FORT WORTH — Its mid-afternoon, and there is evidence that what began as a rainy week will end sunny and warm good news for drivers, fans and anyone else connected to NASCAR racing.As the clouds part for a blast of afternoon sun and brisk wind, a Learjet belonging to famed driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. glides out of the sky and lands at Alliance Airport in north Fort Worth, just five miles south of Texas Motor Speedway.While the speedway is humming with anticipation of the upcoming events, including Sundays AAA Texas 500, for the moment all the real buzz is at the airport.For officials at Alliance Airport, which was built in 1989 as part of Hillwoods AllianceTexas development, this is a time to roll out the red carpet for drivers, their families and crew and major race sponsors.Earnhardts jet is easy to spot because it features his racing teams JR Motorsports logo. As the aircraft taxis to its parking spot on the Alliance Airport ramp, a white Chevy Suburban quickly pulls right up to the plane and whisks away the small travel party and presumably the planes namesake driver.Not long afterward, a smaller Beechcraft owned by driver Clint Bowyer arrives and he, too, is met by a car.During busy race weeks, arrivals and departures are about double the traffic of a normal week, officials said. The drivers are arriving not only for the Sunday race, but also Fridays Winstar World Casino 350 and Saturdays OReilly Auto Parts Challenge.The activity will reach its height on Sunday night, at the conclusion of the last competition when roughly 100 to 120 NASCAR-related aircraft will attempt to fly out of north Fort Worth in a departure window of about two to three hours.If youre not a winner, everybody else wants to leave immediately after the race, said Thomas Harris, Alliance air/aviation services president. But there is organization to the chaos.Down to a routineFor a bunch of folks who make a living swappin paint on the race track, when NASCAR drivers and their travel crews arrive in town for a big race weekend their entrance is orderly, efficient and some might say lavish. For that, they depend upon not only the staff at Alliance Airport, but also the Federal Aviation Administration and a myriad of companies with close ties to racing. For example, Alliances FAA air traffic manager, Marty Skinner, oversees a system in which aircraft are allowed to take off in staggered fashion one right after the other -using both runways. Its a routine thats normally not needed at Alliance, which on a typical day handles jets from corporations such as FedEx and Fort Worth-based BNSF, as well as military aircraft and numerous helicopter activities.The routine has gotten better with each race since the speedway opened in 1997, said Skinner, who observes the flurry of activity from inside the golf-tee-shaped Alliance control tower. Although there are as many people using the airport as ever, there are fewer aircraft than a decade ago, because many teams share travel expenses by splitting the cost of larger planes.For example, on Thursday a 737 carrying several dozen members of multiple racing teams arrived at Alliance. A short time later, the 737 took off presumably to go back to the East Coast for another load of passengers.Also, Skinner said, to improve departures on Sunday night FAA employees will staff a table in the Alliance terminal, and meet face-to-face with pilots so departure clearances can be pre-arranged. That system reduces the amount of radio chatter needed as pilots are taxiing out. On a normal weekday, Alliance will experience about 474 to 650 arrivals and departures, Skinner said. But on days when NASCAR is in town, there will be at least 1,000 plane movements.In the early 2000s we had delays of 30 minutes to an hour, but the last four or five races we havent had any delays, Skinner said.Months of preparationAbout 600 rental cars will be needed at the airport for the weekend, Harris said. On Thursday, employees for Avis, Hertz and Enterprise staffed tables in the airports corporate headquarters, quickly handing car keys to people from Richard Childress Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and other big names as they arrived. Outside, at least 100 rental cars were double-parked on the roads leading to Alliances fixed-route operations center.For those who would rather take a break or conduct a bit of business on the airport ramp, without going into the lobby, Goodyear maintains a VIP trailer, complete with a conference room, big-screen television and representatives ready to bend a racing teams ear about their tires and other products.Alliance officials spend months preparing for NASCAR weekends.Alliance Airport and its proximity to Texas Motor Speedway is a tremendous asset for all the drivers, teams and race officials arriving for our race weekends, said Mike Zizzo, speedway spokesman. The convenience is greatly appreciated by them all, especially since the NASCAR teams are traveling across the country for 38 race weekends a year, and Alliance does a great job with accommodating them during what is probably one of their busiest weekends of the year.The flurry of activity will continue until Sunday night, when the racing teams make one final push not to capture the checkered flag, but simply to obtain departure clearance from the FAA and get out of town.To watch the departure after a race of 80 to 100 airplanes in an hour and a half, at night, is quite a sight, said Christopher Ash, Alliance manager of airport operations.
Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796 Twitter: @gdickson