Jon Sharp and Nemesis:
The Unbeatable Combination
In Formula One racing there are fast airplanes, there
are really fast airplanes, and then there is (was) Nemesis. It’s
now resting in the Smithsonian, buyt not a racing pilot on the planet
doubts that should pilot/designer Jon Sharp decide to pull his now-dusty
racer out of the display case to challenge the world of pylon racing,
it would once again clean everyone’s clock. The airplane won virtually
every race it finished for nine years.
Few airplanes of any kind, built for any purpose represent leading edge
technology as well as Nemesis does. Although created in 1989/90 and
under continual improvement for the next decade, even today, 15 years
later, you’d be hard pressed to find a better way of designing
a lighter, faster airplane.
Sharp and his friends from the Lockheed Skunk Works were forced to work
within the parameters laid down for Formula One racers, namely, 66 feet
of wing area, 5 gallons of fuel, certain sight angles for the pilot
and, most of all, they had to use an essentially stock, 100 hp, 200
cubic in Continental engine. It’s somewhat sobering to think that
the engine, which normally propels a Cessna 150 at barely 100 mph, could
drag Nemesis around the pylons at over 245 mph.
The Lancaster, California design team, headed by Sharp and Steve Ellison,
had a not-so-simple task. Their airplane had to be super slick, yet
capable of turning the pylons in Reno’s thin air faster than had
ever been done. This meant more than speed. It mean extreme aerodynamic
efficiency and light weight.
To form an airframe that had zero bumps or edges to trip the airstream,
and was feather light, meant that 95% of the airframe was molded from
graphite composite, most of it being honey-comb sandwiches molded into
female molds—a layer of graphite, a layer of PVC foam, another
layer of graphite. The only metal in the structure, besides the composite-faired
aluminum landing gear, was the motor mount and a few torque tubes and
push rods although all of the bolts are titanium.
The control system features torque tubes to the ailerons and everything
glides effortlessly on ball, or roller, bearings with the pilot interface
being a side stick mounted in the armrest of what looks like a composite
lounge chair. Jon Sharp reports that it is super comfortable.
Race rules eliminate the possibility of hotrodding the internals of
the engine, but that doesn’t stop racers from hotrodding the outside.
The tuned exhaust system of Nemesis, for instance, runs all four stacks
into a single exit pipe with the individual pipe lengths being carefully
sized for maximum scavenging at a given rpm, thereby creating free horsepower.
There’s also a form of supercharging in the way the engine’s
carburetor air inlet is shaped so that the faster the airplane goes,
the harder the incoming air is rammed into the cylinders.
The airplane is a tour de force of unique features, so it’s impossible
to mention them all, but a few stand out. For instance, the vertical
line of fasteners just behind the cockpit is where they take the airplane
apart for trailering from race to race.
The high-aspect ratio wing (a major reason it turns pylons so well at
Reno) is molded directly to the fuselage with no need of fairings or
speed tape. Even the wheel pants are permanently mounted to eliminate
drag-producing seams. A hacksaw was necessary to change a tire.
When Nemesis was retired in 1999 after 47 victories and 16 world speed
records, including 283 mph over a three-kilometer course, that didn’t
mean Jon Sharp retired. If you don’t believe that, just show up
at Reno this year and watch Jon and his new bird, the NXT, show you
what real speed is all about.
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