Photo: Stephen A. Arce/ASP, Inc.

NASCAR Drivers Reflect on Kobe Bryant’s Passing

By Luis Torres, Staff Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The tragic and untimely passing of Kobe Bryant and eight other people (Gianna Bryant, John, Keri and Alyssa Altobelli, Sarah and Payton Chester, Christina Mauser and Ara Zobayan) last month were among the subjects brought up in Wednesday’s Daytona 500 Media Day.

Topics ranged from how the five-time NBA champion impacted their lives to their viewpoint on aviation.

The most notable of the drivers was Ryan Blaney, who met and spoke to Bryant back in 2018. Blaney said that “The Black Mamba” was eager to know about the world of stock car racing and remains one of the most unforgettable moments of his life.

“When I met Kobe a couple of years ago. He was really an intense person,” Blaney said. “He wanted to learn everything about whatever he didn’t know. He wanted to learn everything about it right then and I’ll never forget that.”

When asked if there’s any similarities between Bryant and seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, both arguably one of the best athletes of all-time in their respective sport, he said both have different characteristics on how they go about things.

“I think it’s hard to compare those guys. They’re great at what they do,” Blaney said. “They’re great at their sport but I think the work ethic and things like that it’s different just because it’s a lot different sport. So I think you kind of have a little different mindset going between the two.

If there were to be any comparisons between Bryant and Johnson, it’s their teamwork ethics.

“At the end of the day I think they were great as far as working with their teams,” Blaney said. “Both of them I feel like really push their teams to be better and I think that’s the biggest comparison.”

One driver will be honoring the nine individuals who were killed in the plane crash in Calabasas, California. That will be Bubba Wallace, who has the names on the trunk of his No. 43 U.S. Air Force Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1E.

Wallace said that prior to Byrant’s passing, he admitted that he wasn’t really a huge fan of him even though he is a fan of the game of basketball.

“Looking back and now seeing videos, I’m still watching videos to this day,” Wallace said. “What he’s done in-game and post-game after he retired, seeing how big of an icon he was and how big of an impact on everybody. I’m sure he touched everybody in this room when he passed and to see somebody have that big of an impact, you can only hope to leave that sort of impact on when it’s your time to go.”

Wallace added that knowing how Bryant was as a family man and as a person who impacted the world, he understands that change must be made if he wants to leave a remarkable impact.

“Man, seeing how he was as a father and as a player. It’s like you kind of want to line up yourself to follow the path,” Wallace said. “It’s a huge loss for the sports world or the whole world in general. To have that impact globally speaks volumes to how he was as a person. I think I got to change up a few things to have that sort of impact in my career, so we’ll start right now.”

Aviation accidents are no stranger to NASCAR as the sport have endured massive tragedies over the 72-year history of the sport. Those include the deaths Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki in 1993, the 2004 Hendrick Motorsports plane crash and 2010s when the sport lost Modified greats Ted Christopher and Mike Stefanik.

Understandingly, there’s some concerns in the garage especially when considering Dale Earnhardt, Jr. recently survived an aviation accident near Bristol Motor Speedway last August.

Perhaps the most vocal about it was Blaney’s teammate, 2018 Cup Series champion Joey Logano. On one hand, Blaney didn’t gave it a second thought but it did had Logano thinking as he’s never liked helicopters to begin with.

“I’ve always been very timid about jumping on a helicopter and can honestly say I’ve probably rode on one three times,” Logano said. “I don’t know, they feel like they go straight down, they don’t glide, but that’s my own fear I guess.

“But you’ve got to be smart and it’s hard to be because you’re not the one crawling underneath the airplane, but I have a great agreement with Wheels Up and I feel like they’re ability to not only have the best pilots, but be able to do the right amount of maintenance to the plane, make sure that it’s where it needs to be is very important.”

Logano added that he also flies on the team plane and pointed out that if he was going to drive one of Roger Penske’s Ford Mustangs, the planes should be good as well. However, if it’s commercial flights, he hopes the right pilots are in place.

“There are a lot of lives on the line and the biggest thing that I see is the majority of the time when something like this happens – an air disaster – it’s usually pilot error,” Logano said. “It’s usually a human most of the time, so that’s where you just have to make sure you have people that are doing what they want to do.  That’s why I think Wheels Up is a great thing because a lot of pilots want to fly private aviation because it’s a better schedule and the pay is good as well. To me, I feel a little better about that because you’re gonna have the top echelon of pilots.”

Denny Hamlin, who’s a basketball fanatic and one of his hobbies, is part of basketball legend Michael Jordan’s Nike brand. He understands the risk of flying and like Logano, human error was the phrase used when discussing about this touchy subject.

“Kobe and those guys have been doing it for a long time. I have a lot of faith in the aviation department,” Hamlin said. “I put a lot of faith in the, but you look a lot of the crashes that have happened, most of them have been human error or bad choice that have been made. We always try to hedge on the safe side when it comes to conditions and things like that.

“It’s so unfortunate but these things happen and sometimes when it happens to a star athlete or someone that big and well known, it definitely makes you open your eyes a little bit.”

While emotions are very high in the sports world, the show must go on as Sunday not only marks the 62nd Daytona 500, but also the NBA All-Star Game. The league will honor the victims in multiple ways with the Team Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. Team LeBron James matchup commencing at 8:00 pm EST on TNT.

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From the Pacific Northwest, Luis is a University of Idaho graduate with a Bachelor's degree in Broadcasting and Digital Media and a four-time National Motorsports Press Association award winner in photography. Ever since watching the 2003 Daytona 500, being involved in auto racing is all he's ever dreamed of doing. Over the years, Luis has focused on writing, video and photography with ambitions of having his work recognized.