NASCAR’s Hendrick Motorsports Endured Nightmare 17 Years Ago Oct. 24 After a Pre-Race Plane Crash Killed All 10 Aboard

In the hours after news broke on Oct. 24, 2004, of 10 lost souls following a NASCAR Nextel Cup Series pre-race plane crash, a single bouquet was placed near the entrance gate at Hendrick Motorsports’ shop in Charlotte, N.C.

Seventeen years ago, the team owner Rick Hendrick and his organization went numb. A company plane crashed en route to a race at Martinsville Speedway. It killed all 10 aboard.

The current pit crew of driver Kyle Larson honored the late Ricky Hendrick., but all felt the loss. Before the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on Oct. 24, the pit crew turned their team caps backward and pointed to the sky.

Heavy-hearted team owner Rick Hendrick lost his son, twin daughters, and brother

When Hendrick was an up-and-coming NASCAR driver, his father, Rick, often scolded him for not wearing his cap with the bill forward, but he still did it. He preferred it backward, and it became a running joke in the garage area.

The afternoon of the crash, team owner Rick Hendrick lost his son, twin daughters, and brother. The group took off in Concord, N.C., and traveled in a Beech 200 aircraft. It went down in the Bull Mountain area, about seven miles from the Martinsville, Va., airport.

Officials from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said a rescue team alerted immediately was initially challenged. The team had trouble getting to the crash site because of rough terrain but continued its attempts.

“We’re just saying extra prayers right now,” Jim Hunter, a NASCAR spokesman at the time, told media services as early reports of the tragedy were delivered.

The NTSB announced its investigators wouldn’t have a chance to begin until the next day.

Team owner Rick Hendrick’s dream season turned into a nightmare

Victory Lane stands empty after the awards ceremony was cancelled when news broke that a Hendrick Motorsports plane crashed before the NASCAR Nextel Cup Subway 500 on Oct. 24, 2004, at Martinsville Speedway
Victory Lane stands empty after the awards ceremony was cancelled when news broke that a Hendrick Motorsports plane crashed before the NASCAR Nextel Cup Subway 500 on Oct. 24, 2004, at Martinsville Speedway | Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

The 2004 season started as a dream for Rick Hendrick, owner of four teams with dominant drivers. In the Hendrick ’04 driving stable were Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Terry Labonte, and Brian Vickers.

During its 20th season competing on NASCAR’s premier series, the Hendrick organization celebrated being just the second team to amass more than 100 wins in the modern era.

NASCAR officials learned of the plane crash after the start of the Subway 500 but didn’t immediately release the news. Hunter said they elected not to inform the Hendrick drivers during the competition.

Johnson, who claimed the checkered flag that afternoon, was called away from an empty Victory Lane.

Letarte: ‘I wish it didn’t happen … we honored those 10 folks’

With his hat turned backward, Ricky Hendrick was growing within the organization. A former Busch Series driver, he seemed to be on the rise but retired in 2002 because of shoulder issues.

The younger Hendrick was transitioning into becoming a team owner. Vickers drove the team to a 2003 Busch Series title and it opened 2004 with a young Kyle Busch behind the wheel.

Hendrick and the rest of the nine souls were honored during the NBC broadcast on Oct. 24. Images were shown of Larson’s pit crew wearing their hats backward and pointing to the sky.

Larson’s machine was painted in the same scheme as Hendrick when he captured a truck race at Kansas.

Steve Letarte, who worked at Hendrick Motorsports as Gordon’s crew chief in 2004, recalled the moment he learned of the tragedy during the Oct. 24 broadcast.

“I wish it didn’t happen,” he said. “It was amazing how the team persevered through it. Everyone kept their head down and went to Atlanta the next week and won.

“We honored those 10 folks.”

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