Life is full of battles on and off the track

October 12, 2003|by TODD BURLAGE/Wheelbase Communications

Leukemia,'' the doctor said. And with that one word, Rick Hendrick's life would forever change.

It was 1996 and the year had been looking good. At the time, he was a multi-team owner in the big leagues of NASCAR stock-car racing. And two of his teams were battling for the championship.

Life has a way of throwing you curve balls, just when you think you're at the top of your game.

"You don't soon forget news like that,'' said Hendrick, who through treatment and a strong will has kept his cancer (where white blood cells uncontrollably multiply) in remission for almost five years.

"It was devastating but I wasn't going to give in."

You don't reach Hendrick's level of success in business, racing and life by giving in.

The brash and bold race-team owner is a self-made millionaire who became the youngest person in the United States (Bennettsville, S.C.) to own a Chevrolet dealership. It was 1972 and Hendrick was just 23.


Today, his Hendrick Automotive Group of car dealerships are among the top selling in the country and his racing teams are among the most lucrative and successful in all of NASCAR.

The business savvy has allowed Hendrick to fund his need for speed. His instinct has allowed him to conquer it.

Hendrick began racing watercraft in his mid-20s and even set the world record for a propeller-driven boat with a speed of 222.220 mph. His racing interest moved to land when his best friend was killed in a boating accident.

However, by his own admission, Hendrick knew very little about the racing game when he built his modest "All-Star Racing" stock-car team in the fall of 1983. He hired a couple of NASCAR old-timers to tune the engines and a young driver named Geoff Bodine. The rag-tag bunch showed up for its first race in Daytona Beach, Fla., with no sponsor and only modest goals. A few months later and Hendrick had three wins, a top-10 points finish and a lucrative sponsorship commitment from Levi Garrett chewing tobacco.

Hendrick Racing had arrived.

Always one to shake the establishment, Hendrick did the unthinkable in 1986 when he added a second car and team to his racing stable. The critics said fielding a second car would spread the effort too thin and lead to diminishing returns. Hendrick responded with nine more wins then added a third car for another driver - Darrell Waltrip - the following year.

Today, the multi-car approach began by Hendrick has become the most successful formula in all brands of racing.

"Rick has always been ahead of his time," Waltrip said. "Everybody always thought he was crazy, but he was always in control."

Hendrick's list of drivers reads like a who's who in the business. Greats like Tim Richmond, Ken Schrader, Ricky Rudd, Terry Labonte and even open-wheel legend Al Unser Jr. have driven a Hendrick-owned car. His resume as a race owner includes five NASCAR championship titles, 112 race wins and more than $120 million in prize money.

The revenues from racing and selling cars allowed Hendrick to expand his interests. He was part of the group of investors that helped bring a National Basketball Association team to Charlotte, N.C., and he had a heavy hand in the writing and direction of the Tom Cruise racing movie Days of Thunder.

But through all the good times and good fortune, Hendrick, 54, faced his share of hardships.

About the time he was diagnosed with leukemia, Hendrick was named in connection with a kickback scandal that involved his auto business.

With his health and strength failing, on Dec. 31, 1997, Hendrick was dealt three years probation, a hefty fine and a year of house arrest.

He might have been out of sight at the track in 1998 but he was never out of mind with his drivers who dedicated the prestigious Daytona 500 race to their car owner after they finished first, second and third that year.

With his legal troubles behind him (then President Bill Clinton pardoned Hendrick in 2000) and his health improving, Hendrick is back at the track and more determined than ever. Among his more recent interests is running and fielding a Busch Series stock-car team (one tier below top-dog Winston Cup) for his 23-year-old son Ricky.

"I am probably having more fun now in racing than I ever had,'' said Hendrick, who was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates but instead chose the car business.

From humble beginnings with tiny "All Star Racing" in a small North Carolina garage, to today's "Hendrick Motorsports" sprawling multi-building complex complete with a research-and-development department, engine department, museum and gift shop, Hendrick has seen it all and wants to see more.

Todd Burlage is a feature writer and contributor to Wheelbase Communications.

© 2003, Wheelbase Communications

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