CONCORD, N.C. — All of us who have been fortunate enough to make a career in motorsports know the dangers that come with the sport and that the phrase “here today, gone tomorrow,” is very much part of reality.
During nearly 30 years in motorsports journalism, we covered far too many deaths and written far too many obituaries. But death is part of the game, always has been and always will be. None of us like it, but we accept it and move on.
Some fatalities are more difficult than others. We’ve had an awful lot of rough ones through the years, but the loss of sprint car racer Greg Hodnett has been emotional for this writer.
Our careers have been simultaneous. When a young kid from Tennessee was starting out racing sprint cars around the south, this Ohio youngster was beginning his journalism career chasing races from the National Speed Sport News home base in New Jersey.
Greg turned 49 in June. I turned 50 in August. We first met at Pennsylvania’s Grandview Speedway in the spring of 1993. He was in the early races of his run to becoming the World of Outlaws rookie of the year. He was learning every time he went on the track. I was learning every time I went to the track.
As time went by Greg started winning more and more and I climbed the ladder from grunt to editor. I was there when he won at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway. I was there when he won at The Dirt Track at Charlotte. I was there when he won at Williams Grove Speedway and I was there in August when he won on his preliminary night during the Knoxville Nationals at Iowa’s Knoxville Raceway — a victory that turned out to be his last. The list of drivers to win at all four of those great tracks is pretty darn small.
Through the years, we would renewed our acquaintance numerous times during the course of the racing season, always greeting each other with a grin and a sincere handshake. We’d chat about racing, and more lately, about my bald head and his graying hair.
It may have been his Tennessee raising, it may have just been who he was, but Greg Hodnett was one of the true nice guys in motorsports. Whether he had a good night or a bad night, whether he was on a hot streak or struggling to find speed, he always greeted folks with a smile and a kind word. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t like Greg.
During the hours since his death, he has been called a gentleman over and over. He was indeed that. But he was also an unbelievable talent behind the wheel of a race car.
He was always fast, especially on the tricky Central Pennsylvania tracks he called home for the last two decades, but he was also smooth and calculating. And, one of the things that made his death so surprising, he rarely crashed.
Aggressive when he needed to be, he was more often one of those guys that just kind of hung around near the front and pounced when the time was right.
Greg won 20 features with the World of Outlaws and 22 with the Arctic Cat All Star Circuit of Champions. He raced to 73 victories and five track championships at Williams Grove.
Despite being from Tennessee, the sprint car racing crazed Pennsylvania Posse race fans embraced him and made him one of their own. He called the Keystone State home for the last decade and entertained the folks there with numerous impressive performances.
He left them, and all of us, on one heartbreaking September evening at Pennsylvania’s BAPS Motor Speedway.
Godspeed, Greg. We’ll miss seeing you.