BRISTOL, Tenn. — Things are still up in the air regarding a military aircraft flyover at this month's Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway — due to the automatic federal budget cuts called sequestration.
That's because military training exercises — including operations for armed forces jet squadrons and high-profile aircraft such as the Air Force Thunderbirds and the Navy's Blue Angels — are among the expenses targeted in the $85 billion budget cuts that Congress and President Barack Obama failed to stop.
"We are going to go through all the channels until we are told yes, or no," Bristol Motor Speedway Vice President Kevin Triplett said Friday. "Because of the uncertainty that still exists with the whole cutback process, to do anything other than not going for it would be a mistake."
On Friday, hours before the automatic cuts were to begin, the U.S. Air Force announced that it planned to ground the Thunderbirds if a federal budget deal wasn't reached. The team will cease air support to public events April 1 unless something happens to get the budget back on track, air force officials said.
And the U.S. Navy, in a message from Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus issued Saturday, said its initial cuts would include canceling four Blue Angels shows scheduled for April.
"These actions are being taken to preserve support for those forces stationed overseas and currently forward-deployed," Mabus said in the memo, which is posted on the U.S. Navy's website.
President Obama has said some of the cuts would take time to come to fruition, so Triplett said that Bristol Motor Speedway will continue to fill out the necessary paperwork and make the necessary requests to the military until a definitive answer is given for a go or no go for flight.
A fixture at major sporting events and a permanent part of NASCAR racing pre-race ceremonies since the early 1990s, those pulse-racing fly-bys lasting only a few seconds actually are incorporated into the lengthy training exercises required for aircraft fleets, Wendy Varhegyi, chief of the engagement division for Air Force public affairs, explained in a USA Today article on the subject published last week. The exercises at sporting events like Bristol come at no additional cost to the government, she said, because fuel, time and other factors are budgeted as part of training and readiness operations.
The Thunderbirds are still scheduled for their flyover at next weekend's Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Varhegyi said. Their flyover at the Daytona 500 was scrubbed due to overcast conditions. And, Varhegyi said in the report, that the race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend would be their last exercise for the foreseeable future.
The uncertainty over whether the jet teams would be flying after sequestration already has prompted several air shows around the country to cancel, including one in Indianapolis, The Associated Press reported this week.
The Air Force said flying hours normally set aside for its demonstration acts, including the Thunderbirds and the F-22 Raptor, are being reserved for national readiness activities. The service projects' automatic budget cuts will mean the reduction of 203,000 flying hours for pilots and crews, a fifth of the total.
The Air Force order also applies to Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard aircraft. That means no flyovers at funerals, military graduations, heritage flights, sporting and other events, the service said. Stationary displays of aircraft could continue.
Triplett said those flyovers have been a recruiting tool for the armed forces and have given those military branches the opportunity to show American taxpayers what their dollars are paying for. Besides F-14 fighter jets, Blackhawk helicopters, huge supply aircraft and stealth bombers have flown over Thunder Valley since sometime in the early 2000s, Triplett said.
"We primarily work with units east of the Mississippi. It's an easier trip for them and we can accommodate them easily that way," Triplett said.
Preliminary figures show initial sequestration cuts would last until Sept. 30, so those glowing afterburners might also be missing from the Irwin Tools Night Race in August. It's something the fans likely will miss.
"I've never talked to anyone who has been to our race or to a sporting event where there was a flyover and they did not think it was cool," Triplett said.