Freaked in Flight Back in '89 I was one of the few racers who flew his airplane, and every pilot has a memorable, or forgettable, flight. I took off from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in my brand-new, twin-engine Beechcraft Baron 58, bound for a special autograph session in Connecticut, about an hour's flight. Kenny Schrader, Michael Waltrip, Kyle Petty, and Rick Wilson were with me. Schrader wasn't a pilot, but he always sat in the copilot's seat near the door, which he was responsible for closing and latching top and bottom.
Pretty soon we heard a noise, like wind gushing by, and discovered that the top latch on the door wasn't engaged and was ajar about 3 inches. I thought Schrader had secured the door, and he thought I had. I said we'd have to land to close it. Schrader said, "Let's slow the plane, open the door, and slam it."
I backed off from 190 mph to 120 and turned on the autopilot. By this time, the guys on the plane were nervous. When we unlatched the door, it popped like an explosion, and we couldn't slam it. That scared the hell out of everybody. The pressure on the exterior of an aircraft is extreme, and the door didn't fly open, or the air rush in, but it was cracked 3 inches all the way down and made a terrible noise. The pressure difference inside the cabin knocked the autopilot off, and the plane fell about 25 feet, like hitting an air pocket, before the backup system kicked in. Schrader and I looked at each other to acknowledge that the idea was stupid.
I slowed the plane some more about 80 miles from our destination. Schrader and others, a sweatshirt wrapped around one arm against the cold, took turns holding the door. Everybody in the back was freaked, and some asked questions. Kyle seemed to have all the answers. What happened if the door flew off and hit a propeller? No way, Kyle said, because of the outside air pressure on the plane. Then he added that if the hinges broke and the door knocked the tail off, we'd die.
Well, we made it. As soon as the plane slowed on its landing roll, we grabbed the door, and it shut perfectly. The guys felt as relieved as I did, and many yarns followed, exaggerated with each telling.
Red-faced Livid The '97 Winston 500 at Talladega was postponed on Sunday and rescheduled for Monday. I had attended the drivers meeting on Sunday and made the usual prerace preparations before the postponement. I was in my motorhome on Monday morning when a NASCAR official knocked on the door. He said Mr. France wanted to see me right away. What did I do? I asked myself. I showered and went to the NASCAR trailer. France was there with Andy Petree, Jimmy Makar, and a couple of other crew chiefs.
I asked, "What was the deal?"
France said I had missed the drivers meeting.
I said, "We had the drivers meeting Sunday."
He said, "Well, we had another meeting earlier this morning."
I said, "I wasn't informed of that."
He said they didn't have to announce it, that there's always a meeting two hours before the start of a race.
I said, "That's bull."
I had qualified fourth, and when he said I'd have to start in the back, I was red-faced livid. I had a full cup of coffee in my hand and splattered it all over the wall of the NASCAR trailer. Thank God the walls were laminated and not felt like they are now.
As I got up to storm out, Gary Nelson (Winston Cup director) blocked me and said we couldn't have a driver as mad as I was going onto the racetrack, that I might cause a major accident. Nelson asked France if he agreed. I looked at France and he was doubled up laughing so hard he couldn't see straight. Once he recovered, he told me it was a practical joke. He added that I was selected because he knew I would get the maddest over such a prank.