BRISTOL — The helicopter landing zone at Bristol Motor Speedway was dedicated to Bill Starnes on Thursday. It was a fitting tribute, according to those who knew him best.
Starnes, the chief pilot for Food City, died in August when his aircraft crashed into South Holston Lake after transporting passengers to and from the Food City 250 Nationwide Series race. He was 64.
Family and friends remembered Starnes’ passions for racing and flying.
“Bill was a wonderful man and flying was his passion, especially helicopters,” his widow, Lisa, said at the dedication. “This was a fitting memorial, and we are so grateful you have chosen to honor him in this manner at Bristol Motor Speedway.”
Resolutions from both the Tennessee and Virginia state governments were read, along with letters from U.S. Reps. Phil Roe and Morgan Griffith. At the end of the ceremony, a marker was unveiled in Starnes’ honor.
Food City CEO Steve Smith counted Starnes more as a close friend than an employee. Smith said he frequently thinks about Starnes, an ETSU graduate and a 39-year military veteran.
Starnes, a lieutenant colonel in the Tennessee Army National Guard when he retired in 2009, flew more than 800 missions during the Vietnam War. He was deployed at Kosovo from 2004-06. He received numerous awards over his military career, including the Bronze Star and Meritorious Service Award.
“Bill gave literally two-thirds of his life to his country,” Smith said. “We miss Bill every day.”
The tribute also highlighted the relationship between BMS and Food City, which goes well beyond the typical business dealings. The sponsorship of this weekend’s race is the second-longest in the Sprint Cup Series, dating back to 1992.
Per Smith’s suggestion, the Food City 500 was renamed the Jeff Byrd 500 in 2011 to pay tribute to the late BMS President who died of cancer. Two years later, Smith was pleased to see the speedway where Byrd played such a prominent role honor Starnes.
“Bill loved flying and he loved racing,” Smith said. “He grew up and lived here in Sullivan County. This race track was always part of his life, and he flew us and other people out of here a lot of times. What a great guy he was.
“We had a true love for Jeff Byrd as well, and wanted to do something for him after Jeff’s passing. We don’t like to have these memorials, but we all are mortal and all do pass. When you have people as great as Jeff and Bill, it’s fitting to have a nice memorial for them. We’re pleased with what the Bristol Motor Speedway family have done to honor Bill.”
BMS Executive Vice President and General Manager Jerry Caldwell added that the speedway looks at those with Food City more like family members than business associates.
“They are like family and you want to find ways to pay respects,” Caldwell said. “When this happened and they hurt, we hurt. We felt it was a fitting tribute to pay respects to Bill. There was nothing he loved more than flying, and he flew out of here plenty of times. It was a perfect spot to unveil a tribute for a great man.”
Coincidentally, the memorial came only a couple of weeks before the 20th anniversary of the plane crash that claimed the life of NASCAR champion Alan Kulwicki.
While many NASCAR veterans remember the day after Kulwicki’s death as one of the saddest days ever at the race track, Smith can relate. He’s still dealing with the emotions of losing Starnes.
“It’s still a little raw, seven months since we lost him,” Smith said. “When you put your and your family’s trust in someone’s capable hands, you develop a special relationship and bond with them. It was the way we did with Bill. You don’t expect to lose somebody like that.”