BRISTOL, Tenn. — Nearly seven months after Bill Starnes died when the helicopter he was piloting crashed into South Holston Lake, his friends and family came together on Thursday afternoon at Bristol Motor Speedway to see the helipad located outside the track dedicated in his honor.
Starnes, a Vietnam veteran, was remembered by Food City president and CEO Steve Smith and BMS general manager Jerry Caldwell as an avid pilot who loved his family and faithfully served his country.
“To think Bill spent two-thirds of his life serving his country — what a great guy he was,” Smith said. “He loved flying and he certainly loved racing, too.
“He was raised right here in Sullivan County and this racetrack has always been part of his life. I guess he watched it be built as a young man.”
Following the NASCAR Sprint Cup IRWIN Tools Night Race at BMS on Aug. 25, 2012, Starnes took off from the helipad that now bears his name and dropped off six passengers at Smith’s lakehouse in Southwest Virginia before heading back toward the track. The helicopter he was flying crashed into the lake around 10:30 p.m.
Smith said he flew with Starnes, who served as the chief pilot for Food City, countless times, and added that he thinks about Starnes every time he flies.
“While we’ve got very good and capable pilots now, they’re not Bill,” Smith said. “And we don’t expect them to fill his shoes, but it’s still a little bit raw seven months since we lost him. You just don’t expect to lose somebody like that.”
Caldwell echoed Smith’s sentiments and added that the partnership between the speedway and Food City — the second longest between a NASCAR track and a race sponsor — makes the two entities “like family.”
So when Starnes passed away, Caldwell wanted to find a way to honor his memory in a lasting manner.
“When this happened, and they hurt, we hurt,” Caldwell said. “We felt this was a fitting tribute. There was nothing he enjoyed more than flying.
“It was a perfect spot for him and a perfect tribute for a great man.”