Jimmie Johnson had just won the 2004 Subway 500 at Martinsville Speedway. It was a cool, cloudy day at the track, and everybody started slowly filing out of the grandstands after the race.
As we were making our way out of the stands, the track announcer came over the speakers and said something about a plane crash.
“What did he say?” We couldn’t quite understand.
But as we walked out through the grounds of Martinsville and past the rows of merchandise trailers, I saw a TV in one of the trailers with breaking news: A Hendrick Motorsports plane had crashed on its way to the race, just outside of Martinsville.
The plane was carrying several key executives from Hendrick Motorsports, the powerhouse NASCAR team whose driver had just won the race.
Onboard was team president John Hendrick, along with his twin daughters Kimberly and Jennifer; Ricky Hendrick, son of team founder Rick Hendrick and a rising star as a driver in the Busch Series; the team’s general manager Jeff Turner; and chief engine builder Randy Dorton, whose Hendrick engines were known for being the best in the Cup Series garage.
The plane was also carrying an executive for DuPont, the sponsor for Hendrick driver Jeff Gordon, and a pilot for fellow Cup Series driver Tony Stewart.
Everyone onboard, including the plane’s two pilots, were killed.
The Beechcraft King Air had taken off for its ill-fated flight from Concord, North Carolina earlier that morning, but weather conditions in Martinsville were poor. It was alleged in a later lawsuit that the pilots suggested flying into nearby Danville, Virginia instead, but that John Hendrick insisted on landing at the regional airport in Martinsville so they could make it to the race on time.
But the fog was heavy and visibility was low in Martinsville, and the pilots missed their approach as they attempted to land at Martinsville.
As they attempted to circle back around for another landing, the pilots failed to climb to their assigned altitude. The plane would crash into the side of Bull Mountain in Stuart, Virginia, about 20 miles from its intended destination of the Blue Ridge Airport.
There was no Victory Lane celebration that day for race winner Jimmie Johnson, because NASCAR called all Hendrick Motorsports personnel to their command center immediately after the race to inform them of the plane crash.
At the race the following week at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the Hendrick Motorsports cars would all carry a tribute to the ten who were killed. And once again, Jimmie Johnson would take the checkered flag.
This time, Johnson would get to drive his car to Victory Lane – where he was joined by Hendrick’s three other drivers, Jeff Gordon, Brian Vickers and Terry Labonte.
The entire team wore their hats backwards in Victory Lane in honor of Ricky Hendrick’s signature style. And Johnson was handed a cell phone during his celebration with team owner Rick Hendrick on the other line – still mourning the loss of his brother John and son Ricky, but wanting to congratulate his driver and his team on their win.
And today, Hendrick Motorsports driver Kyle Larson drives a car with the same number and paint scheme that Ricky Hendrick drove in the Busch Series before his untimely death.
I can only imagine what it would be like for Rick Hendrick to see that #5 car pull into Victory Lane at today’s race at Kansas – in honor of his son Ricky and everyone else who lost their lives, 17 years ago today.