Adventure of the Week: A little Voodoo puts magic in Reno air races

Bob Button, an air racer from Winters, was supposed to be a farmer. He just didn't have the heart for it.

His mother knew it and fired him from the farm.

"She had enough of me, but we're OK now. It was the best thing she could have done for me," he says.

In 1982, Button began flying single- engine planes as a pilot for hire. Slowly, he built up his flying credentials and in 2000 got an unlimited letter of authorization to fly high-performance fighters.

Years later, he fell in love with a P-51 Mustang. The World War II and Korean War-era fighter plane swooped above his home and into Button's heart. He decided to try air racing.

"I've always loved them but never got involved," he says.

Button purchased a similar plane and modified its wings and engine. A fast plane, it's capable of zooming quicker than 500 mph.

The plane, which he dubbed "Voodoo" after Jimi Hendrix's 1968 gem, will hit the skies in Reno for a world-class racing showdown. Team Button is hoping to win the main event Sunday, when nine aircraft will chase gold a mere 50 feet from the ground and 25 feet from one another.

"It's aerial combat for civilians," says Button's successor in the pilot's seat, Will Whiteside of Santa Rosa.

He and Button met through the sport in 2005, then raced against each other a year later. "Let's just say I never lost a race," says Whiteside.

Last year at the National Championship Races in Reno, 55-year-old Button asked Whiteside to fly his plane.

"He's younger. He's a motorcycle racer, so he has that killer instinct to win," Button says.

Whiteside was engrossed in bike racing and gave up his plans to fly in the Navy because of it. When he was 23, he suffered an injury that took him off the bike. Thanks to a cousin, a newly made lottery millionaire, Whiteside got his shot at flight school.

Flying hooked Whiteside for life. After teaching, he became a corporate pilot.

Whiteside said his background as a professional motorcycle dirt racer has taught him something.

"I don't lose any sleep before a race," he says, "I'm not rattled. I want to win this race and be the fastest pilot around that course.

"I want to beat them so bad that they'll wonder why they are even doing it."

Whiteside ended up dealing with engine failure at last year's championship, handicapped to turtle speeds and a bronze finish. Twenty-seven planes compete in these races, with only nine of them advancing into the gold race.

"We feel very good, and I feel very confident," Button says. "It's a new chapter because we have a new engine."

Button says that he thinks Whiteside's edge and bravado, along with the new engine, will translate into victory on the course this year. On Wednesday, Whiteside finished fifth, qualifying Voodoo for Sunday's race.

"We have not accomplished gold on Sunday, and that's everyone's main objective," he says.

Although Whiteside is handling Voodoo this year, Button says he'll fly on as an active racer and pilot.