It was the first time Brian Vickers smiled all weekend.
That was my first thought one Sunday afternoon, a scant four years ago when the dust had settled after the 2004 Bass Pro Shops 500. The second was that it took extraordinary courage and poise for the winning team to be there at all.
Racing rarely gives much, but it can take in an instant. Tragedy is constantly a hairbreadth away, and inevitably, sometimes, that line is crossed. Perhaps not so strangely, in a sport that is fueled by danger and excitement, triumph can also be fueled by tragedy.
We saw it in 2000, when it must have taken everything Kyle Petty had to climb into Adam Petty’s car and race. And again, when Tony Stewart won on a rainy New Hampshire afternoon to honor the bitter rival who was also an inspiration and a friend. And in 2001 when Steve Park picked up the pieces of a grieving organization and won on a cold February day at Rockingham.
Racing sometimes has a terrible cost. But, not unlike a cruel April Fools’ Day a decade and a half ago, it wasn’t supposed to happen like this. The cost of racing is supposed to be paid on the racetrack if it must be paid at all. Death may not come softly, but when it comes on the track, it is usually mercifully fast, and there is the small comfort that the driver who paid the ultimate price in a high-stakes sport went out in a blaze of glory doing what he loved best.
No, it wasn’t supposed to happen like this. But on October 24, 2004, four years ago today, an airplane carrying 10 people, crashed in the fog on Bull Mountain outside of Martinsville, Virginia. Two pilots and eight passengers were killed. There were no survivors. Pilots Dick Tracy and Liz Morrison were trying to make a landing approach, but the fog caused something to go horribly wrong. Among the dead were Ricky Hendrick (Rick Hendrick’s only son), Rick’s brother, John, president of Hendrick Motorsports and John’s twin daughters Kimberly and Jennifer. Randy Dorton, Hendrick’s head engine builder, Jeff Turner, HMS’ general manager, Joe Jackson, director of sponsor DuPont’s Motorsports program, and Stewart’s pilot, Scott Lathram, who has been due to leave for a tour as a helicopter pilot in Iraq just days later, were also lost. Rick Hendrick and Felix Sabates both almost boarded the plane, but Hendrick didn’t feel well and Sabates changed his mind at the last minute. John Bickford, Jeff Gordon’s stepfather, also bowed out at the last minute due to a cold.
The day of the crash, Jimmie Johnson won the race at Martinsville only to be told of the tragedy on the way to victory lane. Vickers turned 21 that day and was expecting Ricky Hendrick to spot for him in the race and take him out to celebrate later. The celebration never came as Vickers was only told throughout the race that the young Hendrick was delayed, so that he could be with friends and family when told the news of his best friend’s passing.
Nobody would have blamed the Hendrick teams if they hadn’t shown up the following week at Atlanta. But racers find comfort in racing, and four cars arrived at AMS with hood logos depicting and honoring their friends, Dorton’s powerhouse engines under those hoods, and the burning desire to honor their extended family members in victory lane.
On Friday, the Hendrick drivers, Gordon, Johnson, Vickers and Terry Labonte sat in a somber media conference along with Stewart and the four HMS crew chiefs. Vickers read a statement but declined questions, simply crying quietly for much of the event. The others called upon deep reserves of strength to answer the endless, painful questions. When it was over, they put their noses to the grindstone and buried their pain in the racing.
HMS qualified five cars for the race, but for most of the race on Sunday, it looked as though they wouldn’t get to honor their HMS family in the way they wanted to so badly. As Mark Martin dominated, HMS rookie Kyle Busch finished dead last, mechanical woes ending his day after just 44 laps. Gordon wouldn’t fare much better, completing 299 laps en route to a 34th-place finish, three places behind Labonte, who fell seven laps down on the way to 31st. Vickers was probably the sentimental favorite that day – Ricky Hendrick had been his best friend and Vickers’s birthday would always be overshadowed now by the tragedy. Vickers looked strong for parts of the race, and took home his career-best finish, seventh, but never quite had the car to seriously contend for the win. Johnson looked strong, but faded a bit on longer runs.
And all the while, Martin was running away with the race. Martin was no stranger to finding a reserve in the face of tragedy – his own father and hero was killed in a plane crash in 1998 along with Martin’s stepmother and 11-year-old half sister. He lost a gut-wrenching Michigan race, finishing fourth to Gordon, Bobby Labonte and Dale Jarrett, but won an emotional victory a week later at brutal Bristol, dedicating the victory to Julian Martin. But in Atlanta on Halloween 2004, Martin was running away with the show.
Then there was a late caution, and Martin’s Achilles heel was exposed. His car was dominant on long runs, but took a while to come in. Johnson’s car was a rocket off the blocks, but faded in later laps. The restart came, and Martin again jumped out to a lead while Johnson battled some slower traffic. Then Johnson began to reel Martin in. He caught up with a handful of laps left, and then slipped by. Johnson had a couple of rare slips in the closing laps, but he hung onto the car and took the checkers, feeling sick with emotion. Johnson didn’t do his signature burnout, but simply collected the checkered flag and took a reverse victory lap, tearfully saying on the radio, “In loving memory all the way.”
Crew chief Chad Knaus sat on top of the pit box for a long moment, head in hands, trying to gather his emotions. And every Hendrick crew member went to victory lane.
There is a plaque in the lobby of the HMS shop that Gordon and Johnson share that says, “Teamwork is the fuel that allows common people to produce uncommon results.” The team unity that has produced seven Cup championships to date was never more evident than on that October day. It can be argued that just to race was an uncommon result, but instead the team built triumph from tragedy.
Victory lane that day was moving and memorable. A teary-eyed Johnson took a phone call from Rick Hendrick. “Hi, Boss. How about that one?,” Johnson asked Rick Hendrick in a shaking voice. Johnson took a long time to climb from his car, fiddling with his hat and sunglasses, searching for the poise that is his trademark. And somehow he found it. Johnson gave his interviews with strength and grace, hat on backwards because that’s the way “Little Ricky,” the young man who had been so influential in convincing his father to take a chance on Johnson, a virtual unknown just three years earlier, wore his. Everywhere you looked, hats were on backwards, even on veteran teammate Terry Labonte. Johnson finished his television interview, clearly wanting to be with his teammates instead. As soon as the interview was over, Johnson fled to the waiting arms of his teammates. The HMS family gathered around, feeling the joy of victory over the sting of loss. And, for the first time all weekend, Brian Vickers smiled.