A plane carrying 10 members of the Hendrick Motorsports organization crashed yesterday en route to a NASCAR auto race in Martinsville, Va., killing all eight passengers and the two pilots aboard, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
Rick Hendrick, the owner of the company, identified the dead as Ricky Hendrick, Rick Hendrick's son and a retired NASCAR driver; John Hendrick, Rick Hendrick's brother and president of the organization; Kimberly and Jennifer Hendrick, John Hendrick's 22-year-old twin daughters; Joe Jackson, an executive with DuPont, sponsor of Jeff Gordon's car; Jeff Turner, general manager of Hendrick Motorsports; Randy Dorton, the team's chief engine builder; Scott Lathram, a pilot for NASCAR driver Tony Stewart; and pilots Dick Tracy and Liz Morrison.
The news was a heart-rending blow for one of the more storied teams in stock-car racing -- one that has won NASCAR championships for Gordon and Terry Labonte. Both drivers were competing in yesterday's Subway 500 at Martinsville Speedway, along with teammates Jimmie Johnson and Brian Vickers, and were not informed of the crash until after the race. Johnson won the race, his sixth victory of the season, and was excused from Victory Lane festivities to be told of the tragedy. Both he and Gordon, who is seeking his fifth NASCAR title, are in contention for the sport's 2004 title. Gordon is second in the points standings with four races remaining, while Johnson is fourth.
A spokeswoman for the National Transportation Safety Board confirmed yesterday that the Hendrick-owned Beech 200 took off from an airport in Concord, N.C., and crashed into the Bull Mountain area about seven miles west of Martinsville's Blue Ridge Regional Airport about 12:30 p.m.
The Associated Press quoted a nearby resident as describing the weather at the time of the crash as extremely foggy.
Hendrick Motorsports employs more than 400 people at its complex north of Charlotte and has won five titles in NASCAR's most prestigious series, the Nextel Cup (former Winston Cup); three titles in NASCAR's truck series; and one in its Grand National series.
In addition to its accolades, the team has had its share of hard times in the past decade. Founder Rick Hendrick learned he had a life-threatening form a leukemia in 1996. Shortly after that diagnosis, he was banned from the sport for one year after pleading guilty to mail fraud in connection with the American Honda Motor Co. bribery and kickback scandal. During his year away from the sport, his brother John ran the team. Throughout, Hendrick remained one of the more admired men in auto racing, and he was granted a full pardon by President Clinton in 2000.
NASCAR Vice President Jim Hunter said through a spokesman last night: "We're working very closely with members of the Hendrick Organization. We're just saying extra prayers right now."
News of the tragedy prompted an outpouring of sympathy from stock-car racing fans across the country. At the sprawling Hendrick Motorsports compound, fans stopped to leave bouquets and cards of condolences. By early evening more than 2,000 had posted condolences on NASCAR's Web site.
Some proclaimed themselves longtime supporters of the Hendrick stable of drivers. Others confessed they rooted for rival drivers. But all set their loyalties aside in sending along their thoughts and prayers.
"Race fans and team are a family, and families help each other and rally around one another in times like these. My heart goes out to the entire HMS [Hendrick Motorsports] family," wrote one fan.
Nearly all NASCAR race teams own private planes. Lear jets and small aircraft have become a near necessity for the drivers and mechanics who compete in a sport that runs 36 weekends a year in small, mid-sized and major markets around the country. It's not the first time members of NASCAR's close-knit community have lost their lives in plane accidents. The sport's 1992 champion, Alan Kulwicki, was killed in a 1993 plane crash en route to Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway. Later that year Davey Allison died when the helicopter he was piloting crashed as he attempted to land in the infield at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. Team owner Jack Roush nearly lost his life after crashing a small plane in Alabama in 2002.
Hendrick's only son, Ricky, 24, dabbled in a racing career before being sidelined by injury and was being groomed to take over the family business, having been named owner of one of the operation's four Nextel Cup teams.
NTSB public affairs officer Keith Holloway said officials would begin documenting the wreckage this morning, hoping to find a voice recorder or anything that could shed light on the reasons for the crash.