-- With seven NASCAR teams and roughly 300 employees, Richard Childress Racing needs five airplanes to keep his stock-car racing empire running. Hardly a day goes by that one of those planes isn't in the air ferrying mechanics, drivers and executives to promotional appearances, trackside tests or race weekends.
Childress was among the first NASCAR team owners to buy a plane for his business, realizing in the early 1980s that it made smart business sense, enabling the wrenches who logged 60 hours a week in the race shop to work a bit longer before having to pile into 18-wheelers for the long trek to racetracks in out-of-the way markets such as Talladega, Ala., and Riverside, Calif.
The NASCAR circuit has grown exponentially in the two decades since, and so has Childress's fleet. His racing complex in Welcome, N.C., now includes an airplane hangar, and his payroll includes eight full-time pilots and a slew of airplane mechanics.
Last Sunday's crash that killed all 10 aboard a Hendrick Motorsports plane has turned the spotlight on NASCAR's heavy reliance on small aircraft. But given the rigors of the season (teams race 38 weekends a year on tracks from New Hampshire to Southern California), that dependence likely won't change.
"I'm sure it's kind of a wake-up call for all of us," Childress said Saturday. But he doesn't foresee transporting his employees any other way.
"We put so much emphasis on safety, and you can only put so much," Childress said. "It's no different than running a racecar. You do everything you possibly can, and you're still going to have an accident."
Said former NASCAR spokesman Chip Williams: "It would be like after the Wichita State crash, someone going to every team in college football and saying, 'Do you really think you ought to be flying on planes?' " In October 1970, a twin-engine charter carrying Wichita State football players to a game at Utah State crashed in the Colorado mountains, killing 31.
The Hendrick crash wasn't NASCAR's first air-related tragedy. Champion Alan Kulwicki and three others were killed when their plane crashed en route to Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway in 1993. Later that year, Davey Allison died after crashing his helicopter while trying to land in the infield of Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. Other NASCAR figures have had close calls.
Team owner Jack Roush, an accomplished pilot, was pulled from an Alabama lake as fuel hemorrhaged from the engine of his twin-plane after it clipped a power line and crashed in 2002.
Still, few have more confidence in air travel than Roush -- particularly after he stopped leasing 10 small planes to transport his nearly 350 employees and bought a pair of 727s four years ago. The two jets take roughly 130 mechanics to NASCAR races each weekend. The drivers tend to fly in their own planes; Roush often flies himself. But he has no qualms about putting himself and his key executives on the same plane.
"The safest way to move people on the entire earth, outside of walking, is a commercial airliner," Roush said. "So I got commercial airliners, I maintain them to FAA standards, and the pilots are ex-airline and military pilots."
Like the Hendrick-owned Beechcraft 200, Childress's planes aren't equipped with a ground-proximity warning system, which alerts pilots if they're too low to the ground. All soon will be; Childress said he ordered the devices before the crash. On a personal level, Childress has long had a policy that he and his family not fly on the same plane, and that will continue. He also thinks some of the smaller airstrips on the circuit need more sophisticated equipment, including the one near Martinsville Speedway, where the Hendrick plane was bound, and Tara Field next to Atlanta Motor Speedway. "Even coming here to Atlanta -- I don't know that we've got the up-to-date equipment you need right here at this small place," Childress said.
Said former NASCAR champion Benny Parsons: "It's a very, very fast business. It's fast on the racetrack. It's fast getting to and from the racetrack. Life is very accelerated in racing. And when life is that fast, things are going to happen."
NASCAR Notes: Matt Kenseth won Saturday's Busch Series race, holding off an emotion-fueled charge by rookie Kyle Busch to win the Aaron's 312. Busch drives the No. 5 Chevrolet that had been driven by and owned by Ricky Hendrick, among those killed in last Sunday's crash. . . . Matt Kenseth won the 65-lap finale of the International Race of Champions Saturday and with it, the season's championship and $1 million prize.