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.

 

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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.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Supercross 2023: Results and points after Seattle

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The final results from the Monster Energy Supercross race in Seattle suggests the season is turning into a two-rider battle as Eli Tomac scored his sixth win of the season to tie Cooper Webb for the points’ lead and Chase Sexton crashed in yet another race.

Tomac downplayed the neck strain that caused him to lose the red plate for two weeks, but without that holding him back, it would appear it might have been a bigger problem than he admitted. Despite finishing on the podium in Detroit, Tomac has not shown the late-race strength everyone has come to expect. He was in a slump after scoring a season-worst in Indianapolis and described his sixth win as a “bounce back”.

With this win, Tomac tied James Stewart for second on the all-time list with 50 career Supercross victories. Six rounds remain and there is no sign that Tomac is slowing down. Jeremy McGrath’s 72 wins remains untouchable, for the moment at least.

RESULTS: Click here for full 450 Overall Results; Click here for 250 Overall Results

Cooper Webb was disappointed with second-place, but he recognized the Supercross results at Seattle could have been much worse. He rode in fifth for the first nine laps of the race, behind Tomac and Sexton. When Sexton crashed from the lead and Tomac took the top spot, Webb knew he could not afford to give up that many points and so he dug deep and found enough points to share the red plate when the series returns in two weeks in Glendale, Arizona for a Triple Crown event.

Justin Barcia scored his third podium of the season, breaking out of a threeway tie of riders who have not been the presumed favorites to win the championship. Barcia scored the podium without drama or controversy. It was his fourth consecutive top-five and his 10th straight finish of eighth or better.

Click here for 450 Heat 1 | Heat 2 | Last Chance Qualifier | Lap Chart

Jason Anderson kept his perfect record of top-10s alive with a fourth-place finish. Tied for fourth in the standings and 49 out of the lead, his season has been like a death of a thousand cuts. He’s ridden exceptionally well, but the Big Three have simply been better.

Sexton rebounded from his fall to finish fifth. He entered the race 17 points out of the lead and lost another five in Seattle. Mistakes have cost Sexton 22 points in the last three races and that is precisely how far he is behind Tomac and Webb. Unless those two riders bobble, this deficit cannot overcome.

The rider who ties Anderson for fourth in the points, Ken Roczen finished just outside the top five in sixth after he battled for a podium position early in the race.

Click here for 450 Overall results | Rider Points | Manufacturer Points


The 250 West riders got back in action after four rounds of sitting on the sideline and Jett Lawrence picked up where he left of: in Victory Lane. Lawrence now has four wins and a second-place finish in five rounds. One simply doesn’t get close to perfection than that.

Between them, the Lawrence brothers have won all but two races though 11 rounds. Jett failed to win the Anaheim Triple Crown and Hunter Lawrence failed to win the Arlington Triple Crown format in the 250 East division. In two weeks, the series has their final Triple Crown race in Glendale. When he was reminded of this from the top of the Seattle podium, Jett replied, “oof”.

Click here for 250 Heat 1 | Heat 2 | Last Chance Qualifier | Lap Chart

RJ Hampshire finished second in the race and is second in the points. This is fourth time in five rounds that Hampshire finished second to Lawrence. If not for a crash-induced 11th-place finish in the Arlington Triple Crown, he would be much closer in the points standings. With that poor showing, he is 23 points behind Lawrence.

Cameron McAdoo made a lot of noise in his heat. Riding aggressively beside Larwence, the two crashed in the preliminary. McAdoo could never seem to get away from Hampshire in the Main and as the two battled, the leader got away. It would have been interesting to see how they would have raced head-to-head when points were on the line.

Click here for 250 Overall results | 250 West Rider Points | 250 Combined Rider Points

The Supercross results in Seattle were kind to a couple of riders on the cusp of the top five. Enzo Lopes scored his second top-five and fourth top-10 of the season after crossing the finish line fourth in Seattle.

Tying his best finish of the season for the third time, Max Vohland kept his perfect record of top-10s alive. Vohland is seventh in the points.

2023 Results

Round 11: Eli Tomac bounces back with sixth win
Round 10: Chace Sexton wins, penalized
Round 9: Ken Roczen wins
Round 8: Eli Tomac wins 7th Daytona
Round 7: Cooper Webb wins second race
Race 6: Eli Tomac, Jett Lawrence win
Race 5: Webb, Hunter Lawrence win
Race 4: Tomac, H Lawrence win
Race 3: Chase Sexton, Levi Kitchen win
Race 2: Tomac, J Lawrence win
Round 1: Tomac, J Lawrence win

2023 SuperMotocross Power Rankings

Week 10: Chase Sexton leads with consistency
Week 8: Chase Sexton unseats Eli Tomac
Week 7: Jason Anderson narrowly trails Tomac
Week 6: Perfect Oakland night keeps Tomac first
Week 5: Cooper Webb, Sexton close gap
Week 4: Tomac retakes lead
Week 3: Ken Roczen takes the top spot
Week 2: Roczen moves up; Sexton falls
Week 1: Tomac tops 450s; Jett Lawrence 250s