Nextel Cup frontrunner Tony Stewart is in mourning for his helicopter pilot Scott Lathram, who was amongst the ten people killed when a plane belonging to Hendrick Motorsports crashed on route to Martinsville Speedway on Sunday.

The 38-year old had been Stewart's helicopter pilot since last October, following his retirement from the Kentucky State Police. Prior to that, he had been a state trooper for 16 years, while also serving in the Army Reserve as an Apache helicopter pilot for the 8th Battalion 229th Aviation Regiment. Lathram and his Kentucky-based unit had participated in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and Lathram was set to re-join his unit today [Tuesday], as it had already begun serving in Iraq. Lathram was given a bereavement leave following the death of his father last month.

"Scott Lathram was a great friend, a respected employee and one of the best helicopter pilots in the country," Stewart reflected, "Our trust and faith in him never wavered, because his commitment to service and safety was unmatched. He was also one of the most loyal people I've ever met - not just to me and my employees, but to his country.

"Scott was prepared to go back to Iraq, as his army reserve unit had been called up to active duty. I'll never forget him telling me that he had to return to Iraq. He was only about six months into his job here with me, and he was worried about making sure that I was all set before he had to go. I told him not to worry about me, that the most important thing for him was to look out for his wife and kids. But it just showed me how much Scott cared about everyone around him, especially when his immediate future meant participating in something that most of us will only see on television.

"And what I'll remember the most about Scott, and probably miss the most, was his sense of humour. No matter how bad a day you were having, a quick one-liner from Scott and the next thing you knew you were laughing. He turned bad days into good days and good days into great days.

"We've lost a really great person, and our deepest sympathies go out to his wife Tracey and their three kids."