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‘Whatever you need’
Simple concept breeds success for NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick
Published January 27, 2014, Page 1
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It’s photo time at NASCAR Champion’s Week in Las Vegas, and Rick Hendrick has a lot of work to do. He, Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus flank NASCAR’s waving, silver Tiffany trophy. Women in floor-length evening gowns and men in tuxedos shuffle in and out of the picture frame. There are shots with Hendrick Motorsports employees and their wives, Wounded Warriors and their families, Lowe’s executives, Sprint marketers and Johnson’s wife, Johnson’s brothers, Johnson’s mom. There are so many photos, 172 in total, that the shoot spans two hours. It seems like it will never end, and it doesn’t until everyone else is gone and only Hendrick, Johnson and Knaus remain.
“‘Mr. H,’ can you do an 11?” the photographer asks.
Hendrick points his forefingers to the sky and grins. Before the photographer snaps a photo, Johnson leans forward, peers around the trophy and shakes his head.
“Showoff!” Johnson says.
Hendrick beams. The multimillionaire is practiced in the art of Southern humility. He’s a pro at the aw-shucks shrug and he’s quick to chalk up his success to luck. But for a moment, he lets his humility slide. He enjoys the attention. Why not?
After a two-year hiatus, he’s back at the championship banquet with his best team. He’s back with the team he put together in 2002, and the one he kept from falling apart in 2005. He’s back with a team that just won its sixth championship. He’s back, and he’s loving it.
“What?” Hendrick asks, catching Johnson’s eye and looking down at his two fingers and then glancing at Johnson’s six-finger pose. He grins and his eyes flash with laughter. “What?!?”
After the photo is taken, Hendrick and Johnson join an entourage of people headed to a cocktail event. As they walk together down a hallway, Hendrick turns to his star driver.
“We’ve gotta make a deal,” Hendrick tells Johnson. The driver’s next championship will tie him with NASCAR’s all-time leaders, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, and an eighth championship would make him the most decorated driver in NASCAR history. When Johnson does that, Hendrick expects him to keep the winning cars.
Executive Editor Abraham Madkour and motorsports writer Tripp Mickle discuss Rick Hendrick's life and career.
“You got it,” Johnson says. “Whatever you need, buddy.”
That’s what they all say: Whatever you need. And they mean it.
All 550 employees at Hendrick Motorsports would do anything for Hendrick, the man they call “Mr. H.” They all respect him. For what he’s built. For how he treats them. For what he’s overcome. But more than anything, they say it because he says it to them — and he’s backed it up by giving them the tools to succeed. The best equipment. The best facilities. The best people. He only wants one thing in return. For them to work hard and work together. To believe in a system and buy into a simple philosophy …
Whatever you need.
STARTING FROM SCRATCH
The day before the photo shoot, Hendrick is walking laps around two couches in his hotel room to stretch his legs. The 64-year-old is dressed for comfort in a khaki-colored fleece, loose-fitting blue jeans and green slippers. Though he looks relaxed, he is agitated. He keeps coming back to the idea that his team, Hendrick Motorsports, gets compared to the New York Yankees. Haters in NASCAR nation point to the team’s star drivers, elite engine shop and bevy of buildings, and they see an evil empire.
“If you say Yankees winning, OK,” Hendrick says, shoving his hands in his pockets. “But Yankees buying talent, not OK. If you talk about winning traditions, I love being looked at with the Yankees, the Celtics, whoever. But if you compare me with someone who went out and wrote a check …”
He trails off and shakes his head.
|Hendrick (far left) poses during a mechanics class in the 1960s.
Hendrick built it. He built it the way all self-made men do, from the ground up. The ground for him was a small tobacco farm in southern Virginia. It was there that his father taught him the value of working together and gave him a love for auto racing. His father always pitched in to help neighbors, including when he stored a neighbor’s tobacco and helped rebuild his barn after it burned down. And when he wasn’t doing that, he was carting Hendrick and his brother around the Southeast to watch races and eventually enter drag races.
Hendrick loved cars so much that he’d cut class in high school and go work on cars. His passion for them led him to a work-study program with Westinghouse Electric Co. designed to prepare him for a career as a tool and die maker, building camshafts and other auto parts. To make money on the side, he bought, repaired and resold used cars. The work resulted in a chance meeting with a local auto dealer named Mike Leith, who was impressed by Hendrick’s ability to diagnose problems with cars and profit off of them. Leith offered Hendrick, then 23, a job at his dealership. His parents questioned the career change.
“They said, ‘You’re telling us you’re going to leave your job at Westinghouse to go and be a used car salesman?’” Hendrick says. “Westinghouse was a great place to have a career, but my heart wasn’t in it. I knew I had the talent to [sell cars].”
The dealership became profitable after Hendrick and his staff increased annual sales from 200 cars to 1,000 a year, and as promised, GM gave him a better opportunity up the road in Charlotte with City Chevrolet in 1978.
In 1983, local sports marketer Max Muhleman approached Hendrick with an opportunity to invest in a race team co-owned by country singer Kenny Rogers’ manager and Richard Petty. The deal fell apart, but Hendrick decided to start a team anyway. He hired former NASCAR crew chief Harry Hyde, whom he knew because he stored drag boats at Hyde’s shop north of Charlotte, and arranged to rent Hyde’s building, tools and parts. He estimated a season would cost $800,000. He had a dozen dealerships by that time and felt like he could afford to cover half of that. He hired New Yorker Geoff Bodine, who had shown promise the year before but had never won on NASCAR’s highest level, to drive for him.
The team finished in the top 10 in three of its first seven races, but it couldn’t find a sponsor. Hendrick told Hyde and Bodine before their next race at Martinsville Speedway that he’d spent more money already than he planned to and needed to shut the team down. He was so convinced that the end was near that he didn’t even attend the Martinsville race. He joined his wife in Greensboro, N.C., for a prayer meeting instead. It wasn’t until he called his mother late Sunday that he learned Bodine had won the race. Hendrick was so excited that he rolled Bodine’s house in toilet paper that night. The victory was convincing enough that Northwestern Security Life signed on to sponsor the team.
“That changed everything,” Bodine says. “Rick didn’t close the doors. The sponsors started coming. The rest is history.”
By 1986, Hendrick hired another driver, a hotshot named Tim Richmond, and added a second team. The expansion came at a time when most people in NASCAR’s garage thought multicar teams couldn’t be successful, but Hendrick was convinced — if done correctly — a two-car team could share information that would make both cars better in the same way his dealerships shared information to boost sales.
They just needed to adopt a new approach … Whatever you need.
The idea was unconventional. His crew chiefs, Hyde, who worked with Richmond, and Gary Nelson, who worked with Bodine, didn’t even buy into it. But Hendrick figured out a way around that.
“You just couldn’t get anybody to share,” Hendrick says. “They wouldn’t talk to each other. I’d tell Harry, ‘I want you to help Gary. Look at his car and see what’s wrong with it.’ Really, I knew Gary had something that Harry would see that would make Harry better, but Harry would never admit that. He’d go over and tell Gary what’s wrong, see something and go back and fix his car just like it. We started like that and then we gradually started getting them together.”
Banquet day begins at 10 a.m. for Hendrick, who starts the day with a speech rehearsal in the Wynn. The room is already set up. Hundreds of 10-top round tables cover the floor. Banners with images of NASCAR greats like Herb Thomas, Tim Flock and Lee Petty ring the room.
Hendrick takes the stage and walks over to the podium to rehearse his speech. He mouths the words as his speech scrolls up two teleprompters in the back of the room. Deep in the speech, he notices a problem. He congratulates Chevrolet on winning the manufacturer’s champion …
“Stop,” he says. “Go back just a hair. That should be championship.”
Hendrick would know. He got his first of 11 championships back in 1995. A few years earlier, he had noticed a driver manhandling a car during a Busch Series race in Atlanta. The driver was a 20-year-old named Jeff Gordon. Hendrick watched lap after lap as Gordon pushed his car closer and closer to the wall in the turns. But the wreck Hendrick expected to see never happened. Gordon ended up winning the race.
Hendrick, who had already shown an eye for talent by giving Bodine and Ken Schrader their first wins on NASCAR’s Cup level, figured any driver who could win in such a poor-handling car would be a star in a finely tuned one. When he learned that Gordon wasn’t under contract, he approached Gordon’s stepfather, John Bickford, about driving for Hendrick Motorsports.
Ford had been trying to set Gordon up with a ride. Bickford, who served as Gordon’s manager, wanted to keep the driver together with Ray Evernham, his young and unproven crew chief at the time, because they worked well together. But the team owners Ford approached — Jack Roush and Cale Yarborough — told him that they didn’t let their drivers pick their crew chief. Hendrick saw no reason to break them up. He told Bickford: Whatever you need.
|Hendrick talks with four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, whom he hired in 1992.
“The whole concept of putting a 21-year-old kid in a Cup car with a Fortune 25 company [DuPont] at that time — it was unheard of,” Bickford says today. “That speaks to who Rick is. He’s a visionary.”
Evernham adds, “He knew the potential in Jeff was limitless. He’s a pretty good judge of talent.”
Gordon proved just how good a judge of talent Hendrick was a few years later. He gave Hendrick his first Cup championship in 1995 and two more before the end of the decade.
The success coincided with massive growth in the sport and helped boost Hendrick’s car dealership business. His name became recognizable nationwide, and he gradually expanded from 12 dealerships to more than 87. Today, they do more than $6 billion in annual revenue, and Hendrick credits the success of Hendrick Motorsports with making that possible.
“[Starting the team] was really about trying to build a brand,” Hendrick says. “We use the same logos. A lot of our sponsors are involved in the automobile business. We pattern the two companies a lot after each other.”
After he rehearses his speech, Hendrick steps into an edit bay offstage. He pulls his iPhone out of his pocket and pops open an email from Hendrick Automotive, his dealership business. The email includes a spreadsheet for the company’s November balance sheet. Hendrick, who splits his time evenly between the automotive business and his race team, slides his thumb across the spreadsheet until he reaches the number in the bottom right corner.
“I always think about the bottom line,” he says, smiling. “I just want to know if we’re in the red or black. We’re in the black.”
When Johnson finishes rehearsing his speech for that evening, Hendrick tells him that he’ll see him after lunch for photos. The two have been together since 2001 when Hendrick hired him. At the time, Johnson hadn’t won a single Busch Series race. He’d only had seven top-10 finishes. Nobody else in the garage was looking at him. No other teams wanted him. But on the recommendation of his son, Ricky, and Gordon, Hendrick spent time around Johnson, traveling to and from races with him. Hendrick liked him and decided to give him a shot if they could find a sponsor.
Lowe’s was looking for a new team at the time. It had been with Richard Childress Racing, but Lowe’s CEO Bob Tillman was frustrated by the team’s performance. He wanted a winner. He also wanted to cut a sponsorship deal that was performance based. Wins would mean the deal paid more, and there were all kinds of incentives for the team, ranging from $480 gift cards to Lowe’s every time the team won to a speed boat for Johnson if he won a championship.
Hendrick accepted Tillman’s terms without question. Whatever you need.
|Hendrick’s decision to confront Johnson (far left) and Knaus (center) in 2005 led to their championship run. “His sweet spot and strength are his people skills,” Johnson says.
Hendrick paired him with Knaus, a former fabricator on Gordon’s team, and the two succeeded from the start. They won the pole at their first Daytona 500 in 2002. They won six races in their first two years, finishing runner-up in the championship their second season. But the hard-charging, type-A Knaus and the laid-back, California-born Johnson constantly bickered. If they lost, Johnson blamed the car; Knaus blamed the driver.
“It was so childish,” Hendrick says. “They were so good together and we were going to separate them. I was trying to keep them together but it wasn’t working. I would talk to Chad and know what was bothering him. I would talk to Jimmie and know what was bothering him. I would say, ‘Really? Shit. Really? Is this what the problem is?’”
By 2005, Hendrick had had enough. He called a meeting with crew chief and driver. He placed a gallon of milk, a bag of Oreos and two Mickey Mouse plates on the conference room table. When Johnson and Knaus came into the conference room, he told them that if they were going to act like kids, he was going to treat them like kids. Johnson and Knaus laughed.
“I’m serious,” Hendrick said. “I’ve given you a chance, and we’re right on the verge of greatness, and you’re going to piss it away like kids.”
Hendrick made them eat the cookies. He made them talk. He put them back together for another season, and they won a championship. Five more followed. They’re now one championship away from tying NASCAR’s record for any driver and crew chief combination, and Johnson says it’s all because of the milk and cookies — and Hendrick’s reminder that they needed to work together.
“That meeting was really the transition point for Chad and I to grow up together,” Johnson says. “Our relationship matured. We’d had success, but we needed something else to take it to the next level. That conversation sparked it all.”
REBOUNDING FROM HARDSHIP
After hours of taking photographs with Johnson and Knaus, Hendrick hits the red carpet. He and his wife, Linda, walk past a wall lined with photographers to a NASCAR employee who turns them toward the cameras. To your right, a photographer shouts. Over here, yells another one. They smile and then head down the red carpet to the backstage entrance.
A makeup artist grabs Hendrick before he steps on stage. She puts him in a director’s chair and brushes his face with powder.
“We’ll give you some love,” she says.
“Love’s good,” Hendrick says.
The stage director pops in to make sure Hendrick’s ready for the show, which is airing live on Fox Sports 1.
“It’s good to have you back,” the stage director says. “I have a friend who is in Colorado Springs. He said he went to a GM meeting in 1989 and they introduced you. Someone said to him, ‘Watch this guy. He’s going places.’ You probably don’t remember that, but he was right. How many of these banquets have you done?”
Hendrick ultimately pleaded guilty to mail fraud and was sentenced to house arrest for a year. He also was ordered to have no involvement with Hendrick Automotive or Hendrick Motorsports during the house arrest. Throughout the ordeal, he continued to battle cancer, and he often was so sick that he couldn’t even meet with his lawyers.
“He was fighting for his life at the time,” Linda says. “There were certain hours I would tell him they couldn’t come. He’d be so sick and just drooling questions. It was not good what he went through. Anybody who went through that several days would just say, ‘Forget it. I don’t want to deal with this.’”
There were times when he wanted to quit. His brother, John, took over management of Hendrick Motorsports. The team kept winning. Linda spoke on his behalf at NASCAR’s championship banquet when Gordon won the title in 1997, and his brother spoke on his behalf when Gordon repeated in 1998. Hendrick didn’t return to the track until 1999 for the Daytona 500. And even then he was still too sick to be there.
“I didn’t make it to the end of the race,” he says. “I had to leave. [Those three years are] still like a cloud. I don’t know if you wipe things out that are unpleasant. I don’t have any bitterness. I don’t even think about it. You get busy and you move on.”
Hendrick’s ability to move on was aided by President Bill Clinton, who pardoned him in December 2000. He still says today that he was just trying to help a friend, and that he didn’t get anything in exchange. He says the government and the media made it into something more than it was. But he couldn’t control that, and the important thing was that he didn’t lose any friends or employees during the entire affair.
“I had tremendous support,” he says. “What I cared about was my family and friends and employees. We worked through it. We came out stronger than ever.”
Hendrick steps up to the podium to give the banquet’s annual owner’s championship speech. His silver hair, which is parted to the right, matches the silver ‘H’ pinned to the left lapel of his tuxedo. Before he speaks, he pauses to survey the ballroom and then starts to speak. He knows almost every person in the room, but he still gets nervous when he speaks at the banquet. His mouth dries out, and his lips catch in the corner. But he presses on, saluting Joe Gibbs and driver Matt Kenseth for finishing second, congratulating the other teams that made the Chase and recognizing the entire team at Hendrick Motorsports that shared in this year’s success. Then he turns his attention to those who aren’t here.
It’s a subtle nod to the biggest hardship Hendrick and Hendrick Motorsports ever faced. In 2004, a team plane destined for a race in Martinsville, Va., crashed. It was carrying his son, Ricky; his brother, John; twin nieces; the team’s engine builder Randy Dorton; general manager Jeff Turner; and four others. Everyone perished.
|Family, and unfortunately personal tragedy, has been part of Hendrick’s story. Top, Hendrick celebrates a 1995 victory by Terry Labonte with his brother, John Hendrick (right), and their father, “Papa Joe” (second from right). Above, he celebrates with his late son Ricky after the then 21-year-old won a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race in 2001.
When Johnson won that fall’s race at Atlanta, the entire team turned their hats on backward — the way Ricky Hendrick preferred to wear a ball cap — and pointed to the sky. It’s a tradition that continues to this day each time a Hendrick team finds itself in victory lane.
“In life, you don’t know how you can handle something, but somehow God gets you through it,” Hendrick says. “It doesn’t mean there’s not pain there and it goes away. But for the team, it built a lot of character.”
|Hendrick and his wife, Linda, walk the red carpet at last year’s NASCAR awards banquet before collecting their 11th Sprint Cup as a
“I remember 1984,” Childress says. “You’re my hero, buddy. You set a whole new standard for this sport.”
“Thank you,” Hendrick says.
A Hendrick Motorsports employee asks to pose for a photo with him and Linda in front of a 20-foot-tall replica of the Sprint Cup trophy. Other employees and friends follow. Hendrick stands patiently as people shuffle in and out for photos. There are more shots with Johnson. A few with GM President Mark Reuss. Then his daughter, Lynn, walks over and hugs him. It’s the first time he’s seen her in hours.
“I’m so proud of you,” she says. “Can we get a photo?”
Hendrick still remembers the first time he won an owner’s championship, in 1995. He was in his room at the Waldorf Astoria in New York preparing to go downstairs for the banquet when a feeling of joy and gratitude overwhelmed him. He suddenly wanted to call everyone who helped him in life. His high school baseball coach. The guy who worked on dragsters with him. Drivers he raced against. Everyone.
A similar feeling rose within him this time as he stood for photos beside his daughter, son-in-law and wife. He thought about his family that wasn’t there. His mother and father. His brother. His son. And he felt joy and gratitude for the family that remained, to all of the people who had helped him build this.
To everyone who had ever been there to say, “Whatever you need.”