Jon Sharp and Nemesis: The Unbeatable Combination

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by Budd Davisson

In Formula One racing there are fast airplanes, there are really fast airplanes, and then there is (was) Nemesis. Itís 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 everyoneís 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, youíd 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. Itís 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 Renoís 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 moldsóa 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 doesnít 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.

Thereís also a form of supercharging in the way the engineís 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 itís 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 didnít mean Jon Sharp retired. If you donít 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.

Updated: August 22, 2011 — 2:52 PM
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