sharp airplanes are an equivalent of that in terms of the art and the design and achievement,” Kinney asserts. Like successful auto racers, Team Nemesis has attracted sponsors who support the sport.
The Nemesis NXT was retired from racing in 2010. The pilot, who left racing at the same time, had collected 15 national championships. However, neither the man nor the plane stopped flying and striving for speed goals. On October 1, 2015, they set a world record for flying over a 100-kilometer closed course, with a speed of 397.40 mph. For that achievement, Sharp and Team Nemesis were awarded the Most Memorable Aviation Records award of 2015. At the same record-setting 2015 event, the team established four additional world speed records recognized by the National Aeronautic Association and the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
And the story did not end there. In 2021, Nemesis Air Racing proudly announced that Rolls-Royce and Project Accel, a joint project of Rolls-Royce and battery system designer Electroflight, chose the Nemesis NXT kit to modify and use in a fruitful attempt to create the world’s fastest electric plane. Called the Spirit of Innovation, the plane appeared at its first international show in April 2022 at Germany’s Aero Friedrichshafen. Its top recorded speed was 388 mph.
Today, the Sharps act as consultants for other racers. Kinney says that the couple are “a husband-and-wife team who had this dream, this vision of winning and developing the technology for competition that they really bring that story into the 21st century, and then do it with 21st-century technologies and a mindset that shows how vibrant air racing can be.” Sharp’s often-repeated philosophy about racing is: “Chase the dream, not the competition.”
The Nemesis DR90 will be on view along with Roscoe Turner’s record-shattering RT-14 Meteor in the exhibition “Nation of Speed” at the National Air and Space when it reopens this fall, debuting its newly renovated west wing galleries. The Nemesis NXT is on view at the museum's Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.