Remembering the Hendrick Motorsports airplane tragedy: 10 years later, it still seems like just yesterday

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This is a column that should never have been written, about an event that should never have happened.

As hard as I keep denying it to myself, the truth is Friday will indeed be 10 years since NASCAR suffered one of its darkest days ever.

Ten innocent people, on what was supposed to be a quick 35-minute flight from Concord, North Carolina to attend a Nextel Cup (now Sprint Cup) race at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, never made it.

Their flight in a Hendrick Motorsports-owned airplane came up short, about 11 miles from the oldest short track bullring in NASCAR. Hemmed in by a thick fog, occasional drizzle and low-hanging and dark overcast clouds, the small 12-seat plane was attempting to touch down at a nearby “regional airport” that was nothing more than a landing strip.

Unfortunately, the expected and what should have been routine safe landing never came. The combination of what was subsequently determined by investigators to be bad weather and pilot error resulted in a Hendrick Motorsports Beechcraft Super King Air 200 plowing head-on into Bull Mountain.

All 10 on board were killed instantly. So much promise, so much experience, so much youth, so much talent, so much … life.

All snuffed out in a split-second.

I’ve been in the sports writing game for well over 30 years and I’ve never, ever experienced or been part of such a surreal scene.

I remember it as if it was yesterday. I was sitting in the Martinsville Speedway infield media center. About 2:15 pm, a Nextel PR representative leaned over to me and whispered that a Hendrick Motorsports plane was missing.

As far as I knew, I was the only reporter in the media center or the upstairs press box that knew anything was amiss.

She also said it was believed that team owner Rick Hendrick was on board (which later we learned he decided to miss the flight due to illness).

She asked me to keep that information confidential and not tell anyone else, a request I complied with.

As much as I tried to concentrate on the race, I couldn’t. I had no idea who was on the plane, but when someone tells you Rick Hendrick may be on it, your brain starts going into overdrive, trying to figure out storylines and how to cover what was looking more and more by the minute as a tragedy.

I went outside and, despite all the noise of the cars circling the racetrack, I managed to call my editor and tell him to be prepared for a possible major breaking story.

After returning to the media center, a little after 3 pm, my PR friend again whispered to me that searchers were scouring the general area where the plane was last believed to be.

Then it happened. Maybe 30 to 45 minutes later, my friend picked up her cell phone, momentarily looked at me with a wish of hope etched across her face, said “Hello”, listened to the voice on the other end …

… and that same face suddenly turned ashen.

“They found the plane. It crashed into a mountainside not far from here,” she again whispered somberly.

The next several hours were a blur. NASCAR officials went into crisis mode. While it’s likely few would blame them if they stopped and cancelled the remainder of the race, the event played out to a conclusion, with Jimmie Johnson winning.

News of the tragedy started slowly leaking out. When Johnson did not do a ceremonial burnout and was hustled away with his and the rest of the HMS teams into a private area in the infield, when there was no victory lane celebrating and when dozens of people in the infield walked around with tears in their eyes, we finally knew and came to accept that the news reports were true:

Ten of the nicest people in the sport were gone in a way that no one deserves, violently, instantly and without notice. No chance to make a last call to family to tell them their last goodbye’s and last I love you’s.

One minute they were anticipating landing and making their way to what promised to be a great race.

The next minute, all 10 were gone.

Killed in the crash were Rick’s older brother and team president John Hendrick, John’s twin daughters Kimberly and Jennifer, HMS general manager Jeff Turner and HMS engine building whiz, Randy Dorton.

Also killed were DuPont executive Joe Jackson, Scott Lathram (a pilot for Tony Stewart who wanted to spend the day with Smoke before he prepared to ship out the next day on a military assignment in Iraq), and pilots Elizabeth Morrison and Richard Tracy.

But the wound that likely cut the deepest for Rick and Linda Hendrick was the loss of their only son, Ricky. A promising up-and-coming driver himself until he decided to devote himself to follow in his father’s footsteps as a team owner in the then-Busch Series, Ricky was the apple of his father’s eye.

The plan was for Rick to eventually turn over the family businesses as well as its noted racing operations to young Ricky, who was taken from this earth only a couple of weeks after learning fiancée Emily Maynard was pregnant (and give birth to the couple’s first and ultimately only child, a daughter, Josephine Riddick “Ricki” Hendrick, on June 29, 2005).

Rick and Linda Hendrick could have fallen apart. Team Hendrick could have fallen apart. Hendrick Auto Group and all of the senior Hendrick’s business could have fallen apart.

But with a resolve I’ve never seen, Team Hendrick and the rest of the Hendrick family – both personal and business – held together in an amazing show of strength and resilience.

It gave me a great new appreciation of the kind of man Rick Hendrick was. Throughout the days that followed the crash, from the wake to the church service to the funeral procession to the burial, Hendrick was nothing short of a rock. Instead of him leaning on others, they leaned on him.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone as stoic and strong as Rick Hendrick was through that entire ordeal.

But this wasn’t just about Rick’s son. While the NASCAR community reached out to him to offer its support and prayers, Rick Hendrick – a proud father who had just lost perhaps the most important person in his life after his wife – efficiently, effectively and emotionally did everything he could to try and comfort the families of the other victims. He gave workers within his organization all the time off they needed to grieve and never had to worry about not getting paid for their mourning time away.

Yet through all the tragedy, all the grief, all the tears, all the questions about what may or may not happen next, the Hendrick organization followed their boss’s lead and held together.

There was talk of having the entire organization miss the next race at Atlanta out of respect for the crash victims. But would those same victims want that? After much discussion and deliberation, it was decided that HMS would race at Atlanta as a testimonial and living memorial for their lost friends.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

For each of the next four years, when the fall Martinsville race would come around, I’d drive out to Bull Mountain, step out of my car and say a few prayers in tribute to the victims. I didn’t have to, but I felt I needed to each and every time.

While I had interviewed Ricky a few times, for all intents and purposes, the 10 people on that plane were essentially strangers to me – yet I felt it important each year to come back and remember them and the ultimate price they paid just to go and see a stock car race.

As I was preparing to write this story, I was looking at an old column I wrote to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the crash, and the words I wrote then still ring true nine years later:

“Maybe some future October weekend, we’ll be more comfortable coming back, but right now, I don’t want to be here. I can’t wait until I leave Monday morning.”

While I won’t be at Martinsville this weekend, that feeling and those words still remain. To this day, I still wish I didn’t have to write about such tragedy then, and it still pains me to write about it 10 years later.

It’s a feeling that will never go away.

Friday Oct. 24, 2004. It’s a day I’ll never forget for all the bad that happened to so many good people that didn’t deserve such a terrible and abrupt end to their lives.

God, I hate that date.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

IndyCar champion Will Power completes ‘Victory Lap’ at ceremony in Indianapolis

Will Power Victory Lap
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment
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INDIANAPOLIS – Will Power went on his “Victory Lap” last week to celebrate his second career championship as the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series champion.

It began with several media interviews in Monterey, California, the day after he won the championship with a third-place finish in the Sept. 11 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey.

From there, it was off to Los Angeles for more interviews and personal appearances that included a VIP Tour at the Petersen Automotive Museum, several appearances on SiriusXM and lunch at The Ivy, where the Team Penske IndyCar Series driver was treated to Wagyu Beef.

“It was one of the best steaks I’ve ever had in my life,” Power told NBCSports.com.

From L.A. back to Power’s North Carolina home, near Team Penske’s home base of Mooresville, there was one stop left on Sept. 17 — the Victory Lap Celebration at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, an invitation-only banquet where Power and his No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet crew at Team Penske were honored for the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series championship.

They didn’t even have to check into a hotel and spend another night on the road. Power and his team left on a Team Penske plane from the Statesville, N.C., airport at 4 p.m. ET Saturday to fly to Indianapolis. On arrival an hour later, a limo bus took the team to IMS.

Power led the 2022 season with five NTT P1 Awards for pole, earning the NTT P1 Award as the best qualifier of the season for the fifth time in his career. Power also made history with his 68th career pole, breaking the all-time mark held by the legendary Mario Andretti.

Power and Scott Dixon also became just two of only five drivers to complete every lap of every race in IndyCar Series history.

“What a year,” Power said as he was awarded his personal Astor Cup trophy (the second in his collection after the 2014 championship. “What a phenomenal year coming off one of my worst seasons personally. We came back with a vengeance.

“I want to thank Roger and Kathy Penske for everything they have done for me over the years. I wouldn’t be standing here and have the numbers I have without what Roger has done for me. I’m given a car every week that is capable of winning the pole, races, championships, and Indianapolis 500s. I’m so grateful for that.

“Also, to Greg Penske, you are there every week now at every event and I know we will be in good hands moving forward with the Penske Family.”

There are many on Power’s team and at home, that helped support Power throughout his career. None is bigger than Power’s wife, Liz, who told Power before the season that he would win the championship and break Andretti’s record.

“I must thank my wife. I’m so lucky to have a wife with that crystal ball that can tell me what is going to happen,” Power said. “I can’t think you enough, babe. I love you so much and you have been a big support to me my whole career. We’ve been together 17 years, and I’ve been in the series 17 years. She has been such a huge support to me. The mother of our child and she is a fantastic mother.

“She can’t tell the future. She just had faith in me.”

Liz Power’s premonition came true and that allowed Power and his No. 12 Dallara-Chevrolet team to celebrate Penske’s 17th IndyCar championship and 42nd title in the racing team’s history.

“The 12 crew this year, I’ve never had such a great group of guys,” Power said. “Trevor Lacasse (chief mechanic) is such a calm guy, but he does such a meticulous job on the preparation of the car. He is very, very good at keeping the whole crew happy. It feels as if there is no pressure on us. That’s a huge part in getting the most out of people. It was our first year together with you as a crew chief. What a great year to start our relationship.

“Dave Faustino (Power’s longtime engineer), we’ve worked together for 15 years. He’s almost like a wife to me, a partner … apart from sleeping together. We have a very good working relationship. Sorry Dave, I’m an awkward person and you are not.

“The things we have been through in our years together, it’s crazy that we continually improve and get better. We are standing on the podium after winning the championship and we are talking about the car, the race, and the tires. We weren’t talking about the championship.

“We never stop. The other boys were laughing at us, but I’m already thinking about next year.

“Ron Ruzewski (Team Penske IndyCar Managing Director and strategist) on the radio, always calm. He has actually made me a calm person. I rarely get upset on the radio anymore.”

Power also recognized the fans who helped boost attendance at many venues on the schedule this season as NBC Sports enjoyed its largest IndyCar audience yet.

“This series is growing,” Power said. “With open wheel racing now so popular because of Formula One, it’s really our time to push and put money behind it and go now and take IndyCar to another level because we have the best racing product in the world.

“I have to thank my teammates and (Team Penske president) Tim Cindric. I can’t tell you how hard we push each other. We are ultracompetitive and love each other and push each other hard, so thank you.”


Power won the championship by 16 points over hard-charging teammate Josef Newgarden, who finished second in the standings for the third year in a row.

“Overall, I’m filled with a lot of pride for our team and what we were able to do this year,” Newgarden said in his banquet address. “Any year that you step in the championship, you can easily see the challenges it presents everybody.

“It’s a very difficult challenge for the teams and drivers. To be a part of it, make it through it and for us at Team Penske, to topple it, is a very big deal. We’re all competitive.

“The tough thing about being in a championship fight, especially with teammates is we all want to be the best. That’s how it should be. We are competitive people and want to be the best. But it’s a team sport.

“Will, tremendous season, great, great job. I think the world of everybody on our team. It’s a big group. I’m so happy for all of you on the 12-car crew. There is so much we can take into next year.”

Six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon was unable to attend the banquet because of the Goodwood Festival in England but sent congratulations to Power via a video message.

“I really want to congratulate Will Power,” Dixon said. “You drove a tremendous season this year. Even with some of the lows that you had, some of the mistakes with qualifying, you bounced back tremendously. I know how tough these championships are and to see you do it in the style that you did it in the last race of the season, massive congratulations.”

Power’s championship formula included one victory, nine podiums and 12 top-five finishes. Teammate Josef Newgarden was second in the championship with five wins but only six podiums.

Cindric saluted Power’s season in accepting the championship team owner award.

“Will, you took it to another level this year,” Cindric said. “You are the complete package. You completed every lap, had nine podiums, finished out of the top 10 just four times, broke Mario Andretti’s record, and you did it all without cussing at the officials on national TV.

“One complaint I do has is while most of us think you might be from another planet, you never told us your wife was a fortune teller.”

Cindric also honored the seasons of Penske drivers Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin, who won three times in his second full season (“You are one of only two full-time IndyCar drivers that has driven for us in the past 23 years that hasn’t won an Indy 500 or an IndyCar championship. Your time is coming.”).

Kyle Moyer was named team manager of the year (his fifth time and Penske’s sixth). Pennzoil presented Lacasse with the chief mechanic of the year for the first time, the sixth time for Team Penske. The No. 12 crew also won the Firestone Pit Performance Award for the most pit stop performance award points in 2022.

Power, Newgarden and McLaughlin delivered nine of Chevrolet’s series-leading 11 victories this season, helping Chevy win the Manufacturer Award for the seventh time since it returned to the series in 2012 and the first time since 2017. Jim Danahy, U.S. vice president, Competition Motorsports Engineering for Chevrolet, accepted the award on behalf of his team.


Christian Lundgaard was honored as the 2022 NTT IndyCar rookie of the year. Lundgaard, from Denmark, scored one podium, two top-five finishes and seven top-10s in the No. 30 Honda fielded by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He edged David Malukas of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD by 18 points in the standings for first-year series drivers.

Christian Lundgaard (Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment)

“It’s been a tough season and looking at how it panned out, we struggled so much at the beginning of the season and how we were able to turn it around means so much to me and the team,” Lundgaard said. “It’s the one thing that you only get one shot at. I’m happy to have it.

“Being the first Dane at the Indy 500 certainly helps. Competing here for me is quite important and also special. To win this award and to be here in future years means so much to me. I have a chance to compete for wins and championships.

“This team gave me this opportunity at this track one year ago. We came back and got redemption. We got our first podium here. This year was 40 years ago that Bobby Rahal won the same award. It’s pretty special to keep it among the team.”

Sweden’s Linus Lundqvist was honored as Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champion after a dominant season for HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing. Lundqvist won a series-high five races in the No. 26 HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing entry and clinched the Lights championship with a race to spare, ending with a 92-point advantage over Sting Ray Robb. HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing owners Henry and Daiva Malukas accepted the team championship.

“I’m very proud of that,” Lundqvist said. “It’s cool to see. We are starting to look to the future, and this might not be doing too bad. It’s been great. As most of you can guess with Henry and Daiva Malukas (team owners), it’s been an incredible journey. So much fun that we’ve had. To be on the grid this year was so much of a struggle for us. I didn’t even know I would be doing this until January.

“To be able to pull out the season that we had, I cannot thank this team enough. We will celebrate this for a long time. I’m so happy and proud about that.”

Outgoing IndyCar Director of Medical Affairs Dr. Geoffrey Billows also was honored as he is leaving that role while battling cancer.

“When I think of Dr. Billows, I think of two words,” IndyCar president Jay Frye said. “One is selfless and the other is tough. He’s gone through a lot these last couple of years, and he didn’t want anybody to know. He’s an amazing man, and we are very grateful for what you have done.”

Dr. Geoffrey Billows with IndyCar president Jay Frye (Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment)

Billows was presented with a framed checkered flag signed by all drivers in the series as well as other IndyCar officials and dignitaries.

“I was not expecting this at all,” Billows said. “This means so much for me to be part of this family for the past 30 years. I’ve been presented with opportunities I never thought I would ever have. I can’t tell you how much I love all of you guys and care for all of you guys.

“Thank you so much. I want to also thank my wife, Tammy, who has been a pillar of strength as I continue on this journey with cancer for the past two years as well. You will still see me as a consultant because I love this too much to quit altogether.”

When the evening concluded, Team Penske boarded a bus to the airport for the short return flight to Statesville. They were home by midnight.

Power’s Victory Lap was complete.

“The best thing about this is I get to sleep in my own bed tonight,” Power said.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500