Auto racing doesn't pause long for periods of mourning. Death is such a frequent presence that racers and their families simply learn over time how to grieve and work at the same time.
So it was Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where NASCAR drivers and mechanics gathered under leaden skies to prepare for the weekend's races -- the first since 10 people were killed when a small Hendrick Motorsports plane slammed into a southern Virginian mountainside last Sunday.
Flags flew at half-staff, and other tributes to those lost -- which included the brother, only son and two nieces of team owner Rick Hendrick -- were writ large and small around the giant superspeedway. The hoods and bumpers of all four Hendrick racecars displayed decals with a photograph of the seven men and three women who perished, along with the phrase, "Always in Our Hearts." The two Dodges owned by Ray Evernham sported black car numbers, 9 and 19, instead of the customary white, along with the tail number of the King Air Beechcraft 200, "501RH."
But the most meaningful tribute, said four-time champion Jeff Gordon, the star of the Hendrick stable, would come on the racetrack Sunday and in the races that follow, where the Hendrick teams vowed to turn tragedy into triumph.
"I have never been so inspired and driven in my life," said Gordon, 33, who is second in the championship standings with four races remaining. "This is an important weekend for us for so many different reasons, but I can't think of anything that could drive us harder and stronger than this loss. . . . I think there is something that's going to allow us to dig a little deeper to try to make a difference -- whether it be for the families that are grieving, to try to ease their pain some, or for those that are, you know, looking down on us."
News of the crash, which occurred as the small plane attempted its second landing on the fog-shrouded airstrip, stunned the close-knit NASCAR community. As cards, e-mail and flowers poured in from around the country, hundreds of fans attended a candlelight ceremony outside the Hendrick Motorsports compound north of Charlotte on Wednesday night. Thursday brought a succession of services. Engine builder Randy Dorton was remembered as a "mechanical magician" during a morning celebration at Hickory Grove Baptist. Hendrick's son, Ricky, 24; his brother, John, 53; and his 22-year-old twin nieces, Kimberly and Jennifer, were eulogized at Charlotte's Central Church of God in the afternoon. An evening service was held for DuPont executive Joe Jackson. Meantime, nearly 3,000 gathered in Paducah, Ky., to mourn the passing of Scott Lathram, 38, who served as driver Tony Stewart's pilot. Lathram had hopped a ride on the Hendrick plane to the Martinsville, Va., track to present Stewart with an award from the U.S. Army Reserve. A 14-year member of the reserves, Lathram was due to ship out to Iraq the following week.
"That was an airplane full of the best people in the world -- the best people I knew," said Evernham, who teamed with Gordon to win NASCAR championships for Hendrick Motorsports in 1995, '97 and '98.
Evernham conceded it was hard to get on a plane and come to Atlanta this week. But like all racers, he is more comfortable at a racetrack than on a sofa. The roar of the engines has a way of drowning out sorrow. So does being around people who share that sorrow.
"I can promise you everybody in the garage area this weekend is feeling a lot of grief for the whole Hendrick organization and for Scott," Stewart said. "We all compete with each other on the weekend, but whenever we have a tragedy like this, everybody rallies around each other and is there for each other."
The Hendrick drivers and crew chiefs started their first day back at the track by holding a news conference in remembrance of their co-workers and friends. It was the only occasion, a team official announced, during which they would discuss the tragedy.
The drivers were solemn as they filed in, heads bowed, joined by their respective crew chiefs. There were no mirrored sunglasses, no trappings of superstardom. Only rookie Brian Vickers wore a cap, and he used it to obscure his tear-streaked face, which reddened each time his best friend and car owner, Ricky Hendrick, was mentioned by name.
Gordon began by thanking fans for their outpouring of support, both on behalf of the drivers, the victims' families and team owner Rick Hendrick, who will not attend the weekend's races. Then he and his teammates spoke in turn about the qualities of those who perished. Jimmie Johnson remembered the afternoon that Dorton, the engine builder, begged him over the radio not to tear up his race-winning engine as he did celebratory doughnuts after his first victory at Fontana, Calif.
Terry Labonte spoke of the leadership of John Hendrick, the team president who ran the operation for his elder brother when Rick Hendrick was battling leukemia in 1997. "The place never missed a beat," said Labonte, a two-time champion. And while they were sketchy on specifics, all drivers voiced confidence that Hendrick Motorsports' dominance in racing would continue despite the fact that four of its seven top executives died in the crash.
"I don't think I have ever seen anything that's going to pull this team together any closer than it can get than this," Labonte said. "It's going to be, I think, our way of being determined, to make it through this is to work together, try to get Hendrick Motorsports another championship and Rick Hendrick another championship and do it around all those people that we have lost, because if we didn't do that they would be mad at us."
Outside in the garage, stock-car racing's traveling chaplain, Dale Beaver of Motor Racing Outreach, looked on as members of the 58 teams trying to qualify for Sunday's MBNA 500 took turns pushing their racecars through NASCAR's inspection line. Dressed in khaki pants and a blue shirt, Beaver could have been mistaken for an ordinary fan gawking at the shiny racecars. But he was on the job, positioned at that particular spot for a reason, mindful that every crew member would be filing past at some point -- each of them carrying sorrow in his heart.
Some of the mechanics stopped for a word with the chaplain. Others just squeezed his arm or patted him on the back.
"About the only time these guys can really talk or focus on any kind of grief is in this inspection line," Beaver said. "So I'm just here to be available, to be visible."