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.
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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.
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