AUBURN — The president of the Air Race Classic figures to have plenty on her plate.
Lara Gaerte says this year she gets to “wear two hats,” with her usual administrative duties in the competition for women pilots, and preparing to host one of the race’s timing checkpoints at the DeKalb County Airport, where she is the CEO of Century Aviation, the fixed-base operator.
While this year’s race – she will be at the start today in Sweetwater, Texas, and the end Friday at Fryeburg, Maine – Gaerte also knows the fun side of the event.
She raced each year from 2004 until she was elected to a 10-year term on the board of directors for Air Race Classic in 2010. She also raced the last two years, finishing seventh last year with teammate Jo Anne Alcorn in a race from Frederick, Maryland, to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Gaerte’s personal best finish in the race is sixth, which she’s done twice. She’s also finished dead last, capturing the coveted “turtle” prize worth $100.
“It’s really fun. It’s intense,” she said.
In addition to the challenge of a different course each year, success depends on the weather — how well you gauge it, how well you predict it, and knowing when to try to beat it or when to wait.
“The reason we all come back every year is because it’s different every year,” Gaerte said. “The weather’s different every year. The route’s different every year.
“It’s that same challenge every year. Can I master this four-day race?”
Last year, she and Alcorn completed three legs on the first day of the race, but flew only one the second day.
“We were waiting for tail winds, which didn’t materialize,” Gaerte said. “That’s part of the strategy, how the weather is going to move, and all with in the back of your mind, ‘I’ve got to be at the end by five o’clock Friday.’”
Competitors need to watch the weather all along the course, not just to the next stop.
“In Sweetwater, you’re looking at the weather in Maine,” Gaerte said. “You’re not just looking a hundred miles in front of you, you’re looking at the whole national weather picture.
“If I go today, or if I wait today, what’s the weather going to do downstream? Am I going to be able to get from here to there, or get stopped by a weather system?”
That’s what happened in the year of the turtle trophy, officially the Claude Glasson Award, named for the husband of one of the race’s founders. Gaerte’s partner was Jan Bell, this year’s chief judge.
“We took off and the weather just deteriorated,” Gaerte said. “We sat down at an airport waiting. We had to be at a stop by sunset. The clock’s running but the weather’s bad, and we’re sitting there.”
Gaerte said she and her teammate called race officials to tell them they were safe, and they intended to continue. If they couldn’t, they would have to withdraw, but eventually, they were able to take off and make it to a checkpoint.
Gaerte now uses the turtle as a teaching tool in prerace briefings.
“That turtle represents some of the best decision-making that I did in a race,” she said. “We sat down, the weather was bad. I wasn’t worried about the weather, I was worried about the other teams out there wandering around in it, too. We thought ‘Let’s get on the ground and wait it out.’”
Just finishing is challenge enough. Last year’s winners, Dee Bond and McKenzie Krutsinger, reached the terminus minutes before the 5 p.m. deadline.
“They’d been dealing with mechanical issues, and they won the whole thing,” Gaerte said. “They got all the tail winds the rest of us didn’t.
“They said, ‘We weren’t worried about tail winds, we were worried about getting to the terminus by five.’ It worked out not according to plan, but beneficial to them.”
The stops sometimes have food for the participants, and sometimes not. The pilots carry granola bars, fruit and water with them.
Some stops try to feature local cuisine.
“We had a stop in Louisiana, so it was Creole and really hot and spicy food,” Gaerte said. “I looked at my race partner and said, ‘Don’t you dare. We’re going to get back in that airplane, so don’t eat that. That’s going to really hurt in about an hour.’”
After putting in so much work on the board of directors and now as president, Gaerte was glad to return to the fun of racing last year. She told of another board member who said she didn’t feel relevant after not racing for a while.
“I felt the same way in 2016,” Gaerte said. “It had been seven years since I had raced. I thought ‘This is a lot of hard work and I miss having fun.’ The last two years, getting to get back and do the fun part of it keeps you refreshed.”
It’s a friendly, yet fierce competition.
“I enjoy the challenge. I enjoy the people,” Gaerte said.
“There’s a lot of camaraderie, but we’re all competitive. Nobody’s out there sightseeing. Everybody’s in it to win it. It’s exciting when they announce the winners at the end. Everybody’s happy for the people that do well.”