MX-5 Cup Flyers

Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup staff and competitors share their skies as they pursue the hobby of flying.

Now that the SCCA Pro Racing Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich® Tires season is over, participants can turn their attention to hobbies as they take a break before they start preparing for next season with the all-new MX-5 Cup car. For some, that hobby is flying, a common avocation for many racers.

The common threads that bind the two activities have been around since the earliest creation of both activities. The drivers and staffers of the MX-5 Cup are no different in their interest in both activities. The symbiotic relationship between manned flight and motorsports goes back to the early 20th century. The birth of the aeronautical and automotive industries occurred during the first couple years just prior to the turn of the century, but would take solid root in the years after 1900. During two world wars, both modes of transportation saw staggering growth. Both airplanes and automobiles moved from being constructed by shade tree mechanics, to being assembled in factories. That trend was simply hastened during the 1930s and 40s.

As our world moved into a more mechanically dependent age, people looked for ways to further enjoy the brave new world. During tumultuous years of world-wide war, young men were pressed into service of their homelands – many at the controls of a bomber or fighter airplane. Young men and women found a certain daredevil thrill in piloting these relatively new crafts. During peacetime, the need for qualified pilots was not as widespread, leaving many adventuresome people with time on their hands. In many cases, those young people turned to motorsports as a way to feed the desire for adrenaline.

So it’s not surprise that the parallels between the two motorized activities continues. Zach Lee, driver of the No. 12 ALARA Racing MX-5, and Jim Averett, the series Chief Stewart, both have logged several hours behind the controls of a racecar and at the stick of an airplane.
Averett started his career flying in the military and later became a commercial and private pilot.

“When I was in college I learned that the Air Force ROTC would teach you to fly if you signed up; so I did,” Averett said. “I started in college then went right into Air Force pilot training. I spent the rest of my time in the Air Force as a T-38 Instructor Pilot. After that, I flew sightseeing tours over the Grand Canyon for Lear Jet charter out of Southern California; then I spent 26 years with Delta Air Lines.

“I built a plane, an RV-8, which took three years, that I still fly along with a Beech Bonanza that we’ve had since 2001. We live in an airport community so all we have to do is walk out to our hangar and go.”

Lee’s flight experience does not have the military background, but is impressive in its own right.

“I started in a Cessna 172 single-engine trainer and worked my way up the single-engine chain,” Lee said. “After the Cessna, I flew a Diamond DA-40, then a Beechcraft Bonanza and stepped up to a Mooney Acclaim. I briefly flew a twin-engine piston airplane called a Diamond DA-42.
“Then, I got serious and started flying twin engine jets. I had an Eclipse 500 for a few years. I now fly a Swiss-made single-engine turboprop called a Pilatus PC-12.”

So, what is it that draws folks who are pilots to racing and vice versa? Lee does a pretty good job of summing up the similarities.
“Flying is this really cool mixture of motorsports, physics, mechanics and computers,” Lee said. “The stick and rudder skills that are really important in flying are similar to wheel and pedal skills in racing. The ability to visually judge your position relative to the runway and your approach path is similar to the ability to feel when you are too deep into a corner, or you are over-slowing. I think there is a lot of similarities in the hand/eye, hand/foot coordination skills in the two disciplines.

“There is also overlap in the engineering side; for example, modern planes all have ‘data acquisition’ systems on them to measure flight control surface deflection and engine parameters a lot like the AiM systems in our cars. The physics of flight are parallel to the physics of race car cornering. Understanding what a front camber adjustment does to a race car is kind of like knowing how adverse yaw affects an airplane.”
Averett echoed much of the same characteristics that Lee had, and added some thoughts of his own.

“I think the main shared trait between pilots and race car drivers is a natural man/machine interface,” Averett said. “Some people have a natural feel for making a machine perform to its maximum ability. In a race car, you have to be able to feel the maximum performance limit of the car. If you don’t, your opponent is going to pass you. In a fighter-type aircraft, if you don’t get the maximum out of your craft, the bad guy is going to get you in his sights!

“Both endeavors require feel. You can’t become good at either by rote. In the early stages of training, both require good coaching. Probably the most important is that both require passion. I’ve flown with lots of pilots in my career. I would consider the good ones were very passionate about flying; I think the same can be said of racecar drivers.”

Both individuals had interesting stories regarding their interest in flight.

“I started flying in my mid 30s after many years of racing,” Lee said. “The excitement and the adventure were very familiar to me because of my racing background. After I started flying, I wondered why I started so late. Once you learn to fly, you feel like a sucker when you are stuck on the ground. There are very few things as transforming as being in an aircraft by yourself at night alone in the sky with the stars.”

“My dad was a B-17 pilot during WWII so I grew up with him telling stories about flying,” Averett said. “I think I decided I wanted to be a pilot when I was about six.

“I, like most American males, developed a love for cars at an early age. My family was not a bit interested in racing. Until the days that they died, my parents felt that people went to races just to see crashes! I finally got into a financial position where I could afford to go racing. I started in Formula Vee and ended in Formula Continental. My wife Madeline was my only crewmember so we were never what you would call a big operation.”