TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Rick Hendrick’s journey began on his family’s tobacco farm, a stone’s throw from the small Virginia community of Palmer Springs. It was there, south of Richmond near the North Carolina border, where his father instilled the value of a hard day’s work and a pure passion for the automobile.
Under the watchful eye of “Papa Joe,” that love of cars led Hendrick into the world of auto racing. At age 14, he made a name for himself by setting speed records at a local drag strip with a self-built 1931 Chevrolet. Two years later, the self-described “gearhead” won the Virginia division of the Chrysler-Plymouth Troubleshooting Contest, a competition for engine builders. He was just 16.
“My dad worked so hard to provide for our family, and he was absolutely in love with cars and racing,” Hendrick said. “We would travel all over the Southeast to watch drivers like Ray Hendrick, who is to this day one of my all-time heroes, and volunteer to help teams. I remember riding to tracks in the bed of a pickup truck. We’d each carry a trash bag with us just in case it rained.”
Growing up in a tight-knit farming community had a lasting impact on Hendrick.
“Our neighbors were like our teammates. They were our extended family,” Hendrick said. “I vividly remember my father helping rebuild another farmer’s barn that burned down. When someone needed a hand, there were always people there to step up. That was something I’ve always remembered and tried to carry forward in life and business.”
A standout athlete at Park View High School in South Hill, Va., Hendrick considered an opportunity to play professional baseball before pursuing a co-op work-study program with North Carolina State University and Westinghouse Electric Company in Raleigh, N.C.
It was there, on North Carolina’s storied Tobacco Road, where Hendrick’s deep-seeded automotive passion led him to open a small used-car lot with an established new-car dealer. The venture’s success soon convinced the dealer to name Hendrick the general sales manager of his new-car import operation at the age of 23.
A turning point came in 1976, when the 26-year-old Hendrick took a chance by selling off all of his assets to purchase a struggling franchise in Bennettsville, S.C., thus becoming the youngest Chevrolet dealer in the United States. His influence sparked a dramatic sales increase as the once troubled location soon became the region’s most profitable.
“Chevrolet took a big chance on me, and I’ve always been grateful for that,” Hendrick said.
Success in Bennettsville laid the groundwork for Hendrick Automotive Group, which today operates collision centers, accessories distributor installers and more than 100 retail franchises across 13 states. It currently is the second-largest privately held dealership group in the United States.
But as his automotive business steadily grew, Hendrick remained passionate about motor sports. In the late 1970s, he founded a drag-boat racing team that won three consecutive national championships and set a world record of 222.2 mph with the boat “Nitro Fever.”
“People think I’m a car dealer who got into racing, but it’s really the other way around,” Hendrick said. “I’m a racer who has a passion for cars and got into the car business.
“I say that I’m the luckiest guy on earth because I get to make a living doing the two things I love most outside of my family, and that’s racing cars and selling cars.”
After boat driver Jimmy Wright was tragically killed in an accident, Hendrick transitioned to NASCAR. He sponsored and co-owned a limited number of Late Model Sportsman Series (now Nationwide Series) entries, which included a 1983 victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway with the great Dale Earnhardt Sr. behind the wheel.
But it was the relationship with legendary crew chief Harry Hyde that marked another turning point.
“I stored all of my boat equipment on Harry’s property, which is where Hendrick Motorsports is today,” Hendrick said. “We talked about starting a Cup team, and Harry was so sure that he could still win races. He was absolutely one of the best salesmen I’ve ever met. Harry convinced me, and I’m glad he did.”
In 1984, Hendrick founded All-Star Racing. That year, the fledgling outfit fielded a single NASCAR Winston Cup Series (now Sprint Cup) team with just five full-time employees and 5,000 square feet of leased workspace on Hyde’s land.
“We went to the Daytona 500 in 1984, and I couldn’t have felt more out of place,” Hendrick said. “There I was on pit road with legendary owners like Junior Johnson and Bud Moore. I thought we might’ve bitten off more than we could chew, but it ended up being a pretty special year.”
With Hyde as crew chief and Geoff Bodine driving an entire 30-race campaign in the No. 5 Chevrolets, All-Star Racing finished ninth in championship points after earning three victories and three pole positions in its first season.
Known as Hendrick Motorsports since 1985, the organization today is headquartered in Concord, N.C., with 430,000 square feet of workspace on 140 acres that spans Cabarrus and Mecklenburg counties. Hendrick’s original race shop overlooks a state-of-the-art facility housing more than 500 employees and featuring complete engine- and chassis-building areas to support four full-time Chevrolet teams in NASCAR’s elite Sprint Cup Series.
“It’s amazing to see it today,” Hendrick said. “When I remember back to those first five employees in that little shop, I still have a hard time believing how far it’s come. I think about that every time I drive down the hill. It’s the same road that led to Harry’s house 30 years ago.”
Now one of the sport’s premier operations, Hendrick Motorsports has garnered a NASCAR record 13 national series owner’s championships and 14 overall: 10 in the Sprint Cup Series, three in the Camping World Truck Series and one in the Nationwide Series (driver’s title only). Its current roster of stock-car drivers includes Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Hendrick has won Cup titles with three different drivers: Gordon, Johnson and Terry Labonte.
In May 2012, Hendrick became just the second owner to reach the 200-win milestone in the Sprint Cup Series. He currently is second on NASCAR’s all-time Cup victories list (only Petty Enterprises has more) and leads all owners in modern-era wins. His teams have won at least one Cup-level race each season since 1986 – the longest active streak – and averaged 10 points-paying wins annually over the last decade.
Hendrick, who chartered the Hendrick Marrow Program after being diagnosed with leukemia in 1996, has endured many ups and downs since his childhood on that Virginia tobacco farm. But along the way, he has always credited others for his success.
“Some think it’s corny that I talk about how having good people is the key,” Hendrick said. “But I believe the success of any team or business is always because of the people. Over time, we’ve created something really special, and that has very little to do with me. Our people have built it, brick by brick, over three decades. It’s all about their contributions; the hard work, dedication, perseverance and belief in one another.
“Hendrick Motorsports is my extended family, and everything we’ve accomplished is by working together.”
Just like on the farm.
Team owner Rick Hendrick is one of four individuals who will be inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame this Thursday, May 2. The 2013 class includes Hendrick, Dale Inman, Rusty Wallace and Don Schumacher. For ticket information, fans should call 256-761-4725 or visit http://motorsportshalloffame.com/.