CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Blog by Race Chaser Online Managing Editor Jacob Seelman — Hendrick Motorsports photo —
There have only been a couple of moments in my lifetime that have impacted motorsports enough to completely paralyze it when they happened.
The death of Dale Earnhardt was one of them. Dan Wheldon’s passing was another. The 9/11 tragedy, while not motorsports-generated, was a third. Those are moments you never forget.
But none of those moments had as profound an impact in my life and the lives of those I’m close to as this day in 2004.
Ten years ago today, Jimmie Johnson won the Subway 500 at Martinsville — but that didn’t matter.
Ten years ago today, Kurt Busch took a step towards claiming what would ultimately be his first series title — but that didn’t matter.
Ten years ago today, the NASCAR community lost dear friends, and Hendrick Motorsports was forever changed by a tragic plane crash.
That’s all that mattered on that day.
We all know the tale; the Beech 200 King Air took off from Concord and crashed flying in thick fog in the Bull Mountain area seven miles from the Blue Ridge Regional Airport in Spencer, Virginia. There were no survivors.
Onboard the plane were Ricky Hendrick, 24, Rick Hendrick’s son; John Hendrick, Rick Hendrick’s brother and president of Hendrick Motorsports; Kimberly and Jennifer Hendrick, John Hendrick’s 22-year-old twin daughters; Joe Jackson, an executive with DuPont; Jeff Turner, general manager of Hendrick Motorsports; Randy Dorton, 50, the team’s chief engine builder; Scott Lathram, 38, a helicopter pilot for NASCAR driver Tony Stewart; and pilots Richard Tracy, 51, of Charlotte, N.C., and Elizabeth Morrison, 31.
It was nearly impossible to process then. It’s still difficult to process now.
They were all good people, with powerful presence in the sport. Four of them — Ricky, John, Jeff and Randy — were part of Rick Hendrick’s ‘brain trust’, the core of the biggest team in NASCAR. They were all lost to us on that day.
Everyone went numb. Victory Lane was cancelled. Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon were rushed away to their motorhomes. And we all began to remember our friends — myself included.
For me, and for my family — we lost a close friend. Randy Dorton and his wife Dianne were those people that any time we saw them, there was love for us, love for each other; it didn’t matter if you had known them for five minutes or five years, they were going to make you feel welcome and appreciated because you were important to them.
They were social butterflies — though Randy was never quite as outgoing as that may sound — and it always seemed there was a get-together or something with their name on it going on at one time or another.
And that was just away from the race track.
At the track and in the engine department, Dorton was a genius. There’s just no other way to put it.
He was one of Rick Hendrick’s first employees. He was modest about what he did because he was forever looking for something to improve in it. He was always willing to start a conversation because he never stopped gathering information. He was like a sponge, just soaking it all in, analyzing it, and thinking everything through. He was a great listener, too. If you watched his eyes, you always had this feeling he was at least one step, if not five or 10 ahead of you.
He headed up a Hendrick engine department that provided power plants for (at that time) six Cup Series teams. Dorton’s motors tasted victory 12 times in 2004 before the crash.
They went to Victory Lane long before that too. Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson won his first-ever Cup race at Fontana in 2002 with a Dorton-prepared motor. After the race, he proceeded to celebrate, and says he may have irked his engine builder a little bit.
“When I won my first race…I was in the middle of a burnout,” Johnson recalled in 2004 following the tragedy. “I could hear somebody over the radio saying, ‘Easy on that thing. Take it easy.'”
That somebody in Johnson’s ear just so happened to be Randy.
“I kept going and threw all the rods out of the side of the engine,” Johnson said. “(It) was dripping oil everywhere, and (I) just destroyed this engine. The first person I saw when I came into victory lane was Randy, and this thing was dripping oil everywhere. I felt horrible. I destroyed that race-winning engine.”
According to Johnson, Randy just smiled, saying he could trade an engine for a win any day.
Former Hendrick driver Terry Labonte said to NASCAR after the crash in 2004 that was just who Randy was.
“Not only did he lead the engine program, he was a big part of our team and good friend, also. It didn’t matter where you were, in the trailer or whatever, if you had a question about anything at Hendrick Motorsports, (you said), ‘Let’s call Randy.’ He was definitely the guy.”
“He was just an unbelievable guy and a real friend.”
For Brian Vickers, he lost more than a friend on that day. He lost a former housemate and someone he considered both a mentor and a brother.
Ricky Hendrick was the push behind his father’s hiring of Vickers and the one most proud to help deliver Vickers’ Busch Series (now-Nationwide Series) championship in 2003. The two were extremely close during Vickers’ time at HMS and Vickers was one of the most heavily affected by Ricky’s loss.
During the days that immediately followed the plane crash, the emotion spilled over, and it was easy to see during the media conference following the crash. A shaken Vickers walked into the media center at Atlanta Motor Speedway — the only one wearing a hat, as Ricky so often did — and could only muster a few thoughts on that day.
“That day was a sad day for a lot of people,” Vickers said during the 2004 remembrance. “Obviously I lost a dear friend. They will all be deeply missed for a long time to come until we all get a chance to see ’em again.”
Now, though — Vickers has spoken more candidly about his memories of his friend and colleague, a friend who had a big part in shaping his career path today.
“Ricky called me up (at the end of 2002) and said, ‘Hey, do you want to drive the 5 car for next year?’ and I was like, ‘Yes, the answer’s yes’,” Vickers said of first being connected with the young Hendrick in a recent FOX Sports interview. “He’s like, ‘Well don’t you want to negotiate on the contract or anything?’ and I said ‘Nah, nope, the answer’s yes. I’m sure you’ll take care of me. Yes.’ And you know, that’s just something I’ll never forget.”
That kind of faith is a kind that you don’t find a lot but it exemplified the bond that Brian and Ricky shared during their time at Hendrick Motorsports. Vickers struggled during the early part of the 2003 season but under Ricky’s guidance scored three wins (at Lucas Oil Raceway, Darlington and Dover) in the final 13 races of the season to ice the championship, Vickers’ first in NASCAR national series competition.
“I look back on that time period with nothing but smiles; I mean, obviously, I had a hard time for a very long time dealing with Ricky’s loss and the loss of all those great people on that plane, and it’s still tough at times,” Vickers admits. “But you know, Ricky was just such a great guy and the world will miss him forever, and the world doesn’t even realize what they’re missing I don’t think because he was amazing already at his age and he was only going to get better.”
Following the tragedy, Vickers ended up leaving Hendrick Motorsports at the end of 2006, but says now he wouldn’t have changed what he did and doesn’t wish he had stayed.
“I mean, it was hard — it was a really hard decision — but I got in that car, and all I could think about was Ricky,” Vickers said. “It was time, I think, and I was still so young then, that when I left I learned a lot about myself and I learned a lot from making that change, but I don’t regret it and I’ll always cherish the time I spent there.”
“He gave me a chance I’ll never forget and I miss him dearly. I’ll always be grateful for that chance though. It changed a lot of things for me.”
If the crash was hard on Vickers, imagine what Rick and Linda Hendrick went through — losing a son, brother, two nieces and the company’s general manager in one moment.
Vickers says that’s why he very rarely talks about what he went through personally, citing his former boss’s loss as far more important than his own.
“Sometimes I do feel bad even discussing how it affected my life,” Vickers added. “I say, ‘You know, who cares how it affected me? What about Rick and Linda?’ How it affected my life is meaningless compared to how it affected their lives.”
Just months after losing his father, Hendrick now had to lay to rest four family members and some of his most trusted business associates. John was the president of the team. His daughters were Hendrick’s nieces. Jeff Turner was his general manager and one of his right hands. And of course, Ricky was the heir apparent, and the son gone too soon. All five were gone, and the champion team owner had to find a way to cope.
Hendrick said it was one of the hardest things he’s ever done.
“The hurt was just so bad, and it was so much grief,” Hendrick said in an interview earlier this week with ESPN’s Marty Smith. “The crash made all these holes, and all these people had meant so much to me. Plus … my family …”
“You blame yourself a lot. Then you blame the sport. Then you blame everything,” Hendrick said. “The first thing I always do is … If I had been on that plane that day, Ricky wouldn’t have been on it. We wouldn’t have taken that plane. You start playing [mind] games with yourself.”
After the crash, Hendrick did not return to the race track until Homestead at the end of 2004. He received a standing ovation that day in the driver’s meeting. But during that time span, he visited his employees at Hendrick Motorsports — found the strength to go, to speak, and to let every person there know that one way or another, the goals and aspirations of the ten people lost on that plane would live on.
“You just don’t think you can get through something like that,” Hendrick added to Smith. “And I really believe if you don’t have any faith or a lot of friends and family — and my family is huge, because of these folks, here.”
“We would not let their dreams die, but instead to go out and take it to the world. It’s amazing when you look at the record since then. It’s all about folks bonding together and needing each other and working together. And if we didn’t have the character and the chemistry we have here it would have all fallen apart.
“It was a point in time that this place built more character than any group I’ve ever seen.”
Now to the present, Hendrick continues to lead the team that he one day planned to pass on to Ricky, and every year — Martinsville returns as a biennial bittersweet pang. Martinsville was the track where Hendrick Motorsports, then All Star Racing, got its first-ever win with Geoff Bodine. It’s the track Hendrick Motorsports has more wins at than any other on the Cup circuit. It’s the track closest to Rick’s Virginia hometown, Palmer Springs.
It’s also the track that’s hardest for the team owner to go to nowadays.
“It gets easier,” he said. “But there’s days that just cripple you. I don’t want to run from anything. I’m supposed to be the leader here and be strong.”
Four Others, Never Forgotten
And of course, besides Randy, and Ricky, and the Hendrick family members and team leaders, there were others lost on that plane as well.
Joe Jackson was on the plane; he was an executive for Jeff Gordon’s longtime sponsor DuPont (now Axalta). Scott Lathram was there; he was a helicopter pilot for now-Hendrick-associated driver Tony Stewart. The two pilots of the plane, Richard Tracy and Elizabeth Morrison, were onboard as well. We cannot overlook and forget them either.
They have families who to this day, I’m sure, still remember and miss them every day. They are remembered by the NASCAR community and by the Hendrick community around this time every year.
It’s as the team said on Twitter today, and does every time the subject arises in conversation.
“Always in our hearts.”
That is a place for all of us affected, those ten faces and names will sit forevermore — on our minds and uplifting our spirits by the memories we were able to share with them.
So on this day, Ocober 24, 2014 — ten years following a day we will never forget — don’t despair in the pain of what we lost on that evening.
Instead, smile and take solace in the fact that all of us are carrying on their legacies every day: in continuing racing, and in trying to carry their dreams, goals and wishes forward in everything we do.
Hendrick Motorsports has won 101 races since that day in Martinsville, Virginia. That in itself is a call to how tightly the group of employees in that shop banded together after everything that happened and how badly those who were guided and taught by those who were lost wanted to honor the memories of their mentors.
The families and friends of those fallen have been able to live on and push forward. We never forget, but we each cope in our own ways and push forward because that’s what those ten would have wanted us to do.
And if you don’t do anything else today, I would ask you, if you’re wearing a hat, turn it around backwards.
That was Ricky’s thing. It’s a small way we can pay tribute to the memories of those we lost.
“Rick always yelled at his son for wearing his hat backward,” Johnson said after his first win following the tragedy, at Atlanta in November of 2004.
Today, though, no one would fuss.
They may be lost, but they will never be forgotten.