Commentary

The real Rick Hendrick can be found

Updated: May 16, 2012, 1:30 AM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

Standing near the top of a staircase, the most successful team owner of NASCAR's modern era grips the railing with one hand and makes a sweeping move across the room with the other. Rick Hendrick is 62, his net worth has been estimated at $200 million, and he is a grandfather. He has endured unimaginable success at the racetrack and unspeakable grief off of it.

Now he stands here, looking out over the staggering expanse of his life. This is not hyperbole. Hendrick is literally doing it, standing over cars he worked on with his father, family photos made to look like movie posters, neon signs, and an indoor drive-in movie theater.

"Welcome," he says with a wink, "to Redneck Disney World."

The Hendrick Heritage Center is housed in a massive warehouse/office building perched on the south end of Hendrick Motorsports' sprawling 140-acre, 12-building campus in Concord, N.C. It is the only one of those buildings with an empty parking lot out front and the only one not filled with scrambling, pressed-shirt engineers and mechanics.

It is the size of an airplane hangar. The towering walls are lined with faux storefronts, starting in the left hand corner with a re-creation of the ice cream parlor where he met his wife Linda and then following the walls along the chronology of his life. There's the JR Hendrick General Store, his grandfather's business that also doubled as little Rick's first garage, where he and his father, Joe, worked on the kid's first car during his childhood in rural Virginia.

There's the Palmer Springs, Va., firehouse, complete with a full-size fire truck. There's the Bank of Virginia branch where his mother worked as a teller, writing her son 90-day bank notes so he could buy, refurbish, and sell cars while still a student. It follows along to a scaled-down version of the Person County Dragway, where little Rick watched his father do straight-line racing against other local heroes.

The final right-hand wall features the neon green and yellow showroom of City Chevrolet, the Charlotte-based launching pad of Hendrick's automotive empire that now encompasses more than 100 dealerships around the nation. Sitting on the showroom floor of that mini-dealership is Cole Trickle's City-sponsored Chevy from "Days of Thunder."

Unlike the surrounding raceshops of Hendrick Motorsports where the racing machines of Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne are constructed from scratch, there are no public viewing areas in the Heritage Center. Like the adjacent Hendrick Motorsports Museum, the amount of memorabilia on display is staggering. But this place is private and key card-protected.

Unless you are with the man they call Mr. H, you're not getting in.

"No, I didn't build this for the public. I built this for my family and in tribute to my family," he says as he begins to walk the floor, running his hands over his all-time favorite car, a 1967 Corvette Roadster. In the Heritage Center there are 28 of them. His childhood dream was to own one Corvette, any Corvette. Now he's the world's largest Corvette salesman.

"We have children and grandchildren and I want them to have a place where they can come and remember everything that came before them. Before me, even. To remember my parents. My grandparents. To remember all the people who aren't with us anymore. To appreciate all the people, all the hard work, and all the good fortune that lets us enjoy the really blessed life we have now."

He cuts short the thought to pause among another collection of classic cars. This time it's a fleet of Camaros. He casts a glance across the polished floor toward a racing trailer covered in the bright green and gold colors of Quaker State. It sits quietly, almost hidden, amid the flashier, noisier displays.

"That's my son Ricky's trailer. That's where the idea of this Heritage Center started."

Roots And Ricky

These are times of great reflection for Rick Hendrick.

On May 12 at Darlington Raceway, Jimmie Johnson delivered Hendrick Motorsports its 200th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory, a mind-bending total. That ranks second only to now-defunct Petty Enterprises. The team built by Richard Petty and his father dates back to NASCAR's inaugural Sprint Cup (then Strictly Stock) event, on June 19, 1949.

Hendrick started Cup racing in 1984.

[+] EnlargeRicky Hendrick
AP Photo/Dick WhippleRicky Hendrick was the heir apparent at Hendrick Motorsports. His death in 2004 in a place crash outside Martinsville, along with nine other employees and friends of HMS, was a seminal moment for his father, and team owner, Rick Hendrick.

"To be honest, I have a hard time even comprehending that," Hendrick confesses. "I remember the first race I fielded a Cup car. I remember standing out on the grid before my first Daytona 500 and looking around at Richard Petty and Junior Johnson and thinking, do they know I'm out here with these guys? Because I was convinced that if they did realize it I would be escorted off the premises. I had no business out there."

Now when he walks the grid, all eyes are on him. And even more than usual over the last six months, as the tension built with each week and each missed opportunity at that 200th win. They spent 17 races stuck on 199, the team's longest winless drought in a decade.

The most painful of the misses came at the Martinsville Speedway on April 1, when Johnson and Gordon ran 1-2 in the closing laps, but were simultaneously taken out by contact with onrushing Clint Bowyer on a late restart. It was at that same tiny Virginia bullring that Hendrick would peek through the fence as a child, eager to catch a glimpse of his racing heroes, like Petty and 1960 NASCAR champion Rex White.

The morning of that race in April, Hendrick traveled to nearby Bull Mountain and stood beneath a memorial, a cross erected among the trees. He went there with his sister-in-law Cathy Hendrick and close friend Jan Jackson, en route to their first NASCAR race in nearly eight years.

They held hands, prayed, and cried, standing at the spot where on Oct. 24, 2004, a Hendrick Motorsports plane crashed, killing all 10 aboard. Among them were his brother John, nieces Kimberly and Jennifer, and engine builder Randy Dorton, one of the race team's original five employees. There was also DuPont executive Joe Jackson, Jan's husband.

And there was Ricky Hendrick, Rick's 24-year-old son and heir apparent to the Hendrick empire.

"This was what Ricky used to haul his late model car around," Hendrick says as he steps into the Quaker State trailer. The walls are adorned with photos of Ricky's driving career, which included a win in NASCAR's Truck Series. "The guys on his team took this trailer, fixed it up like this, a real tribute to Ricky, and gave it to me."

Hendrick runs his hand over the glass case that displays his son's gear.

"I couldn't even make myself come in here for the longest time. I honestly didn't know what to do with it. But I already had all of these cars I was collecting and all of this family memorabilia piling up, so we brought Ricky's trailer in here and everything else just kind of grew up around it."

Parts And Pieces

Among the items kept in the massive facility is a nondescript set of engine parts. A camshaft and a set of 15 lifters pulled from a Chevy drag racer. On Easter Sunday 1966, the 16-year-old Hendrick raced that car. He won but broke a lifter. So he deconstructed the engine, washed the parts in gasoline, and placed them into a five-gallon bucket.

For reasons he has long ago forgotten, that bucket made its way into the attic of his parents' house in Virginia. ("I'm not sure how it didn't burn the house down," he says.) In 2004, nearly 40 years later, he was back in the attic, going through his childhood home after his father's death.

There were the parts.

"I got so busy and I got so focused on whatever was next, the next race, the next dealership, whatever, that I think I sometimes I lost sight of all the parts and pieces that got me there," he said. "But you get to a certain point in your life where you start losing people. You realize that you're here because they got you here."

He talks from a leather chair in his "ultimate man cave," on the second floor of the Heritage Center. Beneath his feet, viewed through the Plexiglas floor, is his massive collection of autographed guitars, from Bruce Springsteen to Chet Atkins. Overhead is a chandelier fashioned from the block of an engine that earned a handful of those 200 wins. (He jokes: "You know you're a real redneck if you have a chandelier made from a Chevy engine block.")

[+] EnlargeHendrick Heritage Center
Courtesy Hendrick MotorsportsRick Hendrick's personal time machine, the Hendrick Heritage Center, is seen by few people. But it contains the things Hendrick finds worth preserving for future generations of his family.

"Look out here," he says, pointing out the window that overlooks the Hendrick Motorports campus.

He draws attention away from the hillside office buildings and instead to a lone low-tech shed. It sits between the headquarters of Hendrick Engines and the two buildings that house his four current racecars. Those buildings are packed with dozens of cars, dozens of employees, and rooms full of engineers crunching hard drives packed with aerodynamic numbers collected in wind tunnels.

When modern race fans visit HMS, the new buildings are all they see. The fans who love to loathe Hendrick -- and there are many -- point to the modern campus like bitter baseball fans point to new Yankee Stadium, the perfect example of the haves vs. the have-nots. A NASCAR Death Star. There's even a Twitter account titled "DarthHendrick."

To that, Hendrick bristles.

"I resent that," he said. "I really do. Because I was as poor as anyone has ever been in this sport. Nobody's ever done it any poorer than I was."

He says that anyone who can't remember the team's roots has to look no further than the men who are still on the payroll dating back to the days in that tiny shop.

He talks about Frank Edwards, the last remaining employee from the original five. He's an executive now, but Hendrick describes a man laying chalk lines in the dirt around a wrecked late-model racer before they cut it in half and spent all night welding it back together so they could tow it back to the South Boston Speedway and crash it again. Or towing a racecar to New Jersey behind a pickup truck that had garbage bags taped all over it to keep the rain from pouring through the broken windows.

"That came from my father," Hendrick said. "Nobody worked any harder than my daddy did. My daddy was the hardest working man I've ever known. He'd work in a field from 5 in the morning until dark. Then he'd work all night. We had no money but we never wanted for anything. He gave us everything we wanted because he worked hard."

Trophies And Toilet Paper

"Papa Joe" was there when Hendrick made the transition from racing drag boats to racing stock cars, pushed off the water after the death of his friend and boat racing legend Jimmy Wright. Joe served as advisor in 1984 when Rick took his ragtag All-Star Racing team, the men working out of that shed, to Florida for the Daytona 500.

His driver was supposed to be Richard Petty, but that deal had fallen through at the 11th hour. Instead, he had Geoff Bodine behind the wheel, an often-cantankerous short-track legend from upstate New York. A damned Yankee.

If the driver was cranky, then the crew chief was downright surly. But Harry Hyde was also a certified wrench genius. More importantly to Hendrick at the time, Hyde had the parts, the cars, cheap labor, and a shop to work in.

Hendrick had rented space for his drag boats from Hyde. After Wright's death, a heartbroken Hendrick ended up on Hyde's property talking about racing and Hyde said that if the car dealer provided him with the funds, he could build a stock car that would win races.

"We had five guys," Hendrick said. "And I couldn't afford to own anything. I was renting rear ends and transmissions from Harry. I was renting the shop. I was renting the tools. I was renting the damn parts! You think about what all you see with these NASCAR teams now.

"I built a car and a backup. I could go six races and that was it. Otherwise I was going to start putting my business in jeopardy."

After the sixth race, Hyde convinced Hendrick to do one more. They went to Darlington and crashed. Hyde talked Hendrick into biting the bullet and fielding the car for one more race. It was the '84 spring date at Martinsville Speedway. The day was a literal "win or pack it in" situation. If Hendrick pushed any further without some sort of cash in return, his little experiment was going to put his car dealerships in financial jeopardy.

"I wasn't there," Hendrick recalls. "I'd promised my wife I'd go to a church service with our children. When it was over I found a pay phone and called my mom. She said, 'Oh, you didn't hear? They blew an engine.' I was just crushed. Then she started laughing and said, 'No, I'm joking, you won.' "

That night he was standing in Bodine's yard, covering the trees in toilet paper. He couldn't believe he had won a NASCAR race. And he really couldn't believe he had missed it.

"I also missed our 100th win and our 150th win," he said. "It took so long to win the 200th I was afraid they might lock me in my office or leave me at the airport."

He nearly missed Saturday night's victory at Darlington, flying in late after missing the green flag to attend a friend's wedding.

But he was there for the final 100 laps. And he was there to dedicate the victory to Ricky, Papa Joe, mother Mary, who passed away last August, and "to all of the people who have been with us before and are with us now, through the good times and the bad."

Legends And One-Hit Wonders

The stroll through the Heritage Center continues through a plastic city park, built around a statue of Zora Arkus-Duntov, the so-called Father of the Corvette. As a young man, Hendrick came to admire Zora because he'd installed so many of the designer's legendary high-lift camshafts into the cars of customers.

Hendrick punches the button on a surround-sound video presentation of his recent 150-plus mph run down the nearby zMax Dragway. The cutting-edge Camaro in which he made that run sits alongside Papa Joe's old dragster, the Black Maria.

He recalls his bout in the late '90s with leukemia, an illness that struck while he was in the midst of a legal controversy over the business practices of Hendrick Automotive.

[+] EnlargeGeoff Bodine
ISC Archives/Getty ImagesHarry Hyde, right, had a plan, and driver Geoff Bodine had the talent. Together they provided Rick Hendrick with Cup victory No. 1. And if they hadn't won at Martinsville in the spring of 1984, we may not have ever known who Rick Hendrick was.

"There's a lot of pain in everyone's past," he said. "But when you start getting old like me you learn that struggles make you who you are. Just like the people you meet along the way."

With that in mind, he plays a quick game of word association with the drivers that helped him reach 200 wins.

Geoff Bodine: "I don't know why someone else hadn't discovered him."

Tim Richmond: "I've never seen anyone do what he did with a car."

Darrell Waltrip: "He would've won more championships if he'd stayed here. I told him that last night."

Terry Labonte: "Everybody loves Terry. If your favorite driver falls out of the race, you go pull for Terry."

Jeff Gordon: "Thank God for Jeff Gordon. He changed this sport forever and he changed life forever."

Jimmie Johnson: "I've known him since he was 16. I never dreamed he would be this great."

But Hendrick perks up most when he talks about the "other" Hendrick Motorsports drivers, the guys who didn't win championships or collect piles of trophies. He lights up most when asked about racers like Jerry Nadeau, Joe Nemechek, Casey Mears and Brian Vickers, who own one win apiece. Or Ken Schrader, who picked up four wins over nine years, but whom Hendrick to refers to as "my other brother."

He gushes about the pleasure of helping drivers earn career firsts, recalling a time when Jimmy "Smut" Means stepped in for Richmond, who was in the midst of his battle with AIDS. The career NASCAR journeyman qualified on the outside front row for the World 600 at Charlotte, one of racing's crown jewel events.

Hendrick is as excited to tell that story as he is to talk about his six Daytona 500 wins.

"All of those guys are just pure racers," Hendrick said. "And they work so hard. I identify with that. They identify with me. In the end, we're just racers. We're just car guys that have been fortunate enough to make a living at this."

In a sport where relationships can be fleeting, scattered to the winds of hurt feelings and business deals gone bad, all of those drivers remain close to their former employer. They have rallied around him during those terrible times of loss. And on Saturday night they rallied around him to celebrate his 200th victory.

The Real Mr. H

"Have you seen the fishing rod?"

Larrie -- pronounced "Larry" -- Matthews pops into the Hendrick Heritage Center from the adjacent meeting room, the centerpiece of which is a glass conference table built upon the chassis of Mr. H's first Corvette. His official title is Inventory Specialist -- Hendrick Performance Group. But his business card reads: "Vice President of Frivolous Spending."

Matthews is from back home in Virginia. He's the family friend who, as a kid, used to stop by for sleepovers and camping trips and as an adult always stopped in to check on Rick's parents. He's the guy who knew the Hendricks before they were THE HENDRICKS.

Last year Rick hired Matthews to come down to North Carolina and work for him, an idea they had talked about for decades but never followed through on. On paper, his job is to manage Hendrick's massive Heritage Center inventory. In reality, he's here to provide a living, breathing link to Rick's past. To laugh, cry, and tell old stories whenever Mr. H needs to feel like just plain ol' Rick.

"Go look over there in JR Hendrick General Store," Matthews says as he motions toward the dark wood front porch. Inside, hanging on the wall by the store counter is a black and white photo of a group of boys. The faces of two are unmistakable. It's Hendrick and Matthews.

Hanging beside the picture is an old fishing rod.

"We bought two rods together when we were 14 years old," Matthews said. "Rick lost his, but I always kept mine. I gave it to him when he told me was building this place."

He smiles, curls his lip, and looks around the room at the cars and collections.

"You want to know who Rick Hendrick really is? Forget about the wins and the money and even all this stuff we've got in here," Matthews said. "When I see Rick I don't see all of that.

"All I see is that kid with that fishing rod. My best friend. That's who Rick Hendrick is. Winning one race didn't change that. Winning 200 races isn't going to change it, either."

Ryan McGee | email

ESPN The Magazine, NASCAR

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