We not only have two new race formats, we have an abundance of new classes.
1. Handicapped racing
One of the biggest innovations of the last 25 years has been the introduction of handicapped racing. As in all other sports that have handicapped racing, such as sailing, there’s a lot of whining over the winter about rules and handicaps, but then it proves extremely popular in the spring. The sports class is the single most successful class in the US. It is another US invention that spread to world. It has brought many new pilots into the sport, and it allows people to race older gliders. Again, technology had unintended consequences: time limited tasks opened the way for handicapped racing, as gliders of different performance require a course defined by time not by distance to both use the soaring day.
In the US, the sports class developed initially with two missions: to allow handicapped racing, especially of older gliders, and to be a “beginner” class at the regional level that would feature easier tasking and a gentle introduction to contest soaring.
Europe developed a “club” class instead, that only allows a narrower range of handicaps. It has much less of a “beginner” mission, and no mission at all of allowing racing for lower performance gliders, or older high performance gliders that are uncompetitive in open or 18m classes. All this made sense: Europe has a lot of clubs which have standard-cirrus level gliders, and the point was to let “club” pilots compete. The US has almost no clubs with such gliders that can go off to a contest (my club, the Chicago Glider Club is the exception that proves the rule). Almost our entire target is private owners, but many of them have gliders which do not qualify under European “club” rules, and many of them are beginners.
Handicapped racing is evolving fast. At the US national level, it is really “handicapped racing,” rather than a “beginner” event. What it does is allow pilots to enjoy national level racing without driving across country to “their” nationals. The single most popular glider in the sports nationals is the ASW27, closely followed by the Ventus 2! Effectively, we have “east” and “west” 15/18 meter nationals without the name, with a few other gliders sprinkled in for fun.
At the same time, large handicap spreads are not ideal when the point is serious racing. The handicaps are fair on average, but introduce more luck than is desirable. This has led to the idea of a US “club” class consisting only of the middle of the handicap range. But if we do that, will we kill the rest of the sports class, and leave the old Nimbus 2/3, the club ASK21, or the Silent, Russia, 1-26 etc. nowhere to compete at all? If only we had more pilots….
In any case, what needs to be said in a “history” lecture is simply that handicapped racing is evolving quickly, and we will be chewing over these issues for a few years to come.
Handicapped racing is spreading. Most countries have handicapped nationals for at least some classes. US regionals now merge small FAI classes with handicaps, and this is proving very popular.
2. FAI classes
The profusion of FAI classes is a really big change in contest soaring. Once upon a time, there was one class: the open class. Standard class came about in the 1960s as a very sensible idea to create a class with good performance but simple operation and limited cost, as open wingspans, costs and complexity exploded.
And then in the late 1970s, the IGC committed the original sin, since repeated. They couldn’t decide whether to allow flaps or not in standard class, and didn’t know what to do about legacy gliders that did or did not have flaps. So they split standard class in two, resulting in two classes of nearly indistinguishable performance, cost, and handling qualities. Within 3 years, all of the “legacy” gliders were obsolete. New gliders designed to the new class rules had displaced them, and we’ve been stuck with one class too many for 30 years.
Now we have open (which became open / 750 kg max, then open / 850 kg max), 20 m two seat, 18m, 15m, standard, club, 13.5m (absorbing the world class), junior and feminine. If we look at the larger world of soaring flight, the open class of the 1960s has also spawned two hang glider classes (fixed and flexwing), paragliders, and microlift or ultralight gliders.
Editorial: This is nuts. In the face of declining participation, is fragmenting classes the right thing to do?
Perhaps what’s going on is that the IGC is thinking only about world contests, and it seems to be able to expand the number of “world” contests in all these classes. I put “world” in quotes because almost all the contests are held in Europe, and participation from out of Europe is spotty for all but the big classes. So really, what they’ve done is create a large number of interesting venues for European championships.
But this class structure makes little sense at the US national level, makes no sense at all for smaller countries, and none for regionals. You can’t even imagine running a regional contest with one third of this number of classes.
And the IGC is repeating the Original Sin. The world class was a fiasco. It wasn’t necessarily bad idea in the abstract – maybe pilots are really all hungering for simple cheap one design racing and don’t care that much about performance. The failure was in doing no serious market research, relying instead on “build it and they will come.” It turned out that when offered the menu, pilots are all choosing $180,000 18 meter gliders. Nothing else is selling at the moment. At least we have all learned to beware of “build it and they will come” theories.
Having pursued the world class fiasco, they are faced with the question, what do we do with the PW5s? Thinking “legacy”, they create a class which not just PW5s, but also Russias and Silents and other gliders developed for the original world class idea can participate in. But the second a new glider is designed to the new rule, all those gliders will be as obsolete, as the PIK 20 was obsolete in standard class the minute the Discus and ASW20 came out, and we’ll be stuck with another pointless class for 30 years. (I haven’t done the research either, but I don’t see any benefit to 13.5 meters with conventional wingloadings. The design, certification, molds, control system, are all there. It won’t be that much cheaper, it won’t be any better or different really. And standard and 15 are already out of production. )
Why does this matter? It drives up costs needlessly. Fixed design, certification, and production costs are spread over much smaller runs. It dilutes effort. The US team cannot send pilots to all these classes. And it leaves national and regional contests in a horrible mess.
What should they do? Pick 3 classes for 15 years from now. Allow legacy gliders with handicaps. And stick to it. Think about classes for all races, not just the European scene.