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Hendrick Motorsports Helps Haitian Children's Lives Take Flight

Jan 22, 2010 – 10:42 AM
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David Whitley

David Whitley %BloggerTitle%

FORT PIERCE, Fla. -- The most dramatic race in NASCAR history ended here the other night. The winners escaped one of the biggest wrecks this hemisphere has ever seen.

It was the earthquake in Haiti, and I know what you might be thinking.

God, not another story about that.

After 10 days of depressing news, you might want somebody to rescue you from Anderson Cooper. But what happened at this little airport proves at least one good thing.

"There is always a silver lining," Dick Snook said.

He's the president of Missionary Flights International, which has been sending aid to Haiti almost as long as Mark Martin has been alive.

If you're not up on your NASCAR biographies, that's 50 years. For all the poverty and desperation Snook had seen over the years, nothing prepared him for what happened Jan. 12.

"We couldn't handle everything," he said. "It was overwhelming."

You know the grim statistics. An estimated 200,000 dead, 250,000 injured, 2 million homeless. Somewhere as the earth rumbled in Port-au-Prince, 26 kids ran out of their orphanage and never went back.



As they waited in tents for something to happen next, Rick Hendrick sat 2,300 miles away in a house that will never be mistaken for a tent. He was pondering a souvenir.

It was a little sailboat made by Haitian children. Hendrick's wife brought it back from a mission trip she took 10 years ago.

"She brought three of them. These are little sailboats made out of horns," Hendrick said. "At a Christmas lunch we were just talking about how much they meant to her."

He had to do something. What's more, he was in the position to do something.

With all due respect to Richard Petty, this North Carolinian is arguably NASCAR's real king. He owns Hendrick Motorsports, home to Martin, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

It's just part of his multi-billion dollar auto empire. So sure, Hendrick can afford to do good things. And in the zealotry of the sports word, no good deed goes unpunished.

"FOR ALL 4 OF THE MANUFACTURED 48 TITLES FOR CHEAT 48. NOW he sends a small part of OTHER PEOPLE MONEY collected the DIRTY WAY, TO HAITI AND SUDDENLY HE IS A COMPASSIONATE HERO???."

That was a comment on the original story we ran. Again, in case you're NASCAR-challenged, 48 is the number of Johnson's car, which has won four straight championships.

I don't know how deep the Hendrick envy/resentment runs in NASCAR. I do wish the yahoos who write such things would drop by the MFI hangar at Fort Pierce International Airport.

Snook normally dispatches an old DC-3 down to Haiti twice a week. The faith-based nonprofit has been delivering missionaries, supplies and mail to the island since 1964.

Now the hangar looks like a staging point for D-Day. Instead of tanks, there are pallets of food and medical supplies. One key bit of cargo is desperately needed, which is where Hendrick comes in.

He sent two 45-seat planes from their home base in Concord, N.C., to Fort Pierce. They are sleek Saab 2000s, the kind a multi-millionaire NASCAR heartthrob wouldn't mind riding in.

Most of them use smaller jets to get from race to race. Hendrick has three Saabs to transport their crews.

"Check out the legroom," said David Dudley, Hendricks' director of aviation.

A 6-foot-4 mechanic could cross his legs and not jolt the tire changer ahead of him out of a post-race slumber.

The planes have been shuttling doctors, nurses and relief workers to Port-au-Prince since last Saturday. The first surgeons were operating on victims before the planes returned to Florida.

The planes return with whoever needs a lift. Which gets us back to the little sailboat and the children who make them. If Snook has heard it once, he's heard it 5,000 times.

"I'm going to get my baby," an American couple will tell him.

A week later, the would-be parents return heartbroken. It can take years to chop through the red tape.

"They drag their feet in Haiti," Snook said. "You're always having to get another stamp or make another payment."

One of the first English phrases most orphans learn is "I'll be back." They heard it a lot at the Three Angels Children's Relief orphanage. Then the kids would cry and wave goodbye, and nannies would assure them they'd eventually get to their "forever home."

The earthquake has had one beneficial side effect. Most of that red tape has been buried in the rubble. That's how Dudley ended up sitting on the tarmac last Saturday with the engine running.

You can't fly out of Haiti after dark. It was 5:30 p.m. and night was only minutes away.

The crew was waiting on a bus from Three Angels. It would be a photo finish.

The orphanage was one of the few buildings in its area that didn't collapse. As relief agencies struggled to deliver aid, the neighborhood was getting dicey.

The headmaster of the school feared for his family's safety. And he knew 26 orphans, ranging in age from six months to 8 years old, weren't exactly going to fight off any mobs looking for water.

The orphanage had gotten word that a plane would be waiting if it could get the kids to the airport. Whoever the driver was probably should get a shot at replacing Dale Jr. this season. Five minutes before the plane had to leave, the bus pulled up.

"We would have risked our pilot's licenses to get them home," Dudley said.

The children filed out quietly, like zombies possessing only the clothes on their backs. They didn't notice the extra leg room, much less realize they could have been strapped in a seat The Rainbow Warrior once sat in.

All they knew was the big contraption was about to take them into the sky, and they would land in a whole new world.

"How can you put that into words?" Dudley said. "How do you describe it?"

He couldn't. He just relished the sight of kids slowly relaxing. They started asking for snacks and crawling into his lap and running down the aisle.

The lights of Fort Pierce came into sight about three hours later. The plane landed and taxied to the tiny terminal.

Adopting families had scrambled to get there from all over the United States. Then all they could do was press their faces against the chain-link fence and wait for the children to get through U.S. Customs.

"Just knowing she is on the other side of that wall," said one anxious mom. "She's on U.S. soil. That is huge."

The scene resembled a winner's circle. But instead of Johnson or Martin popping out of a car and kissing Miss Daytona, a parent would walk out the glass door carrying the newest member of their family.

Each time that happened, camera lights flashed, everybody cheered and a wide-eyed child tried to take it all in.

They were finally going to their forever home.

"God has created miracle after miracle after miracle," one mom said.

No word if she was a NASCAR fan.

"Maybe I should become one," Snook said.

One of these days, 26 little silver linings will probably join him.
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