Photo: Luis Torres/Motorsports Tribune

Briscoe and Chastain Take Flight with the Air Force Thunderbirds

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

Before the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season kicks off this weekend at Daytona, two rising stars in the sport had the opportunity to have some fun on Thursday, trading the cockpit of their stock cars for the cockpit of an F-16 piloted by the United States Air Force Thunderbirds.

The two drivers taking part in the yearly tradition was rookie Chase Briscoe, who will be driving the No. 14 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing, and Ross Chastain, who takes over the No. 42 Chevrolet at Chip Ganassi Racing this season.

Chastain was the first to take to the skies over Florida’s East Coast, with him and his pilot, Major Jason Markzon taking off from the airport behind Daytona International Speedway and heading down the coast to the airspace over Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station for the demonstration.

“It was awesome,” Chastain said. “Everything you can imagine just the sensation of speed taking off straight up in the air – 10,000 feet. Cycling around the ocean down to the NASA facility where we did everything. Just the feeling of the afterburner is the biggest thing. The first time we pulled G’s in a corner, I was not ready. I did not squeeze hard enough. I didn’t clench or tighten all my muscles enough. I learned my lesson, but the second time we did it – I was more prepared.”

“Nothing compares. I used to think racing at Bristol was like flying fighter jets at a gymnasium, but that’s false. That is not what we do. It’s a whole another level and I see why so many of these boys and girls fall in love with airplanes, the sky and space.”

Once Chastain returned, he performed his patented victory celebration, smashing a watermelon on the airport tarmac to signal he had safely returned to terra firma.

“Definitely a win,” he said. “I’ve been to their shows as a kid. Just to get to meet them and see the crew behind the scenes. The pilots are obviously the stars, but all the crews behind the scenes to come and set this deal up. Just like our NASCAR teams. They got a pit box, they got a hauler that flies.

“For Chase and I get to do this is bad ass. It’s a bucket list thing that as a kid I watch them and dreamed about it. I don’t want to do it as a profession. I’m good with what I do and they can have all this. To get to do it once is pretty awesome.”

Then it was Briscoe’s turn to climb in the cockpit of the red, white, and blue fighter jet with Major Markzon for his joyride at upwards of 600 mph. Once his flight was complete, the rookie echoed Chastain’s comments, noting the experience was among the coolest of his 26-year-old life.

“You can’t even explain the feeling of what this thing can do,” Briscoe said. “It’s incredible. The technology and just how that plane can maneuver is unlike anything I ever felt. Just the G’s even. We feel G’s obviously in a race car, but it is nothing like that. It was super cool. I felt like I did better than what I thought I was going to do, but by far the coolest experience I ever had. Something I’ll always cherish forever that’s for sure.

“When it was going 9 Gs, I weigh like 200 pounds and my body was feeling like 1800 pounds and I believe it. I never felt anything push my limits. It literally feels like it’s trying to rip your face off. It just felt so intense. I honestly can’t put it in words. It was so unbelievable. It’s so cool. Honestly, I feel like it’s going to make the racecar feel slow now.”

After both drivers were finished with their flight, Major Markzon couldn’t say enough about how each of them had handled the experience.

“We were going pretty much at 600 mph. We got to fly over the NASA launch pad and facilities, and we did everything. We did loops, we did rolls, and we pulled 9 Gs. Ross went through it all. He did a great job.

“When we came back, we got around Turns 2-4 in about five seconds, so that was pretty quick too.

“Ross was very gracious and had a wonderful time during the flight. That’s what we’re trying to do. Just show him a great time so he can get out there and inspire. Just like we do – go out there and inspire others.

“Chase did awesome,” he added. “He did a great job. We took off – it was beautiful weather. We went and flew over the Cape Canaveral airspace and he crushed it. We really kind of flew through the profile very quickly. It says a lot of his mental fortitude and toughness going through and being able to complete all the maneuvers and sequence without stopping.”

Both Briscoe and Chastain will race in the second of the two Bluegreen Vacations Duel races Thursday night at Daytona, with the two drivers rolling off 11th and 12th respectively.

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.