NASCAR needs helos to move

 - May 9, 2008, 6:45 AM

The men and women who race cars on the Nascar circuit are addicts. They’re addicted to speed, addicted to the visceral rush of being first. Addicted to the buzz that comes from leading a pack of 750-hp, V-8-powered, steel-chassis racecars covered with frail fiberglass eggshells reinforced by layers of corporate logos. They’re addicted to the noise, a deep-throated, muffler-free, who-gives-a-damn-about-emissions sound for which the word “roar” isn’t nearly loud enough.

The pro auto-racing experience is all about movement, the sheer, unfettered exuberance of screaming down a straightaway and around a banked oval, and of course, getting there before the other guy. For the spectator it’s the sound, fury, color and for the lucky front row few who get down close to the track, it’s the in-your-face blast of wind and rending howl as 30 or 40 speed machines chase each other around banked ovals for a couple of hundred miles.

When a couple hundred thousand race fans gather (depending on the size of the venue) for the weekend ritual of Nascar racing, “getting there before the other guy” is made much more difficult. Nascar events are nearly as famous for their gridlocked spectator traffic jams as they are for their heart-stopping track action. Delays as long as the races themselves are not out of the question on both the way in and the way out.

While the irony of automobiles inching their way to a venue in which other automobiles will hurtle around a track at blinding speeds is probably lost on the public, it isn’t lost on the drivers. With a pressing need to get in and out of this automotive black hole, the Nascar superstars ironically opt for a mode of transport that flies in a straight line slower than they drive in a circle–the helicopter.

“Nascar is a victim of its own success,” said CTC president Jeff Flournoy, who heads a unique business specializing in “sports personality support.” Most often that means getting racing VIPs in and out of the popular venues so central to their livelihoods. The fine print on Flournoy’s business card says it all: “Sports marketing/Time and asset management.”

“When most of the major tracks on the Nascar circuit opened, this was still a small, mom-and-pop sort of business. Some of those early tracks could only seat a few thousand people. Today those small oval tracks, like Dover Downs in Delaware and Bristol, Tennessee, easily seat more than 100,000 and the really big tracks, like Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth and Talladega, Alabama seat many more than that. That means a lot of vehicles to move in and out. In the cases of the older tracks, that means ten of thousands of cars, trucks and vans, mostly trying to move over two-lane roads.”

Just for the record, the average attendance at a Nascar Winston Cup race is 191,984. Figure in two ticketholders per car and you’ve got a recipe for gridlock. Figure four per car and you’ve still got gridlock.

Five years ago, Flournoy and a friend were locked in one of these post-race jams when a helicopter buzzed close overhead. “Hey, wouldn’t it be great,” Flournoy’s friend mused aloud, “if we could get out of here on a helicopter?”

Time and Asset Management
With that, CTC was born. Don’t look for it on a Web site or in the phonebook. Based variously in Florida, North Carolina and Flournoy’s cellphone, CTC specializes in the unique travel needs of sport stars and those who make their living in the sports business. “They contract with us for a package,” Flournoy explained.

That package includes helicopter transport in and out of the venue. It also includes secure, discreet ground transport in plushly appointed vans, buses or SUVs, unmarked (no logos) and with windows so darkly tinted as to be nearly opaque. The anonymity helps run the gauntlet of enthusiastic Nascar fans, some of whom can be annoyingly aggressive in their quest for a glimpse of their favorite driver.

Today’s pro race driver travels between a trio of basic locations while on the racing circuit. First is the private jet, parked at an airport some miles distant from the track. The second is the track, home for the mobile circus that is a racing crew, the driver’s entourage, the racecars, the vehicles to transport cars and equipment and a lavishly completed bus outfitted with a complete bedroom, living room, kitchen and command center.

The third location is the helicopter. Drivers spend the least amount of time there but it is the most important corner of the race-day travel triangle.

The day AIN watched CTC in action, the Nascar traveling circus had stopped at eastern Pennsylvania’s Pocono Raceway for the Pennsylvania 500. Approximately 100 corporate jets operated by drivers, corporate sponsors and well-heeled racing fans were parked at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Airport (AVP), some 20 mi to the northwest; Mount Pocono Mountains Municipal (MPO), which is the closest to the track, just eight miles northeast; and even as far away as Lehigh Valley International (ABE) near Allentown, 30 mi south.

The main supplier of rotorcraft that day was North Carolina-based HeloAir, on the scene with a JetRanger, LongRanger and Bell 407. CTC also leased another pair of
JetRangers and an Agusta A109 from a third-party provider. All were shoehorned into a vest-pocket piece of real estate just outside Pocono’s famous “tunnel turn,” where the day’s race would be won a few hours later when Bobby Labonte squeezed past Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the race’s next to last lap.

HeloAir was a long way from its North Carolina home (at least for a helicopter operation) but as far as Flournoy was concerned, that was a compliment. “HeloAir is a really good operation and we use them whenever we can,” he said CTC’s faith in HeloAir is backed up by the fact that HeloAir was compensated for the deadhead time required to fly their helos from North Carolina.

Founded by president and one time stock-brokerage drop-out Whit Baldwin in 1993, HeloAir is an archetypical up-and-coming six-ship, six-pilot helicopter operator making do in all of the usual rotorcraft uses–except one. About 40 percent of its business involves support at a schedule of 16 of the annual 34 Winston Cup Nascar races. The rest of the time, HeloAir supports the electronic newsgathering operations for a pair of TV stations–WWBT in Richmond and WVEC in Norfolk, Va.–flies corporate charter, aerial photography and cinematography. In short, it does all the workaday stuff that any commercially viable helicopter operator does to make ends meet.

But it’s when talking about those 16 special weekends a year that Baldwin’s eyes shine. A Long Island, N.Y. native who was on the stockbroker career track when he got bit by the aviation bug in 1985, Baldwin came up through the ranks in the traditional way, doing odd jobs around the airport in return for flight lessons, then taking that license and using it to build hours any way he could. “Three hours a day flying traffic watch day in and day out builds up a logbook like nothing else,” Baldwin recalled with a smile.

In 1993 he took the plunge and started HeloAir with a single helicopter. Since then, he’s added a helicopter nearly every year, today fielding a fleet consisting of a Schweizer 300C, a quartet of JetRangers, a LongRanger and a Bell 407.

Considering against the traditional VIP transport role helicopters have long performed, the Nascar mission is the same and yet different. Most of these VIPs have their families with them–wives, girlfriends, kids. The drivers are used to getting where they want to go in a hurry. That’s why they’re paid to do what they do. To get places fast.

“There are really two races going on here today,” shouted Baldwin over the howl from the track just yards away at the tunnel turn. “There’s the Nascar race and then there’s the race to get out of here. The drivers and the rest of the VIPs are trying to avoid two traffic jams. One is on the ground. The other is on the runways at the airports where there are so many jets and turboprops trying to take off at the end of the race.”

“Everybody wants to get out of here at the same time,” agreed Flournoy. “It’s our job to make that happen. Sometimes it isn’t easy.”

One way Flournoy and Baldwin can make it easy was demonstrated last Memorial Day. Driver Tony Stewart finished the Indy 500 (placing sixth) then dashed to the waiting Bell 430 for a trip to an Indianapolis airport.

There he boarded a Cessna Citation X that whisked him on a 425-mi, 44-min trip to Concord (N.C.) Regional Airport. On the ground for just seconds, Stewart boarded a Bell 230 chartered from HeloAir (via a management agreement) and hustled on over to Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Concord in time to climb into his prepped-and-waiting car so he could compete in the Coca-Cola 600. Stewart placed third in that race, capping a day filled with 1,100 mi of competition racing.

It’s Showtime

Up on the track, the Pennsylvania 500 is building toward a furious climax. Nascar superstar Jeff Gordon, leading for most of the race, blows his lead in a poorly executed pit stop. Down at the heliport Flournoy is pacing, glued to his cellphone. Some of his high-powered racing clients, out of the race due to fender benders or mechanical problems, are already on their way. Top competitor (and CTC client) Dale Jarrett hits the wall twice and leaves the race early. He arrives at the heliport. Other corporate clients are pulling in on their golf carts. Both Baldwin and Flournoy glance nervously at an increasingly threatening sky. The race-track management had barred Flournoy from bringing in one of his plush motor homes to use as a VIP shelter. Something about damage to the grass during a previous race. And Baldwin’s helicopters are strictly VFR.

An ESPN video crew awaits the end of the race, glued to radios giving them play-by-play coverage. Suddenly it’s over. Labonte wins. “It’s showtime,” one of Baldwin’s ground crew murmurs with a smile.

Within minutes, the golf carts are rolling. If you’re a racing fan, this is nirvana. Here’s Keith Harvick. Steve Park. Tony Stewart. And top Nascar moneymaker and poster-boy heartthrob Jeff Gordon. The superstar drivers roll in within minutes of the checkered flag, looking surprisingly cool, calm and collected, considering how they’ve just spent the afternoon. With tens of millions of dollars of moneymaking race winners anxious to leave, the rotors started turning.

What transpires is a rotorcraft race in its own right, as seats are rapidly filled and collectives pulled. As soon as one helicopter leaves, another arrives to take its place. Baldwin’s ground handlers shepherd their charges toward open helo doors and away from turning tail rotors. One of them helps strap an infant in a carseat into the back seat of a LongRanger. The seat secured, the pilot gets a thumbs-up and the LongRanger launches.

Not all the helicopters at the Pocono raceway heliport are under contract to CTC, although HeloAir is in charge of managing the facility. A pair of Eurocopter AStars operated by Linden, N.J.-based Liberty Helicopter sweep in to pick up their passengers.

MBNA American Bank’s Delaware-based S-76C kicks up some dust as it drops in to take away Gordon and his wife Brooke. (Curious, because Gordon drives for DuPont. MBNA’s race team driver, Bobby Labonte, had not won a race in many months. But he won the Pocono 500. Nevertheless, should Gordon’s ride on the MBNA corporate copter be interpreted as a come-hither overture? “It’s significant,” muses the ESPN cameraman.)

For roughly half an hour, the shuttle never stops. There’s a frantic “last plane out of Saigon” feel to it. Then, as sudden as the silence that followed the shattering sound that is a pack of cars passing at 180 mph, the helo airlift is over.

The last helicopter out of Pocono Raceway carries Baldwin, Flournoy and one of their ground workers. The long race day is over. Below, the lines of traffic stretch away for miles, highlighted by ripples of crimson brake lights as race fans stop-and-go their way home. In the helicopter, Flournoy is already making plans for the next Sunday’s race, the Brickyard 400, 700 mi away at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The task will be the same, the logistics different.

“Without the helicopters, without the sort of services we and CTC provide, Nascar’s sort of schedule wouldn’t be possible,” said Baldwin. “It’s a traveling circus and it’s exciting to be a part of it.”