BRISTOL, Tenn.—There was a sense of relief in the Bristol Motor Speedway garage after Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his family’s harrowing escape from a plane crash at Elizabethon Municipal Airport on Thursday.
Earnhardt’s Cessna Citation Latitude bounced at least twice on the runway on landing, collapsing the right-side main landing gear. Earnhardt, wife Amy, daughter Isla and the two pilots evacuated before the plane burst into flames.
The former NASCAR driver turned NBC Sports analyst was treated at Johnson City Medical Center before spending the night in his motor home at the track.
Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt’s teammate for nine years at Hendrick Motorsports, was notified early on about the accident. He texted Earnhardt and immediately received a response allaying any fears about the situation.
“Ten to 15 minutes later, I could see what was showing up on social media and I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Johnson said. “I thankfully was able to make contact with him soon and understand he and his family were safe and fine and didn’t go into those emotions—I’m sure those very raw emotions that would have been triggered.
“I watched Kyle Petty and the emotions that were triggered for him with Alan Kulwicki way back when. I’m sure I would have gone down that road as well. Thankfully, I didn’t.”
Ryan Blaney wasn’t as lucky. He was on his way to a sponsor appearance on Thursday when he received a text with a headline of Earnhardt’s plane crash and a link to the article with photos of the charred Cessna.
“I had a mini heart attack,” Blaney said. “Because I didn’t know anything. I clicked on the article—and when it finally said they were OK, it was a big relief. When you see stuff like that, you think the worst. I was happy that they were good.
“I saw them (Thursday) night. I went over when I got back to the race track just to see them. They’re doing pretty good. Dale’s back was hurting him a little bit and he was going to get that checked out. Just lucky, really lucky, that everyone is OK—Amy, Isla, Dale and the two pilots. That’s really fortunate. You don’t see that too often. It scared me to death. It was nice to see them in person.”
Second-generation driver/pilot Chase Elliott was glad his former teammate was safe.
“Just a crazy deal,” Elliott said. “Just glad to see them all walk away from that. It’s never anything you want to see or open up your phone to.”
As for safety precautions with his own aircraft, Elliott says, “You do all the things you’re supposed to do and then some. Try to be smart about all of that stuff and make good judgment calls. I don’t really have anything else to say about that. I’m just glad they’re all right.”
Brad Keselowski flew the same route as Earnhardt to Bristol on Friday with his wife and daughter. The accident took a while to soak in for the driver, who received his first break from Earnhardt in the Busch Series. Despite not being a “good flyer,” Keselowski is anything but an apologist for private aviation. The option to fly as opposed to a three-hour drive is about maintaining work-life balance for the Team Penske driver.
“We’re trying to be good dads and husbands,” Keselowski said. “Trying to leverage the privileges we have to do just that. That’s probably the easiest way to answer that. I flew up this morning, landed at the same airport. Flew right over the (wreckage of the) plane. By staying home (Thursday) night, I got to have dinner with my daughter. Her grandparents got to come over. That’s a big deal. You don’t get to have many nights like that.
“At Michigan, Michigan week, I wasn’t home at all. I didn’t spend any time with my family. I look through the pictures of my daughter as she’s growing up, and she’s four-years-old now and I ask, ‘God, how did my daughter turn four-years-old?’ It happened like that (snaps fingers) while I was at races at Michigan and gone all week and didn’t get to see them. When I have a week like this when we can make the most of it, we’re going to try like hell to make the most of it and we are able to do that because of private aviation.”
From an outside perspective, most people only see the time drivers spend at the racetrack. Unlike stick-and-ball athletes who rely on team planes to criss-cross the country from one stadium to the next, drivers are often busier during the week with sponsorship responsibilities than they are with the actual duties of racing.
“I understand that most people won’t get that concept, but most people aren’t in the situations we’re in as race car drivers,” Keselowski added. “We travel every week. We’re not like LeBron James. We don’t get to sit on the bench or stay home for a week. This is 38 weeks. And they will run the race without you. And your ass will get fired if you don’t show up.
“So, that’s really hard to explain to people and it’s very hard to explain to your wife and daughter when you miss something that’s very special to them. Private aviation is a great way for us to try and fill those gaps. It’s something I’m very passionate about and very thankful for.”