NASCAR reflects on its constant air travel in wake of Dale Jr. crash

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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.”

Kaz Grala subs for Natalie Decker in Talladega Truck race

Kaz Grala
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Natalie Decker has not been medically cleared to compete in Saturday’s Truck Series race at Talladega (1 p.m. ET on FS1) and will be replaced by Kaz Grala in Niece Motorsports’ No. 44 Chevrolet the team announced Thursday.

Decker withdrew from last weekend’s race at Las Vegas after she was not medically cleared shortly before the race. She was credited with a last-place finish.

Decker tweeted Saturday that she was flying home where “more tests (would be) run so they can further evaluate and diagnose.”

No further details about Decker’s condition have been announced.

“We are thankful that Kaz is able to fill in for Natalie this weekend and appreciate him working with our team,” team general manager Cody Efaw said in a press release. “We wish Natalie the best as she works to be as healthy as possible to return to racing.”

Grala will make his first Truck Series start since 2017. He has 32 career starts in the series, including one win in the 2017 season-opening race at Daytona.

He drove in Austin Dillon’s place earlier this year in the Cup race on the Daytona road course after Dillon tested positive for COVID-19.

“My thoughts will be with Natalie this weekend as I wish her a quick recovery,” Grala said in a press release. “I know she loves the restrictor-plate races, so I feel bad that she’ll have to miss this one, but I hope I can give her something to cheer for on Saturday. 

“It’s been a few years since I’ve been in a Truck, but the superspeedway races have been very good to me in the past, so I’m really hoping to be able to go grab a win for Niece Motorsports at Talladega.”

FanVision closes due to impact of COVID-19 pandemic

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FanVision Entertainment, the company that produces video devices used by race fans at NASCAR events, has ceased operations due to the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The news was announced in a statement from Racing Electronics, the company which sold and supported FanVision devices at NASCAR tracks through a license with FanVision Entertainment.

Racing Electronics, which is owned by NASCAR, can no longer sell or support the devices.

“We recognize this news will be met with disappointment by motorsports fans across the country who utilized FanVision’s products as part of their at-track experience,” Racing Electronics president Chad Willis said in a statement.

“To help fans and industry members transition to Racing Electronics products, we are working with existing FanVision device owners to solve their race day needs. When Racing Electronics returns to the track, fans and industry members will have access to all the sounds that make racing so special.”

RCR, Hendrick to collaborate on Chevy engine

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Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing will team up on research and development of a common Chevrolet engine after the conclusion of the 2020 season, the teams announced Thursday.

The two organizations will continue to function independently as they “fully leverage the knowledge and intellectual property of our two successful programs to advance Chevrolet’s engine for NASCAR,” they said in a joint statement.

Engines produced by Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing (via ECR Engines) have earned a combined 20 Cup titles and the two teams have totaled 369 Cup wins.

Jeff Andrews, the new executive vice president at Hendrick Motorsports, told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” Thursday that discussions about the venture between his team and RCR began two years ago.

“The day was going to come when we really needed to figure out how to get these two programs together,” Andrews said. “A tremendous amount of talent, people and a tremendous amount of equipment and resources between the two programs. How could we do this? How could we take the longstanding heritage between these two companies and get that together to start working on an alliance that truly would produce the ultimate powertrain for Chevrolet NASCAR?”

RCR is headquartered in Welcome, North Carolina and Hendrick’s campus is in Concord, North Carolina.

“I think when you step back and look at it, ultimately you have to get to a point to where, when you have these resources and you have these people, we have to do what’s best for Chevrolet, first and foremost, to continue to push their performance and get them back to the front of the field and get them wins and championships,” Andrews said. “Really, we work together in a very similar fashion. We started two years ago on the aerodynamic side with our groups working very close together and we’re kind of taking somewhat of that template and applying to the engine side in starting this joint alliance.”

Chevrolet last won a Cup title in 2016 when Jimmie Johnson earned his record-tying seventh championship. Since then, Chevy has not had a car reach the championship four.

The Cup Series is in the middle of the Round of 12. The series races Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Of the 12 cars that remain, four are Chevrolets: Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon, Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kurt Busch.

Chevrolet cars have won six times through 30 races this season. That’s compared to seven wins in all of 2019, four in 2018 and and 10 in 2017.

NASCAR weekend schedule for Talladega

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The NASCAR playoffs roll on this weekend to Talladega Superspeedway.

All three national series will be racing on NASCAR’s largest oval. The weekend will be capped off by the Cup Series’ Round of 12 race.

More: Denny Hamlin on pole for Cup race at Talladega

MORE: 2021 Cup schedule features new tracks, bold changes 

Here is the weekend schedule for Talladega:

(All times Eastern)

Friday, Oct. 2

Noon – 2 p.m. – Driver motorhome parking (screening in progress)

1 – 3 p.m. – Truck Series haulers enter (screening and equipment unload)

3 – 9 p.m. – Truck Series garage open

3 – 8 p.m. – Truck Series garage access screening

3:30 – 4 p.m. – Truck Series rookie meeting (teleconference)

5:30 p.m. – Xfinity rookie meeting (teleconference)

6 p.m. – Xfinity driver-crew chief meeting

8:30 – 10:30 p.m. – Xfinity haulers enter (screening in progress)

 

Saturday, Oct. 3

7:30 a.m. – Xfinity garage opens

7:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m. – Xfinity garage access (screening in progress)

10 a.m. – Truck Series garage opens

10 a.m. – Noon – Truck Series garage access (screening in progress)

12:45 p.m. – Truck Series drivers report to vehicles

1 p.m. – Truck Series race; 94 laps/250.04 miles (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

4 p.m. – Truck Series haulers exit

4:05 p.m. – Xfinity drivers report to cars

4:30 p.m. – Xfinity race; 113 laps/300.58 miles (NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

5:30 p.m. – Cup rookie meeting (electronic communication)

6 p.m. – Cup driver-crew chief meeting (electronic communication)

7:30 p.m. – Xfinity haulers exit

8:30 – 10:30 p.m. – Cup haulers enter (screening in progress and equipment unload)

 

Sunday, Oct. 4

7 a.m. – Cup garage opens

7 a.m. – 1 p.m. – Cup garage access screening in progress

1:30 p.m. – Cup drivers report to cars

1:30 p.m. – Driver introductions

2 p.m. – Cup race; 188 laps/500 miles (NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

6:30 p.m. – Cup haulers exit