Commentary

Need for speed? Biffle satisfies the urge where the eagles soar

Some Cup drivers play golf in their down time. Others go hunting. Greg Biffle? He fires up his one-blade Bell 206 Jet Ranger helicopter and gets lost in the rich, blue Carolina skies, writes David Newton.

Updated: December 14, 2007, 12:34 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Greg Biffle squeezed the toothpick between the teeth on the left side of his mouth as the engine began to rumble loudly on this unusually warm December afternoon.

"Got fuel," he said, checking the gauge on his dash.

[+] EnlargeGreg Biffle
David Newton/ESPN.comCup star Greg Biffle has been a licensed helicopter pilot since May 2006. "There's nothing better," he says. "I can go anywhere ..."

He moved his hand down the row of lights and switches, careful to make sure everything was as it should be.

"Green. Green. Green. … Everything is green," Biffle said. "Going up."

No, Biffle was not preparing for a test session in the No. 16 Ford that he drives for Roush Fenway Racing on Sundays. He wasn't going for a spin in one of his many toys on wheels housed at his Mooresville, N.C., shop next to Lake Norman.

But he was going for a spin.

In his helicopter.

Biffle maneuvers his one-blade Bell 206 Jet Ranger around the Charlotte-area airways the way most do cars on Interstates 77 and 85. On this day, he was taking a quick trip to Hendrick Motorsports via Roush Fenway Racing to be fitted for a new carbon fiber seat.

He could have driven, but that would have taken 45 minutes to an hour and would have forced him to change a lunch meeting with a sponsor for 3M.

His shortcut 500-feet above the tall North Carolina pines took less than 10 minutes, including a side trip over Lake Norman to show his passenger a few sights.

"This is an escape for me," said Biffle, who endured a frustrating season in which he didn't make the Chase for the Nextel Cup for the second straight year.

[+] EnlargeGreg Biffle
David Newton/ESPN.comBiffle enjoys a bird's-eye view of his Lake Norman property high above the North Carolina pines.

Most drivers have access to a helicopter for trips in and out of the tracks or to appearances. Few outside of Biffle own -- and fly -- their own.

Some might call it a luxury. Others say it's a necessity.

For Biffle, it's both. It allows him to make appointments -- such as his weekly television and radio shows in Charlotte -- that he might otherwise be late for and clears more time to spend with his new wife, Nicole, their three dogs -- boxers Foster, Gracie and Savannah -- and his shop full of toys.

"Could I live without it? Yes," Biffle said. "Would I spend a lot more time in the car? Yes."

Flying a helicopter is Biffle's hobby like golf and hunting is for other drivers. Sometimes he'll fly to his 1,000-acre farm about 30 minutes away to crush rocks and build roads. Sometimes he'll fly to Myrtle Beach, S.C., for a mini-vacation.

Sometimes he'll just fly around to look at houses and land.

"There's nothing better," Biffle said. "I can go anywhere I want in this and do anything I want. For me, this is it."

No rookie
Biffle listened intently over his headset as a controller from the airport in Concord, N.C., talked to another helicopter pilot in the area.

"How far out are you?" the controller asked.

"About 9.25 miles," the female pilot said. "Now 8.89."

Biffle laughed.

"That's a rookie," he said.

[+] EnlargeGreg Biffle
David Newton/ESPN.comCommuter traffic isn't a problem for Biffle, who flies himself to appointments in the Charlotte area.

How does he know? Apparently, veteran pilots simply round off their location. Rookies give details down to the last decimal, which is futile since the position changes so fast at speeds of close to 100 mph.

Biffle isn't a rookie. He's had his license since May 2006, a date that stands out like most of his 12 Cup victories.

Unlike his car, which he'll squeeze into the smallest hole, Biffle doesn't take chances in the sky. There's no roll cage to protect him or HANS device that can save him if this goes down.

"When it comes to flying, I do everything by the book," he said.

Yes, Biffle occasionally thinks about the late Davey Allison, whose career tragically was cut short when he died in his newly-acquired Hughes 369HS helicopter while returning to Talladega Superspeedway to watch Neil and David Bonnett test a car in 1993.

According to reports, the helicopter nosed up as Allison attempted to land inside a fenced-in area of the infield. The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the incident on inexperience, which led to the decision to make a downwind landing.

Biffle keeps a closer check with the controller for wind direction and velocity than he does with his spotter for other cars on the track.

"The only thing I can do is be as safe as I can and thorough as I can," he said. "You have to set limitations. You can't just land in somebody's backyard, although I get asked to do that from time to time.

"You pick your places and just do what you know you can do."

That doesn't mean Biffle hasn't had a scary moment or two. The scariest came when he was flying to film a short track commercial for NASCAR. As he attempted to take off, a strong wind got under the tail of his machine and blew the nose up.

"I was doing a Hollywood takeoff and I really didn't want to," Biffle said. "A lot of guys like to hot-rod it. Not me. I don't like putting myself in awkward situations."

Need for speed
The front gate that leads to Biffle's 11-acre haven opens slower than a caution lap at Bristol Motor Speedway.

It's the only thing on this scenic piece of land that doesn't go fast.

[+] EnlargeGreg Biffle
David Newton/ESPN.comBiffle has plenty of toys in his North Carolina shop, including his pride and joy: a 1968 Pontiac Catalina.

"And believe me, I want it to go faster," Biffle said with a laugh. "But the people that make the gate told me that is as fast as they make them."

The shop and surrounding property tell you all you need to know about Biffle. Inside the main building are cars, trucks, four-wheelers, motorcycles, golf carts, jet skis and boats. In back there is the motorcoach that Biffle takes to the track each week.

On one side there is a Freightliner hauler with a rock crusher attached. Out front is a small lift and Caterpillar.

Down by the lake is a large houseboat.

On order is an electric car.

"All of my toys," Biffle said.

The most prized toy is a black and white 1968 Pontiac Catalina with a 575 block engine that generates 1,000 horsepower. Biffle simply smiled when asked how fast it will go.

"Fast enough," he said.

Biffle built the shop in 2001. He designed the front with a hangar door, anticipating one day he would own and store his helicopter there instead of the nearby airport.

His dream is to build a house on the lower end of the property next to the lake so he can be out of bed and in his helicopter in 10 minutes.

"Only two years away," said Biffle, estimating the time it will take to build the house that he already has roped off. "Only two years till my dream comes true."

'Peaceful for me'
Biffle pointed out the window at the glorious sunset taking shape over Lake Norman.

"Right now, there is nothing more peaceful for me," he said.

Biffle then tweaked with the radio that was stuck on mute. The tune being played was Justin Timberlake's "What Goes Around."

For Biffle, there's nothing better outside of a trip to Victory Lane than going around the rich Carolina blue sky in his helicopter. Up here, he doesn't have to worry about bad pitstops or wins gone awry because of a failed 25 cent piece.

"Like anything, if I was doing this for a living and hauling passengers it might not be as much fun," he said. "But right now there is nothing better."

He tightened the grip on his toothpick one more time.

"We all complain about not having enough time off," Biffle said. "But reality is we wouldn't have all of this if we weren't racing."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter