Flying with the NASCAR Air Force

I learned more from my high school social studies teacher, Mrs. Packan, than any other teacher I’ve ever had. One of the lessons that has stuck to this day is that there is a “good” reason and a “real” reason for every decision.

When we moved to South Carolina in 1998, the “good” reason was a job. My husband, an A&P mechanic with a major airline, was stationed at the Charleston Air Force Base, tasked with repairing engines on the C-17s. Moving from Indiana to South Carolina really was a no-brainer (I’m not a fan of the snow), but I soon found out the “real” reason for the move soon after we settled into our new home. South Carolina is in the heart of NASCAR country. Our home is within easy driving distance of many of the biggest tracks. We are surrounded by NASCAR fans – make that fanatics – who make annual pilgrimages to their favorite tracks, whether it’s Daytona, Charlotte or nearby Darlington, the track that’s “too tough to tame.”

Sunday afternoons from February to November are punctuated by sounds from the television of cars whizzing by at close to 200 mph. My son, just 6 years old, can tell you not only the drivers’ names, but their numbers and sponsors.

My interest in NASCAR is passing. I frankly don’t have the patience to sit through an entire race. A friend of mine explained it best: “I wouldn’t want to drive 400 miles, so why would I want to sit and watch someone drive 400 miles?”

But there are times when the drama of NASCAR catches my attention, such as in 2001 when Tony Stewart competed in the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, breaking a one-day record by driving 1,100 miles. The only way he could achieve that, of course, was by using a helicopter to transport him from Indianapolis to the Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Charlotte.

In fact, most of my fascination with the sport revolves around its ties to aviation, including the NASCAR Air Force. It is made up of King Airs, Lears, Brasilias, Gulfstreams, Falcons and other aircraft owned by the drivers and companies behind them. Since race season runs from February to November, ready access to their own planes is a necessity, not a luxury, say NASCAR officials.

The hub of operations for the NASCAR fleet is Concord Regional Airport (JQF) in North Carolina. It is estimated that 99% of the NASCAR teams are within 25 miles of that airport. During a race week, more than 1,700 people fly in and out of JQF, and that’s just the owners, teams and drivers. When there’s a race at nearby Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Charlotte, the ramp is crowded with jets and turboprops – and even some single-engine models – as fans fly in for the race. The NASCAR fleet alone buys about 40,000 gallons of fuel each week to get to a race – a lot more if a race is in California or Las Vegas.

Many of the drivers also have their pilot certificates, including Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Bill Elliott and Greg Biffle. Of course, after a grueling week getting ready for races and then driving up to 500 miles on race days, those drivers, more often than not, leave the piloting duties to the pros.

Unfortunately, the only time the general public reads about the NASCAR fleet is when tragedy occurs, such as last year’s crash of the Hendrick Motor Sport King Air 200 on the way to Richmond International Raceway in Virginia. All eight people aboard were killed.

When something like that happens – or when accountants start looking at ways to cut costs — it’s almost inevitable that those with the purse strings begin to question the importance of having a GA plane. A few years ago, Ronnie Fountain, president of the Race Teams Aviation Association, took on the challenge of proving the importance of GA to his operations when the head bean counter complained about aircraft bills. He told GAN freelance writer Amelia Reiheld that he put together a spreadsheet with all the costs of purchasing and maintaining aircraft, flying them and hiring flight crews. He then compared those numbers with the costs of airline tickets (often purchased at the last minute) for the whole team, transportation from sometimes distant commercial airports, delays, scheduling constraints, costs of additional overnight stays and per diem for the entire crew, which can number several dozen. Even Fountain was surprised at the results: “I was able to show that we were saving $300,000 a year. I never heard another complaint about airplane bills.”

Now that’s a real good reason for GA and NASCAR to be so closely intertwined. (Look for Reiheld’s story on NASCAR’s Air Force in an upcoming issue).

Janice Wood is one of four people who regularly contribute to this column.

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