BRISTOL, Tenn. – As his plane began a descent into the Tri-Cities Regional Airport, David Ragan buckled his seat belt.
For a NASCAR driver, that would seem to be second nature after making a living out of driving at 200 mph.
It was a point that reinforced by the terrifying plane crash Thursday involving Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his family.
“Because you get in that habit where you sit down, and you don’t buckle up, you’re already pulling out your phone looking at it,” Ragan told NBCSports.com Friday morning at Bristol Motor Speedway. “It’s a shame that situations like that do have to happen in order to be reminded. We’re very grateful that Dale and his family were safe, but that will be a good reminder for all of us.”
The NASCAR community unfortunately needs few reminders about the realities of aviation tragedies. On April 1, 1993, defending Cup series champion Alan Kulwicki died in a plane crash on approach to the Tri-Cities Regional Airport in Blountville, Tennessee. A few months later, Davey Allison was killed after suffering head injuries in a helicopter crash at Talladega Superspeedway.
On Oct. 23, 2004, 10 people were killed when a Hendrick Motorsports plane crashed into a Virginia mountain en route to Martinsville Speedway (among the dead were team owner Rick Hendrick’s brother, son and nieces, as well as head engine builder Randy Dorton). Team owner and pilot Jack Roush also has survived two plane crashes, including a 2010 incident that robbed him of vision in his left eye.
With a 10-month, 36-race schedule, NASCAR drivers and teams are constantly in the skies traveling, and Thursday’s crash drove home that reality and the opportunity for reflection.
“As you put it all into perspective and you really realize the amount of time that you spend in an airplane and all the places that you go and things that you do and the amount of time that is required to travel, it’s definitely a reminder of things that can happen,” Kevin Harvick said. “But just thank God everybody is OK because you look at the pictures and all the things that went on, it’s amazing that everybody is OK and, in the end, that’s the best part of that scenario. There’s really no good part of it other than everybody is OK.”
Ragan, who announced Wednesday that 2019 will be his final full-time season in the Cup Series, said “we take for granted how much of a risk we do take every week flying into small airports on small airplanes. We hop in late at night, and we leave. That is something that the sport is just accustomed to, and accidents do happen.
“Accidents happen on the roadways, in the garage area, on the racetrack and certainly on the transportation side, but (Thursday’s crash) just reminds me that you need to be grateful for every situation like that. That there are some serious situations that when accidents do happen, you need to be prepared.”
Kurt Busch said Earnhardt’s motorhome was parked next to his in the Bristol lot, and he watched Earnhardt leaving last night for home as he arrived.
“I was glad that he, his family and the pilots are OK; it’s a tough situation,” Busch said. “We all travel quite a bit and it was just tough to read about it. I’m sure the facts will start to unfold for us to figure out what happened, and I’m just glad he’s OK.
“We will miss him this weekend. I think it’s best for him to be at home. His motorhome was parked next to mine and they were leaving last night as we were pulling in. It’s just tough when you’re missing a good friend from the racetrack.”
Said Clint Bowyer: “It takes your breath away. Those are people that are our friends, family of NASCAR. When you see them in trouble like that, you see the video, that hits home, man. … That’s how we travel. (Earnhardt’s dog) Gus comes out of that thing. I can see Trip (Bowyer’s dog) in the same and my wife. I just couldn’t imagine. You really can’t put yourself in that situation. It was very, very scary for all of us to be bale to watch that and have to watch that.”
Martin Truex Jr., who was given the break by Earnhardt that led to his two Xfinity Series championships and is one the 15-time most popular driver’s closest friends on the circuits, said it was “surreal” to hear the news of the crash.
“I talked to Kelley (Earnhardt Miller) last night, yesterday on the way before coming here and just happy that everyone is OK,” he said. “It’s really a blessing. They’re like family to me. It was definitely scary. I can’t imagine the thoughts that went through their head and what they’re thinking right now, but just glad that everybody is OK. For us, airplane-wise, safety is always the No. 1 concern, and we don’t take any chances. I guess you just never know how things can play out.”
The plane crash has a little more meaning for Kyle Busch, who has the same plane as Earnhardt, a Citation Latitude, which is serviced by his Truck Series sponsors, Cessna and Textron Aviation
Busch learned about the crash from his own pilot.
“As soon as he said, ‘Junior’s plane went down’ my heart just dropped,” Busch said. “My first thing was, ‘Well, are there any survivors?’ Because you don’t know any of the details, originally, then a lot more of the details start coming out and you start hearing things. It’s a scary situation, you know?
“I know Junior’s had his pilots for a long, long time. I don’t know any of the details passed what you guys all know because I haven’t spoken to anybody. Everybody has procedures and protocol and things like that, and I feel like Cessna and Textron Aviation, those guys do an amazing job. They actually help me manage my aircraft. … It’s been a fantastic aircraft to get me from Point A to Point B, and it’s always been there for us and it’s done a phenomenal job. … My wife (Samantha) is in the air right now flying her way here on the plane and hopefully everything goes well and everything’s normal on that end.”