The crash that killed all 10 passengers aboard a plane bound for Sunday's stock-car race at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia resulted in a heart-rending loss for NASCAR owner Rick Hendrick, whose only son, brother and two nieces perished on the fog-shrouded mountainside. It also represented a devastating loss to the sport's most imposing dynasty, Hendrick Motorsports, whose present and future hinged on four men on board: John Hendrick, the company's president; Jeff Turner, its vice president and general manager; engine director Randy Dorton; and Ricky Hendrick, its heir apparent.
As investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board combed the wreckage yesterday, Hendrick remained secluded, and his four NASCAR teams -- two of which are in contention for the season's championship -- huddled in prayer and turned their attention to Sunday's race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, vowing among themselves to win all four races that remain.
"How can they?" asked NBC analyst Benny Parsons, the sport's 1973 champion. "How can they when the four people in the world -- the people who were such a huge part of their everyday lives and success -- are gone? Rick is there, but he's hurting to the point that who knows?"
Investigators had difficulty getting to the crash site, which is located in a thickly wooded and steep section of Bull Mountain in the foothills of the Appalachians. Crews on all-terrain vehicles recovered the 10 bodies.
An NTSB spokesman said the King Air Beechcraft 200 was not equipped with a flight data recorder, which is optional equipment on small, noncommercial aircraft such as the eight-passenger turboprop.
The plane's pilot told air-traffic control that he had missed his approach to land at the Martinsville/Blue Ridge Airport, flew past and was told to climb to 600 feet, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. There was no response.
Weather reports indicated a thick layer of fog at 600 feet, five miles visibility and calm winds.
According to the Associated Press, pilots of at least 20 other planes, most of them carrying sponsors and race fans, decided it was too dangerous to land at Blue Ridge Airport, and went to Danville Regional Airport.
Mike Rembold, manager of General Aviation Inc. at the Danville airport, said the pilots "were missing approaches. They would go down and not see the runway and then go back up. They headed here instead."
NTSB investigators will seek medical and training records of the two pilots, as well as maintenance records for the aircraft -- common procedures in crash investigations.
As the investigation continued and funeral arrangements were pending, condolences poured in from around the racing world. Race fans left bouquets of flowers, balloons and cards at the sprawling Hendrick Motorsports compound in Concord, N.C., where more than 450 employees build the cars that have won five championships for superstar drivers Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte.
At Redskins Park, Coach Joe Gibbs said his NASCAR operation would never have gotten going without Hendrick, who leased him motors and "pretty much just hand-fed me everything."
"My heart goes out to Rick," Gibbs said. "Here's a guy who has done so much in his life. . . . He's a mega sports person and a business person. And to see all of that taken in one fell swoop."
Penske Motorsports, among Hendrick's chief rivals, issued a statement that read: "In a sport that has seen tragedies occur throughout its existence, this is by far the worst that it has ever experienced. Our sport teaches us to deal with adversity and disappointment because there are far more losses than there are victories, but this event transcends all of these disappointments. This is a tragedy of insurmountable proportions."
Said veteran race announcer Doug Rice of Performance Racing Network, "If this happened in another sport, it would be an accident that took out the management team of the New York Yankees, and you suddenly woke up one morning and all of the people that built the structure and worked behind the scenes to put the Yankees on the field were gone."
Those closest to Hendrick simply wondered how their friend could recover.
"He's a strong person, but there's a limit to what any of us can bear," said Charlotte-based marketing executive Max Muhleman, who has known Hendrick for 21 years.
Hendrick, 55, grew up in Palmer Springs, Va., not far from South Hill, and came of age in an era when having grease under your fingernails and a rag in your back pocket were the ultimate credentials of cool. Obsessed with cars and speed, he built his first dragster when he was 14. And when adulthood demanded that he earn a living, he found his calling in used cars. That was the humble genesis of Hendrick Automotive Group, which today comprises 61 dealerships across the country and generates more than $2 billion in annual revenue.
Selling cars made Hendrick rich; making them go fast made him famous. Yet Hendrick never got above his rearing, even as his business soared and his NASCAR operation, which he launched in 1984, took off.
Hendrick pioneered the multi-car approach to stock-car racing, fielding two and three cars from the same race shop -- a formula that old-line racers sneered at, believing that "teamwork" was too soft a concept for the hard-scrabble confines of the track. He clung to his vision and, in time, developed a keen eye for racing talent. He gave the Indy 500's top rookie of 1980, Tim Richmond, his first big-time NASCAR ride. In 1992 he plucked the twentysomething Gordon from racing's lower ranks, and Gordon, now 33, rewarded him with four NASCAR championships.
Hendrick's charmed world came to a halt in 1996, when he had a rare form of leukemia diagnosed. Meantime, federal prosecutors alleged he funneled millions in cash and luxury items to Honda executives to get more cars to sell when demand exceeded supply. Weakened by illness, Hendrick pleaded guilty to mail fraud, was fined $250,000 and ordered to serve a year's time at his Charlotte home with no contact with his businesses or race teams.
During his exile he turned his illness into a charitable cause, establishing the Hendrick Marrow Program to help increase the ranks of bone marrow donors and raise money to help leukemia patients undergoing blood stem-cell transplants. During the 1997 Daytona 500, Hendrick's three race teams displayed the toll-free number for The Marrow Foundation, which is based in Washington, on their bumpers, and the exposure (Hendrick's three cars swept to a 1-2-3 finish) resulted in 16,000 calls.
Jill E. McGovern, chief executive officer of The Marrow Foundation, credits Hendrick's involvement with thousands of new potential blood-marrow donors and millions of dollars for research. In 2000, she joined Bank of America chairman and CEO Hugh McColl Jr. and former South Carolina Gov. Robert McNair in vouching for Hendrick's character as he sought a pardon from President Clinton, which was granted on Christmas Eve.
On Monday, she joined those mourning Hendrick's latest loss.
"He is someone who has done wonderful things to help his community and to help others," McGovern said. "I am just devastated."
Staff writer Nunyo Demasio and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.