Gary Levitz and Miss Ashley II
From September 16 through September 19, 1999, my faithful Ford Ranchero took what I at the time thought was my family and me to Nevada and back. The main reason for the trip was to attend the National Championship Air Races held at Reno every September. In particular, we wanted to see Gary Levitz race “Miss Ashley II,” a plane that looked fast even sitting on the ground. You might recognize his name from the furniture company. He had been racing since the early 1970s in a variety of aircraft, and had sunk more than a million dollars into this beauty that was built just for racing.
He and his partner Bill Rogers did not want to cut up any historic aircraft for this purpose, so they built a World War II P-51 Mustang fuselage from new materials , modified it to take a bigger engine with contra-rotating propellers , put the wings and horizontal tail from a Learjet on it and modified landing gear from a Piper Aerostar . She took many years to build. Gary first raced her in 1997.
My late father, LeRoy Watson, who brought the Ranchero into the family and kept it running for more than twenty years, was very excited by this airplane. He said that's the one to watch. He did not live to see her race again, but I went back to Reno in 1998 as a memorial to my father. Each year, the airplane was improved and got faster. For 1999, Miss Ashley II had a type of air scoop not possible on stock Mustangs, and other improvements too.
the trip to the Reno Air Races
Thursday afternoon September 16, we drove to Angels Camp where we stayed the night. The next morning we went over the Sierras on Highway 4 through Ebbetts Pass. It was very steep up and down several times. The brakes got hot and pulled from side to side. Then we went to the homeland of the Paiute prophet Wovoka in Smith Valley and Mason Valley , Lyon County, Nevada. I met several friendly people, including the Tribal chairman. I learned of an event coming up on the University of Nevada, Reno campus to honor Wovoka (we later went to this event on ).
Friday night, we camped at Fort Churchill. Late Saturday morning, we drove to Virginia City along the California Emigrant Trail and then Six Mile Canyon Road. We spent Saturday afternoon there, wandering around until five o'clock or so. While driving from Virginia City to our reserved hotel room in Reno , we saw sun rays breaking through the clouds over Reno. Our hotel experience was less pleasant than expected, because it was so confusing. Back in May, Club Cal Neva had bought out the Virginian and the Riverboat, so we parked in the Cal Neva garage on one block, went to the ex-Virginian to check in on another block, and went across the street to the ex-Riverboat for our room. It was not easy to find, and much further from our car than we would have liked.
The next morning, I learned from a newspaper on the checkout desk of the hotel that Gary Levitz had crashed and died in Miss Ashley II during the first turn of the last race of the day Saturday afternoon, while we were still in Virginia City. The airplane broke apart in the air four hundred feet above the ground going four hundred miles per hour around a pylon. I am very sorry for Gary's family and friends. I heard his two grown children were there watching him. If we had been there, it would have been much more traumatic for us too.
The photographic tribute to Gary on this page was made on by a fan who wishes to remain anonymous. Gary's face was scanned from the Air Race's program. The background of the collage above is the sun rays on Saturday a couple of hours after he died. The lineup of the other planes at the bottom of the collage is from the Air Races tribute to him before the last Gold race on Sunday. The planes are lined up in the order they were racing when he crashed, with a gap at the fifth position where he was. The “missing man” formation, a traditional salute to lost comrades, was also from the tribute on Sunday. Tens of thousands of people stood in silence to honor this man, then everybody cheered for him the way he would want them to. I still cry whenever I think of what happened.
Blue Skies Forever, Gary