After a shaky start, a kitplane comes out on top.
The Nemesis NXT air racer has a custom engine any gearhead would envy: a six-cylinder, 350-horsepower, twin-turbocharged and intercooled Thunderbolt TSIO-540-NXT. With all those ponies under the cowling, the NXT is…fast. So fast, in fact, that in 2008 it became the first kit-built airplane to surpass 400 mph. Any aviation museum would benefit from having the NXT. Four years ago, as an aeronautics curator at the National Air and Space Museum, I was fortunate to bring the aircraft into our collection.
NXT is the creation of Nemesis Air Racing, which is led by husband-and-wife team Jon and Patricia Sharp. After winning nine championships in the Formula I class at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada, the Sharps retired their DR 90 racer and donated it to the Museum in 1999. The following year, the couple embarked on a new challenge: building a racer to compete in the new Sport Class for high-performance kit- or amateur-built aircraft.
“NXT” is an abbreviation for Neoteric Experimental Technology. Featuring a laminar flow wing and molded carbon-fiber technology, NXT is the first kit-built airplane designed digitally. After construction was complete, NXT was tested in a wind tunnel, but a sophisticated simulation program let the Sharps “fly” the new racer before it was even built.
I first saw Nemesis NXT during its appearance at Reno in 2004. I briefly met the Sharps as they were scrambling to get NXT ready to race. A landing gear failure after a qualifying run would prevent NXT from making it to the final race on Sunday. The next year, NXT would again fail to advance, but the Sharps were just getting started. With Jon serving as NXT ’s pilot, Nemesis Air Racing won four consecutive Sport Class national championships starting in 2006. At the 2009 national championship, the team grabbed five speed records and a fourth consecutive national title—known as NXT ’s “record a day and two on Sunday” performance. In 2015, NXT concluded its racing career with five world speed records.
Around the time Nemesis Air Racing was reaching its pinnacle, the Museum had begun the process of revitalizing and transforming our location in Washington, D.C. There were plans for a new gallery, Nation of Speed, which would examine America’s fascination with fast-moving technology. As the curator of the new gallery, I wanted to bookend the air racing section with a 1930s racer (Roscoe Turner’s RT-14 Meteor) and a not-yet-collected 21st-century racer. Thinking of the Sport Class, I instantly thought: NXT ! In 2015, I sent a “cold” email to Jon and Patricia, requesting the donation of the aircraft. To my relief, they sent an enthusiastic reply.
Three years later, Steve Hill, the crew chief at Nemesis Air Racing, and fellow racer, Justin Phillipson, ferried the two-seat NXT from New Mexico to the Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. Standing outside the Center on a sunny afternoon in May and looking west, I saw a tiny hot-pink-and-white airplane come in for a landing at Dulles airport. I was surprised by my emotions. My joy in acquiring such a fine artifact for the Museum was tempered by the realization that my first time seeing NXT fly would be its last flight. Hearing the engine’s roar fade into silence and watching the propeller come to a halt was bittersweet. This magnificent machine would fly no more.
Work then began to prepare NXT for installation in the Nation of Speed gallery. But our exhibits and collections staff soon discovered that NXT was too large to safely pass through the gallery’s entrance, and due to the way the wing is attached to the fuselage, NXT cannot be disassembled. We still had the option to display NXT in another gallery, by hanging it from the ceiling, but that would have required fabricating a new cowling, and I wasn’t comfortable making such a major modification to a historic artifact.
At that point, I decided that NXT would go on permanent display in the Boeing Aviation Hangar at the Udvar-Hazy Center. There the little racer gleams under the spotlights, a testament to what people united by a common goal can do at the highest levels of motorsports.
Jeremy Kinney is the associate director for research and curatorial affairs at the National Air and Space Museum.