SBJ/Jan. 27-Feb. 2, 2014/Champions

Eye for talent, finding the right fit propels Hendrick’s success

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Rick Hendrick takes pride in the fact that he doesn’t buy talent. He built Hendrick Motorsports, in large part, by identifying talent.

Through the years, he’s given drivers ranging from Geoff Bodine to Ken Schrader to Kyle Busch a chance, and they’ve rewarded him by winning their first NASCAR Cup Series race in a Hendrick Motorsports car.

The pairing of Jimmie Johnson (left) and crew chief Chad Knaus has won six titles.
Photo by: COURTESY OF HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS
Some of those drivers he identified himself based on their talent in the car. For example, he was impressed by the way both Jeff Gordon and Busch handled a car. Others, like Jimmie Johnson, impressed him with their character and their desire to work together with others to succeed.

SBJ Podcast:
Executive Editor Abraham Madkour and motorsports writer Tripp Mickle discuss Rick Hendrick's life and career.

“I look for people that have a desire to do other things, to grow and excel,” Hendrick says. “I look for people that I think will fit. We call it the fit-factor because I don’t want to bring someone into the dealership group [or the motorsports team] that doesn’t have the same character traits and attitude. A bad apple can spoil it all.”

Hendrick gives employees at his dealership and motorsports team a personality test called “Management By Strengths.” The multiple-choice questionnaire determines a person’s temperament in an effort to project how they will work with others. He says his motorsports team is stocked with people characterized as “direct.” They are goal oriented and want to lead rather than follow. His first crew chief, Harry Hyde, whom he hired because he was storing boats at Hyde’s shop, and first driver, Geoff Bodine, who wanted the job so badly that he sat outside Hendrick’s office for three hours after his interview waiting for Hendrick to hire him, were both what Hendrick calls “high Ds” — or very direct.

“Both of their heads were harder than granite,” he says.

Hendrick is a “pace” person, or somebody who remains calm under pressure and is noted for persistence and cooperation.

“I know how to communicate with a structured [direct] person,” he says.

Some of Hendrick’s hires he chalks up to luck. He says he was lucky to be in Atlanta for a Busch Series race in 1992 when Gordon won.

Sometimes he just has a feeling about a driver. He says that was the case with Johnson, and it’s the same with Chase Elliott, an 18-year-old who will drive for JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series this year.

But other hires have been very calculated and deliberate. Terry Labonte hadn’t won a race in four years when Hendrick decided to hire him in 1994. The move was based entirely on analysis of Labonte’s performance through the years.

“It was kind of like ‘Moneyball,’” Hendrick says. “We said, ‘Let’s put the age limit in this column. Let’s put the track and road courses here. Let’s give them a scale of 1 to 10.’ Here comes Terry Labonte. This guy wins. He’s been a champion. He’s won on road courses. He’s won on short tracks. He’s won on speedways. Why wasn’t he in a good car? We sign him up and he wins the championship. That was with [former general manager] Jimmy Johnson and [engine builder] Randy Dorton.”

Labonte went on to win the Cup Series title in 1996, his second year with the team.

Hendrick says that the only driver he ever “bought” was three-time Cup Series champion Darrell Waltrip. “And he wanted to come work for us,” Hendrick adds.

He prefers to promote staff from within. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief Steve Letarte and Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus are examples of that. Letarte began working for the team as a 16-year-old, and Knaus was a fabricator on Gordon’s team in the 1990s.

But he also recognizes that there are talented people outside the organization who are interested in joining Hendrick Motorsports. Kasey Kahne and his crew chief, Kenny Francis, who joined the team in 2012, are examples of that. In those instances, Hendrick talks to his drivers and crew chiefs to get their opinion before he makes a hire.

“It’s a lot of communication with people,” Hendrick says, “but also standards and character traits that you look for.”

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