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Race Director DiMatteo Flies from Top Gun Past into ‘Smoke On’ Present

The message sounds simple when Race Director Jim DiMatteo gives the “Smoke on” command over the radio to a pilot during a Red Bull Air Race run.

But in reality, those words will translate to so much more than flipping a cockpit switch to add some white puffs to the sky during the Red Bull Air Race on Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

As DiMatteo explains the elaborate complexity of this key communication and its many meanings, it’s quickly understood why he’s highly regarded as a decorated former U.S. Navy fighter pilot. Think “Top Gun” the 1986 movie, but DiMatteo achieved so much more than the cocky, young fighter pilots portrayed by actors Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer.

Before he had the pleasure of an extension on aviation life with this international aerobatic racing series, DiMatteo, 56, of San Diego, devoted nearly three decades of his life to flying fighters. The American of proud Italian descent with a military call sign “Guido” is the only pilot to log almost 5,000 hours in five iconic aircraft — the F-14 Tomcat, F/A-18 Hornet, A-4 Skyhawk, F-5N Tiger II and F-16N Fighting Falcon.

After training at the Navy Fighter Weapons School, known as TOPGUN, he returned as an instructor and was the first in history to command the TOPGUN Adversary squadrons on both the east and west coasts. He retired as a captain in 2013. In March, he was inducted into the Palm Springs Air Museum Hall of Fame for demonstrating “The Best of the Best.”

So what does “Smoke on” really mean, in DiMatteo’s words? He first compares the command to what might be radioed to a fighter pilot, “425 Hornet Ball 3.5.”

“That means 425 is his side number, Hornet Ball means he’s a Hornet and that he’s got a Meatball, our visual landing system, and 3.5 would be 3,500 pounds of fuel,” DiMatteo said on Friday. “I say ‘Roger Ball,’ which means a whole bunch of things. ‘Roger,’ meaning, ‘Yeah, I get it.’ ‘Ball,’ which means I get you, I see the glide scope indicator so you can land safely. I also establish two-way communication so he knows that I know he’s talking to me and I’m talking to him. It’s also clearance to land.”

Now apply that detailed explanation to “Smoke on.”

“In that same vernacular, ‘Smoke on’ means I’ve established communications with the pilot,” he said. “I see that if he puts his smoke on that he has heard me. It also tells him he’s cleared onto the track, meaning the track is ready for him to come and race, he’s cleared to race.

“From a ‘Smoke on’ perspective, it also helps us follow him through. It’s not just pretty for TV, which it is, but it actually helps us from a safety perspective follow the trajectory of the plane a little bit easier. You might not know if he’s climbing or descending. If you see a smoke trail, you definitely know. All of those reasons is why we say, ‘Smoke on,’ and it’s come into the communication world of #smokeon.”

While Red Bull Air Race grand marshal A.J. Foyt, the motorsports racing legend and first four-time Indianapolis 500 winner, is expected to give a ceremonial “Smoke on” command to start today’s event at IMS, DiMatteo will be on the radio the rest of the day to ensure a safe and competitive race.

“I love it,” DiMatteo said. “I’ve had this incredible blessing to be part of this growing, competitive aviation sport in a role that is very similar to being like a squadron commanding officer.”

His affinity for airplanes began at an early age. His 97-year-old father, Dominic, and older brother, David, also were pilots. Dominic, after whom Jim’s 15-year-old son is named, served for three decades as a U.S. Navy fighter pilot with more than 7,000 flight hours, 600 carrier landings and service in three wars, World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

As Jim’s career literally took off, he shared experiences with his father, which would trigger memories. Dominic shared experiences that blew his son’s mind.

“He would say something unbelievable because that’s the world they lived in back then,” DiMatteo said. “But it wasn’t boastful. It was old generation. Our bond would get even closer. I still to this day idolize my father.”

And he recalls one time when his brother made quite an impression.

“One of my wow moments was when we were at our summer place in Montana, and my brother came by in an A-6 attack jet and buzzed us and did probably an illegal mini air show,” DiMatteo said. “As a high school boy, I thought, ‘OK, that is cool.’”

He’ll impart the same advice to his son that was bestowed upon him.

“I’m very proud to be a part of naval aviation and was just very, very fortunate in my career in my fighter pilot world to take after my father and my older brother,” DiMatteo said. “They didn’t push because it’s not just the glamour and the movie type of stuff.

“It was presented in the sense of this is a wonderful career should you choose to go down that path and have the right stuff. I’ve known people who are fantastic athletes, but they’re bad fighter pilots. And I’ve known guys who were OK athletes, and they were great fighter pilots. But if you do have it, you tend to be very proud to be a part of that family. I’m extremely proud to be a part of the naval aviation, aircraft carrier, fighter pilot world and family. To be honest, after spending 30 years in that, for 99.9 percent of the people, when that ends it’s over.”

That’s what makes being race director for the Red Bull Air Race series so special.

“Uniquely, this Red Bull Air Race is probably the only thing in the world that is somewhat similar to being a Navy fighter pilot in the sense that there’s a squadron-like camaraderie that’s among the pilots,” he said. “It’s not just aviation like in an air show, it’s actually flying the aircraft to the limits of your capability and skill set and the capability of the airplane in a competitive role, which is like dogfighting. I try to fly my plane the best of my ability to beat you.

“My specific role as a race director is very analogous to when I was a fighter pilot. We have on aircraft carriers what we call landing signal officers. Every fourth day, I would go to the back of the aircraft carrier and I would stand and help guide the pilots onto the aircraft carrier. Because it’s a competitive thing, there’s a similar type of, ‘I don’t want to give them sugar calls and coach them into doing better.’ I want to let them do as well as they can, but then have a certain aperture, if you will, that allows for some deviation but not too far for a safety issue. Let them make a mistake or two because it’s a sport and a competition, but you don’t want a judge or a referee or a coach influencing that.”

So “Smoke on,” pilots.

Red Bull Air Race action continues Sunday at IMS. The Challenger Class race starts at 11:45 a.m. The Master Class Round of 14 starts at 1:05 p.m., followed by the Round of 8 at 3:05 p.m. and the Final 4 at 3:35 p.m.

Red Bull Air Race tickets are available at Children 15 and under are admitted free to general admission areas Sunday when accompanied by an adult general admission ticket holder.

A variety of World of Red Bull athletes will demonstrate their skills Sunday, both in the air and on the ground. Performers include Geoff Aaron (motorcycle trials riding), Aaron Colton (motorcycle street freestyle riding), Robbie Maddison (freestyle motocross with the SCSUNLIMITED team), Luke Aikins and Miles Daisher (Red Bull Air Force Skydive Team), Aaron Fitzgerald (The Flying Bulls aerobatic helicopter), Jim Peitz (aerobatic airplane) and Pal Takats (paragliding).

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