The Hood family now lives by the edge of the Smoky Mountains near Bristol, TN. Bristol Motor Speedway, a popular NASCAR racetrack, held a big 500-mile race in mid-March and I showed up to see the sights. I didn’t go to the race, but did show up at the airports used by NASCAR, the Air Force, and fans.
Back in the day, several race drivers flew their own planes to races. (One of them, Bobby Allison, bought a new Aerostar from me in the 1980s, and I still brag about it.) Today the drivers, pit crews, and fans fly in and it is a sight to behold.
My first airport stop was the day before the race, at Elizabethton (properly pronounced E-liz-a BETH-ton) Municipal Airport. I was met by FBO and airport manager Dan Cogan, a real go-getter in every good sense. Aviation needs more like him. Dan took us (pilot friend Julian King was with me) on a tour of the airport, spending much of his time talking about his wonderful tenants, customers, and employees. That’s a breath of fresh air in today’s grumpy world.
A big NASCAR race provides Dan with customers, including helicopters carrying folks back and forth to the track for a fee, airplanes flying banners over the racetrack, and fans who fly in and out in their own or chartered aircraft.
Dan drove us out to watch the banner-towing launch site, then introduced us to the local medical helicopter crew, his employees, the owner of the local helicopter maintenance facility and a few of his customers. Look for stories on some of these people in future blogs I write for www.airportbusiness.com.
On race day I visited Tri-Cities Regional Airport (TRI), where race crews park their airplanes. It looked like the airport ramp at the annual meeting of OPEC. You haven’t seen such beautiful propjets/jets in one spot since Detroit flew to D.C. to beg for money. If there was a piston-powered airplane on the ramp, I didn’t see it.
Just for one example, Joe Gibbs Racing brought in two Saab 2000 aircraft. The 2000 is a Rolls-Royce-powered European propjet airliner that carries 50 people. Gibbs also had a Lear on the ramp. In case you still think NASCAR is just a bunch of good old boys, FedEx had a team there, as did Target and others. Seems every business wants to have its name on the side of a NASCAR racer.
Another big team is Hendrick Motorsports. The team flew 30 relief trips to Haiti at a cost of some $300,000. They hauled 1,800 people in/out plus more than 50 tons of supplies. That’s right sporty.
So, where were the airplanes flown in by race fans? TRI actually closed down one runway and parked those jets on that runway.
Everyone I met agreed that NASCAR crews are invariably nice folks, unlike many of the high-dollar competitors we read about in other sports. That’s no accident, but a longtime effort of the France family that is responsible for much of the growth of NASCAR. It’s great to see general aviation participating in NASCAR’s success.