By MIKE MALLETT
Of the thousands of stories I’ve written the past 15 or so years none will be harder to write for me than this one. This is by far the saddest day of my tenure as a motorsports media member. To put it plainly, today sucks. Hearing that Greg Hodnett lost his life in a Sprint Car crash was something I never ever thought would happen. As is always the case, we all know the risk is there, the danger and what can happen, but we never expect it to happen to someone we know and talk to on a regular basis. In this case, sadly it did.
As someone in the media industry we are supposed to be impartial. We are not supposed to have favorites. For the most part that is the case with me, unless we are talking Greg Hodnett. I’ve been going racing for almost 40 years and the first half of that time was spent as a fan. From the first time I saw him race at Lincoln Speedway in the early 2000’s in the Apple Motorsports No. 12 to the first time I interviewed him as he drove the Al Hamilton No. 77, I was a Hodnett fan.
It’s definitely not a well-kept secret. Anyone that knows me, knows where my loyalty lies. If there is a Hodnett diecast, I have it. If there is a wing panel that he ran in Pennsylvania I have it, minus say one or two one. There aren’t many races I haven’t gone to that I wasn’t secretly (or not) pulling for him to get it done. I was a race fan long before becoming a media member. That’s reason I remain in the media and continue to do what I do, because I love this sport. I have a real job that pays the bills, but this is my passion. The fan in me is still in awe each time I get to meet and talk to the legends of this sport. I’m so lucky that I get to talk my racing heroes, which included at the top of that list was Greg Hodnett.
There were a lot of reasons that I was drawn to Greg. As a fan, whenever he was interviewed he was humble, gracious and respectful. He never complained or had a bad word for anyone. He was a class act. He was a guy you couldn’t root against. I met Hodnett for the first time as a writer for Area Auto Racing News. With his ability to win on such a regular basis I got to chat with him often as I was getting quotes for race reports and side bar stories. What amazed me in those interviews was that he was the same person in victory lane that he was in the pits. Just like the guy I watched as a fan, he was gracious, humble and always thorough in his answers. He made sure you had everything you needed before changing and leaving. You never felt rushed or like you were a nuisance to Greg. He made time.
The day that solidified my fandom, if you will, was the second time I needed to chat about his day. I was shocked when I walked up and asked for a moment and he gave it to me while saying, “Sure Mike, how’s it been?” Yeah it wasn’t much but the fact that he remembered my name and gave the time. I was a nobody at the time, another peon in the racing world and he took the time to not only talk to me, but remembered my name. He respected me when I hadn’t earned it yet. That meant a lot. He was the first.
I have so many memories of some of the best Sprint Car races I’ve been at that Hodnett was involved in. They probably stick out because of my respect and admiration for him. One of my first ever trips to Williams Grove came with some teaching friends. Needless to say, they weren’t dirt track people. They were going because I asked them to. It was a Sunday afternoon show with the usual dry and slick conditions. Greg started mid-pack before he tracked down and passed Lance Dewease for the win in the final two laps. He made up almost a straightaway. My friends were amazed. They weren’t race fans, but they we just as impressed and excited as I was. They talked about that weeks and months after.
Then there was the time I wished him luck at Volusia Speedway Park as he chased the big gator in 2016. He had hit the cone the night before on a restart so GT Smith and I brought him a piece. I won’t say what he said to us, but we all got a good laugh out of it. As we were leaving we said good luck and I told him I’ll see him in Pennsylvania in a few weeks. He asked why we weren’t staying that night. I told him we had to cover a Modified race. He said with a smile, “Why would you want to do that?” Again, we all laughed and went on our way.
Thursday night as I sat trying to fight back the sadness another memory that came to mind was 2014 at the Knoxville Nationals. It was raining out and the races were cancelled. As we were walking back to find Neal Wilt and Dave Pratt we happened to run into Greg. As most know, we do a yearly blog from the Nationals so we asked Greg if he would be on it. He agreed. He gave us a few minutes for the blog before hanging out with us afterwards for a bit. From there things digressed. The best way to put it, my friends made sure Greg knew I was a “Hodnett homer” as we call it. He just smiled, joked with me a bit about it and never thought any less of me.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NhY9xW7E9sk (4:15 mark)
There was more over the years from kickball games, 31st Lap podcast interviews to press conferences where I was the butt of jokes after Greg won or made the podium. None more so than this year’s Knoxville Nationals. His preliminary night win was something that I never expected. Last season he won a 360 event, but to see him take the checkers on a 410 Nationals night will be something I’ll never forget. In the press conference afterwards the good natured abuse I took was relentless. It was embarrassing as a media member, but I got to see my racing hero win at Knoxville. It was all worth it. There isn’t much I wouldn’t do to get to see that one more time.
There is so much more I could write. There are so many memories that I’ll cherish. Unlike some race fans, I got to meet my hero and talk to him. I got to know him and see what a great person he was and that is something most fans don’t get to experience. I’m thankful that I did. I might not get to see Greg turn laps at Knoxville or Williams Grove again, but I will always have those memories. Those can’t be taken away.
Before I conclude, to those that read this, please be sure to keep the Hodnett family, friends as well as everyone at Heffner Racing Enterprises in your thoughts and prayers. They need it. It’s what Greg would do for others and that is what we should do for them.
So I end with this, thank you Greg. Thank you for the memories, the laughs, the wins and treating me so well over the years. I’m thankful for getting to know you and getting to write so many of those stories about you and your career. You were always a class act. I thank you for that. In my eyes you are the best and forever will be. Rest in peace Greg.