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A Look at NASCAR’s Traveling Aviation Armada
As we have covered before, the world of sports chartering and traveling is a unique operation that requires each team making sure they have the resources and time to get to their destination. However, NASCAR teams and the requirement of moving multiple sets of teams is one that was briefly mentioned in our 2015 article but never fully realized. Now with Speedweeks 2020 in full swing, let us take a deeper glance into the world of NASCAR chartering and private jet usage.
In some ways, the NASCAR market is similar and opposite from the more internationally recognizable travel schedule of Formula One. Similarly, NASCAR’s more well-known celebrities tend to rely on private jets to get to and from the speedway. Some of these private jets are operated by the teams themselves while other drivers prefer their own metal and sometimes even pursue a pilot’s license to operate their own flights to the speedway.
The difference between the two is equipment hauling. NASCAR’s main mode of transporting cars is done by a tractor-trailer, unlike its European counterpart that sees over half of the calendar consisting of ‘fly away’ races where the cars and equipment are flown in via cargo aircraft. Formula One does have a few races that are reached via truck, but they are restricted to the European calendar which is performed over the summer months.
But for the crews who do not get the lavish life of the private jet world, arriving at the speedway can still be handled in house. Most well-known teams have their own fleet of aircraft to fly from Concord, North Carolina to races as far away as the U.S. west coast.
For big-name teams, the operation of flying their employees is handled with smaller regional jets. Well know teams like Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Stewart-Haas Racing and Penske Racing all have separate limited liability companies that were created specifically for their aircraft. The LLCs of these companies contain roughly two aircraft a piece with none of them operating aircraft with over 100 seats per plane.
Their commitment to the in-house charter operation would seem cemented with recent fleet renewals. Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing both pulled in used jet aircraft to increase the speed of getting crews to the speedway, replacing Saab 2000s in the process. Hendrick would opt for two ex-Chautauqua Embraer ERJ-145 while Gibbs would acquire two ex-Air India Regional Bombardier CRJ-700s. Both limited liability companies would sell their Saabs to Penair of Alaska.
Stewart-Haas utilizes two CRJ-200s that were acquired at different times, the original from defunct Independence Air in 2007 and a second from Mesa Airlines in 2012. Penske operates two aircraft, a 1999 Gulfstream G-IV and a 2003 Bombardier Challenger 800 with the latter prioritizing crew movements on weekends.
But not every team is as fortunate and the changing environment of both the aviation and racing world of the last few years has left some team aircraft disappearing from the ramp on race weekends. Roush Fenway Racing’s fleet of two Boeing 727s were retired in 2017 as the team was facing rapid downsizing from a four-car operation to a two-car operation.
Richard Childress Racing would also add to the pain by removing their Embraer ERJ-120 and ERJ-135 for operating cost purposes, with the latter now flying for hardware supply company Menards. Furthermore, the financial recession and the massive downsizing of NASCAR’s market has seen the loss of teams over the last two decades such as Bill Davis Racing, Evernham Motorsports and Ginn Racing, losing their Embraer ERJ-120s and Saab 2000s in the process.
For those teams that do not have their own aircraft, there is a choice of who to operate from four moving crews. The largest and most popular is that of Victory Air LLC, a charter airline made directly for NASCAR operations. The airline’s fleet of ten ex-ExpressJet Airlines Embraer ERJ-145s are positioned in North Carolina for the teams to use during race season. The race teams still pay to charter the aircraft but individual contracts are not made public.
For Victory Air, their purpose and history have closer ties to NASCAR than their current legacy might seem. The airline was partially founded by Allegiant Air CEO Maurice Gallagher, who is quite active in the NASCAR scene. He founded and is the owner of GMS Racing who fields cars in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series and previously supplied rides for his son, Spencer, until his retirement from active racing last year. Allegiant has also inked a deal to be the official airline of NASCAR, further pulling Gallagher’s assets closer to the NASCAR scene.
Competing with Victory Air LLC is Champion Air LLC. The competitor, who operates a three aircraft fleet of Embraer ERJ-145s, was formed nearly a decade before Victory Air launched operations. Champion Air LLC traces its roots back to the race team Dale Earnhardt Inc., which at its peak operated a three-car fleet including popular drivers including Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip. The team acquired its first Embraer ERJ-145 in 2002, using it for in house operations.
But the operations were going different directions, the airline was thriving while the race team was slowly dying. The charter company would acquire two ex-Luxair ERJ-145s to supplement its fleet and would eventually split from DEI in 2008 to form Champion Air LLC. During this time the race team was struggling to stay afloat, merging with Ginn Racing in 2007 to remain competitive before being absorbed into the Chip Ganassi Racing family two seasons later.
Currently, Champion Air LLC continues to fly its fleet of three aircraft and uses them for race teams including Chip Ganassi’s. Dale Earnhardt’s widow Theresa is in charge of the airline and keeps the three planes in DEI’s grey paint scheme with the former owner’s logo on the tail. When during offseason, Champion Air LLC does further charter work for other sports leagues to keep the aircraft active.
Should neither of these two limited liability companies please the racing market it is still possible for teams to forge deals with more traditionally known charter airlines. Aircraft from airlines like Miami Air International have appeared at Concord Regional Airport to take crews to their next race using the airline’s Boeing 737-800s. But much like the deals with other carriers, the extent of the deals are not usually made public.
So with race teams bracing for another long racing season that begins this weekend with the 62nd running of the Daytona 500, the demand for travel to racetrack will begin for these planes. And just hours after the checkered flag falls this Sunday these crews, owners and drivers will be back home in North Carolina thanks to the armada of aircraft that keep NASCAR moving.
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