As far back as he can remember, former Houston resident Chuck Simcox has wanted to be a pilot.
When he filled in the space in his second-grade yearbook under “what I want to be when I grow up,” Simcox wrote “pilot.”
“It’s the thing I’ve wanted and focused on forever,” he said.
At a relatively young age, Simcox made it his goal to become a pilot in the realm of private aircraft rather than in the standard commercial arena. Now Simcox is living his dream. He’s one of three pilots who fly a private jet owned by Rick Hendrick, owner of one of the most familiar race teams in the history of NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports.
Hendrick made his fortune in the auto industry, and owns Hendrick Automotive Group, the second-largest privately held dealership group in the nation. Founded in 1976, the Charlotte, N.C., company operates 87 dealerships and other businesses and employs more than 8,500 people and in 13 states.
Hendrick began his NASCAR team in 1984 and it currently includes several of the top drivers in the Sprint Cup series, including six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson, four-time series champ Jeff Gordon, 2014 Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Casey Kahne. His aviation collection includes two jet aircraft, two turbo-prop aircraft and one helicopter, and he employs close to 20 pilots.
While Simcox has occasionally flown for Hendrick’s drivers and their crews and families, his job mostly entails shuttling Hendrick and his entourage from place to place – both in the racing and auto dealership ends of business (or as Simcox would say, “the house”). The plane he flies is a $30 million Gulfstream V (five) that seats 14 passengers and can stay airborne for up to 14 hours. Each flight features a crew of three, including two pilots and a flight attendant.
“It’s a very nice aircraft, and it’s a pleasure to be able to fly these people,” Simcox said. “You kind of get spoiled even though you’re up front.”
Simcox said flying the GV (G5) for Hendrick for the past two years has been more a pleasure than a chore.
“He refers to me as ‘Chuckie,’” he said. “He’s a super nice guy with a super nice family. The way he is on TV is exactly the way he really is.”
What draws Simcox to piloting a private aircraft?
“It’s the overall experience,” he said. “Every takeoff is different, every landing is different and the people you come across and interact with in the field I’m in are wonderful. I fly the rich and wealthy who are able to commute this way, and it has been a very interesting road.”
Simcox, 49, is originally from south Florida and now lives with his wife, Lana, and 8-year-old daughter, Caitlin, in Huntersville, N.C., a suburb of the NASCAR hub of Charlotte. He graduated from Houston High School in 1982 and shortly thereafter began an aviation saga chock full of twists and turns.
After Simcox graduated, his parents – Charles and JoAnn –moved to Alaska so Charles could pursue his construction career and the couple could be close to relatives in the Anchorage area. In order to stay true to his yearning to fly, their son elected to stay in the Lower 48. He eventually attended Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology in Tulsa, Okla., to obtain a license to work on aircraft, known as an airframe and power plant license (or A and P).
From there, Simcox hooked on with Northwest Airlines as a mechanic in Minneapolis.
“That was what I considered my foot in the door of an aviation career,” he said, “and it gave me enough money to continue my flying objectives.”
While still a mechanic, Simcox teamed up with a couple of co-workers who shared his dream of flying to purchase a single engine plane, and the group began instructing in order to compile all-important hours of flight time (later upgrading to a dual engine model). After ultimately completing his pilot licensing in Minnesota, Simcox took a job flying a turbo-prop craft for a Continental Airlines commuter in his old stomping grounds of south Florida.
“I was finally doing what I had always wanted to do, but at the same time facing the stark realization that at the commuter level, pilots are taken such advantage of that I honestly couldn’t afford to eat,” he said.
In turn, Simcox returned to working as an aircraft mechanic.
“But having that taste of being a pilot, I tried to figure out how to make it work,” he said.
Thanks to connections he had made, he got an opportunity to make it work flying a Learjet for a charter company in Fort Lauderdale.
“At that point I felt I could do it,” Simcox said.
Next, he took a position flying a Gulfstream jet for a wealthy south Florida man.
“He didn’t work,” Simcox said, “and wherever we went was because he wanted to go there and have fun.”
The fun ended one day when the man announced he was moving and wanted Simcox – who had recently married – to go, too.
“The day I returned from my honeymoon, he told me ‘Chuck, I have great news – we’re all moving to South Dakota,’” Simcox said. “I said, ‘I don’t think I’m moving to South Dakota.’”
Simcox put his name on the market as an available Gulfstream pilot, and he got a call from a wealthy man in Raleigh, N.C. Having taken many family vacations there when he was young, Simcox was familiar with North Carolina and figured the idea of working in the Tar Heel State would suit his situation.
“I felt like I knew North Carolina and thought it might be an opportunity to live in a good place to start a family,” he said.
About four years later, his boss decided he no longer had need of an aircraft, and Simcox was once again available. This time his flight path led him to the cockpit of a GV owned by NASCAR CEO Brian France.
Another four years later, a call came in from Hendrick’s aviation director, and Simcox saw an even better opportunity.
“Making the transition from Brian to Mr. H was a big thing,” he said. “It was questioned by a lot of people, but Mr. H is pretty much cemented in the Charlotte area, and Brian has houses all over the place and had recently sold the one he owns in Charlotte and moved to Manhattan. It wasn’t a comfortable feeling knowing you might at some point be asked to move closer to where he was, and I felt like it was meant to be for me to take the position with Hendrick.”
Simcox said he ended up in Texas County in the late 1970s when his parents decided they didn’t want to continue raising a family in the rough south Florida environment. A tie to the Ozarks existed because his grandparents on his mother’s side lived in Solo, and his family had come here to visit several times.
“We had already had our house broken into twice,” Simcox said. “I was transitioning to a new school, and it had no windows because of all the crime and even back then you had to go through metal detectors to enter. My parents finally reached the point where they said, ‘We need to get out of here.’
“They loved Texas County, so we ended up going that direction and my dad worked in West Plains. Moving there was quite a culture shock for me. I knew nothing at that point but asphalt and palm trees.”
From a pilot’s standpoint, getting to a NASCAR event isn’t usually very eventful, according to Simcox, but things can get pretty wild on Sunday when a race is over.
“You’ve got all these race teams and owners and everybody has an airplane,” he said, “so you can imagine that when we’re in town, NASCAR aircraft can really fill up an airport. Everybody comes in at different times, but when everyone is trying to leave at the same time, it’s almost the race after the race to see who can get out first. You see a lot of positioning, with people handing out hats or something to try to get a little more service for their aircraft or get it positioned in a way that allows them to be first out – or try to be, anyway.”
Hendrick and his racecar drivers aren’t the only celebrities Simcox has flown for. Others include Britney Spears, Rod Stewart, and former President George W. Bush.
Simcox got the chance to get behind the wheel of a Sprint Cup car himself in January, participating in a “NASCAR Racing Experience” session at Charlotte Motor Speedway after his entire family gave it to him as a gift. “Experiences” feature real NASCAR racecars, and Simcox was ironically – and coincidentally – placed in a No. 88 formerly driven by Earnhardt Jr.
“They run about five cars at a time,” he said, “and they put me in the only Hendrick car of the five and I hadn’t mentioned who I worked for at all. The cars are chip limited, so you’re not going to do 200 miles per hour, but I still did 150, which was awesome. It was very cool driving Dale Jr.’s car around Charlotte Motor Speedway; it was one of those bucket list kind of things that I would say anyone would want to do, given the opportunity.”
While his schedule and lifestyle prevent him from visiting Houston as often as he would like, Simcox still maintains contact with several friends he made in high school.
“I have thought about going to a career day to talk with students about what I do and show them that you can be from Houston and ‘make it’ so to speak,” he said. “I would love to just say, ‘Look, you can do whatever you want to do as long as you pursue it with a vengeance and with tunnel vision.’ Even if you live in a small town, you really can do anything.”
Simcox (who puts in about 200 hours of flight time per year) will be in the captain’s chair of the Hendrick GV again this week, flying the team owner to the annual NASCAR race in Phoenix. He hopes to stay with Hendrick until his working days are done.
“I’ll do this as long as they’ll let me,” Simcox said. “Mr. Hendrick is very appreciative of what we do; we’re entrusted with his life and the lives of his family and top executives, and we feel that. I guess it’s kind of an honorable position and I hope to do it for as long as I can. I hope I’m in a position I can stay in until I retire.”
Mr. Hendrick is very appreciative of what we do; we’re entrusted with his life and the lives of his family and top executives, and we feel that.”