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Pilots Fly Interesting Variety of Career Routes to Red Bull Air Race World Championship

The road to the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil is clear for most young drivers.

Start in karting or quarter-midgets. Work up to open-wheel formula training series or short-track midgets and sprint cars. Race in one or all of the three Mazda Road to Indy series, the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires.

Show special talent in those series, catch a break here or there, and one of the 33 spots in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” could be the reward.

Aerobatic racing has a similar ladder system – although with fewer defined rungs – for pilots working their way up to the Red Bull Air Race World Championship. The 2017 season finale for the world’s most prestigious air racing series takes place Oct. 14-15 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The Red Bull Air Race World Championship is divided into two classes, the premier Master Class and the final training ground for the series, the Challenger Class. The Challenger Class planes are slightly slower and less nimble than their Master Class cousins, but not by much.

Fourteen Master Class and six Challenger Class pilots will fly on a course above the IMS oval infield. Planes race against the clock at low altitude while exceeding 200 mph and encountering forces of up to 10 G’s, navigating a low-level slalom track marked by 82-foot-high, air-filled pylons called Air Gates.

Pilots turn as quickly and efficiently as possible without pulling more than 10 G’s in the vertical turn maneuver before flying toward the next gate. Penalties are assessed for hitting the Air Gates, for speed and altitude violations or for not flying in the proper formation through certain Air Gates. The quickest pilot against the clock in each round wins.

American pilot Kevin Coleman is in his second year in the Challenger Class. He’s also an avid Verizon IndyCar Series fan. So explaining the differences between the Master Class and Challenger Class came easily to Coleman.

“The Challenger Class of the Red Bull Air Race is like the Indy Lights series,” Coleman said. “The Master Class would be the IndyCar Series.”

The Red Bull Air Race World Championship debuted in 2003, but the Challenger Class training ground wasn’t established until 2014. It is designed to give highly experienced pilots their first taste of air racing in a safe, controlled environment while learning the skills needed to climb to the Master Class and become a World Champion.

“The Challenger Cup is absolutely vital for the Red Bull Air Race in terms of people stepping up to the Master Class,” Race Director and Head of Training Steve Jones said. “But I think it could stand on its own. Not only is it a feeder series, but it's also a great competition. We have such a high caliber of pilot taking part.”

Before arriving in either the Master Class or Challenger Class of the Red Bull Air Race World Championship, pilots accrue hours of experience of training and competition at other venues. American Master Class standout and two-time Red Bull Air Race World Champion Kirby Chambliss, 57, raced motocross as a youth in his native Texas and began flying at age 13. He then started working as a night freight pilot before becoming the youngest commercial pilot for Southwest Airlines, at age 24. Chambliss became interested in aerobatic flying in his early 20s while also working as a private business jet pilot, and he already was practicing aerobatic flying in small planes when he became a Southwest captain at age 28.

Chambliss’ aerobatics career began in 1985, and he won five U.S. National Championships in the Unlimited Level. He was the 2000 Freestyle World Champion and has won 13 World Championship medals. He has flown in the Red Bull Air Race World Championship since its inception in 2003, winning the series championship in 2004 and 2006 and becoming one of the top aerobatic pilots in history.

There was no Challenger Class when Chambliss arrived in the series in its inaugural season. Plus his prior experience and competition success accelerated him to the top of the sport almost immediately. But he’s still a strong supporter of the Challenger Class as the final step in the ladder to the Master Class.

“There are plenty of airplanes out there you can fly and get well versed in aerobatics,” Chambliss said. “Then you usually go into the air show side of it or the competition aerobatics side of it. After that, you get into the entry level of the series we have now, the Challenger Class.

“Challengers come in, they’re flying a plane that doesn’t have quite the performance, and sometimes they modify the track to make it a little easier for them and to give them that experience on the track and eventually move up to the Master Class.”

The current lineup of pilots in the Master Class had a varied background in flight before arriving in the series.

Cristian Bolton, Matt Hall, Francois Le Vot and current Master Class points leader Martin Sonka were elite Air Force pilots for their respective countries. 2016 IMS race winner Matthias Dolderer grew up and learned to fly at his parents’ airfield in Germany. Canadian Pete McLeod was a bush pilot before turning to aerobatics.

Michael Goulian, like his fellow American Master Class pilot Chambliss, grew up learning to fly as a teen and also was a corporate pilot. Juan Velarde still flies as a captain for Iberia Airlines when not competing in the Red Bull Air Race World Championship.

Five current Master Class pilots started in the Challenger Class: Bolton, Mikael Brageot, Petr Kopfstein, Peter Podlunsek and Velarde.

Coleman, 27, is a bit different than most pilots in the series because his passion for aerobatic flight was spawned directly by seeing a Red Bull Air Race event in the inaugural season, 2003.

“I grew up in an aviation family, and the Red Bull Air Race started when I was 13,” Coleman said. “The first time I saw it, I was like: ‘Man, that’s what I want to do. That’s what I want my job to be.’

“It’s been a lifelong dream. I’ve worked to get to this point.”

Coleman is on the precipice of the big show, as he said he has secured a Master Class seat starting in the 2019 season. He will be the latest talented pilot to progress through the ladder system created by Jones and other Red Bull Air Race World Championship officials.

“It’s becoming a reality,” Coleman said. “It’s been an awesome ride. Hopefully we can continue to be successful and win some races and hopefully win some championships.”

World champions in both classes will be crowned at IMS from a field featuring pilots from all over the world, including Americans Chambliss, Goulian and Coleman. Two-time series world champion Chambliss is fourth in the tight Master Class standings with 52 points, 11 behind leader Sonka of the Czech Republic.

Visit to buy tickets or for more information on the Red Bull Air Race World Championship.

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