Commentary

Hendrick film pulls 'on your heartstrings'

Updated: September 30, 2009, 6:17 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Rick Hendrick stood in front of the packed auditorium Tuesday night, his face flushed with emotion. He was nervous, having just bared the most intimate details of his life in a 99-minute documentary.

It was as though a surgeon had opened up his chest and exposed his insides to the world.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson/Rick Hendrick
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonReigning Sprint Cup champ Jimmie Johnson, right, has delivered three championships for team owner Rick Hendrick.

Nothing was left out, from Hendrick's 1996 indictment for mail fraud and money laundering, to his bout with leukemia, to the 2004 plane crash in which he lost his son and nine other family members and friends, to driver Tim Richmond's dying from AIDS, to the advice he gave Jeff Gordon before his divorce.

They were just as prominent as all the wins and championships, perhaps more.

"If we didn't tell it all like it happened, we'd be phonies, and I would be ashamed of it," Hendrick said in the lobby of Charlotte's Ovens Auditorium. "We just opened up our whole world to them and let them do it.

"We didn't tell them what to put in it, what to take out of it. We didn't say, 'This is off-limits; you can't do this.' We just let them do it." The story, as narrator Tom Cruise said, "is about having the will to win and the strength to endure. It's about staying together."

And the film is aptly named "Together: The Hendrick Motorsports Story." It will air Oct. 11, 1:30 p.m. ET, on ABC.

This easily could have been a love-fest celebrating HMS' eight Sprint Cup championships and 185 Cup victories. Instead, it was about the people and the human drama that shaped who Hendrick is and what his organization has become.

It told a story, one that makes it easier to understand why HMS is the premier organization in NASCAR and why it is on the brink of another championship, with 50-year-old Mark Martin and three-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson first and second in points heading into Sunday's race at Kansas Speedway.

Hendrick initially struggled with the direction of the film. He wasn't sure the tragedies and struggles were pertinent to what was supposed to be a 25th-anniversary celebration. He knew it would open a lot of old wounds, forcing him and others to watch video of his son, Ricky, and father, "Papa Joe," for the first time since their deaths.

He told Jesse Essex, his right-hand man turned movie producer, "It's not what I want to do."

But Essex and others convinced Hendrick that the relationships, how the organization rallied from adversity and death to claim glory, was the story.

"Nothing is Hollywood or flowered up for anybody," Hendrick said. "That's it. That's the truth."

In other words, this wasn't "Days of Thunder," the NASCAR movie that helped bring Cruise and Hendrick together in the late 1980s.

"That got off track," Hendrick said with a laugh. "That got to be so out of hand."

There were no contrived scenes in "Together." What you saw was pretty much how it went.

[+] EnlargeHendrick & Cruise
AP Photo/Steve HelberActor Tom Cruise, right, narrates on the film "Together: The Hendrick Motorsports Story."

"Even the indictment," said former Cup champion Darrell Waltrip, who drove for Hendrick from 1987 to 1990. "I know how hard that was for him because one thing the man has is pride and his character of who he is. That was the most embarrassing thing that could happen to him.

"But he lived through it and got through it, and he's man enough not to avoid it. They put it right in there and moved on."

That doesn't mean it wasn't easy for Hendrick to watch. Tuesday's premier was only his second viewing. The first came last Friday.

"I saw clips of it the first time and said, 'I can't sit through it,'" Hendrick said. "If I hadn't seen it one time before, I wouldn't be able to get through it [tonight], I don't think."

The plane crash easily was the most difficult part to get through. Hearing the voices and seeing the video of Ricky, his brother John, and all those who were killed reminded him of just how much was taken away from him on that dreary October day when the Beech 200 crashed into the side of a mountain near Martinsville Speedway.

"It pulled on your heartstrings," Waltrip said in the lobby afterward. "A lot of folks, I don't know how they could watch that. I cried like a baby."

There were a lot of tears. There also was a lot of laughter: for example, when Richmond was shown with long hair, tight shorts and a tank top -- it looked like a scene from the 1985 crotch-thrusting movie "Perfect" with John Travolta and Jamie Lee Curtis -- taking an aerobics class with a group of women.

There was Richmond being distracted by a woman in a tight skirt during a television interview.

There was Hendrick, looking like a 10-year-old ready to be scolded as he sat on the couch across from his mother, Mary, as she basically told him how stupid he was for racing boats without any protection.

"I didn't know what she was going to say," Hendrick said when asked about his reaction. "You can tell who wore the pants in the family."

There was Hendrick awkwardly trying to climb over the pit road wall at Martinsville after Johnson won there on the 25th anniversary of HMS' first victory with Geoff Bodine.

"That was ugly," Hendrick said. "I didn't really want to leave that in there. That was so pathetic I thought we might as well. That motivates me to lose some weight."

One of the funniest moments involved Gordon's very public divorce from Brooke in 2002. Hendrick recalled how Gordon called and asked whether he could come spend the night, which made Hendrick wary that his star driver was ready to walk out on him instead of a marriage.

Hendrick told how he gave Gordon some of his best advice ever, telling him never to hit Brooke, never to leave the house that he paid for, and never to get caught with his pants down.

"He didn't do one, but he did the other two," Hendrick recalled, hinting that Gordon never hit Brooke, who got about half of everything Gordon owned.

Nothing is Hollywood or flowered up for anybody. That's it. That's the truth.

-- Rick Hendrick

The auditorium, many with more knowledge of the relationship than others, broke into laughter. They laughed even harder when Hendrick, during his closing remarks, said: "Jeff, you remember the three things? You don't have enough time to make up another half."

Waltrip called the documentary "amazing."

"I about cracked up," he said. "You laughed, you cried, you felt pride, you felt disappointment. It really pulled on all of your emotions."

But again, it reminded us why Hendrick has set the standard for all Cup operations. While others are merging or folding or changing leadership at the top, HMS remains consistent.

And when there is tragedy or loss, as there was with the plane crash, or even tough economic times, as teams are going through now, the organization is strong enough to withstand it all.

"He's really a great boss, and he doesn't put any kind of unusual pressure on the team," Gordon said in a conference call. "He just really tries to gather the best people. He listens to the people, what they need to make every aspect of the race team better."

Hendrick always has been this way, from the day he purchased his first dragster as a teenager, to the day he decided there was more money in selling cars than driving them, to the day he started his race team.

"Rick is a master of putting people together," Harry Hyde, the late, legendary crew chief who helped Hendrick get into NASCAR, said in the film.

Two-time Cup champion Terry Labonte recalled that before he arrived at HMS, he was told it was one big happy family, something he was skeptical of, since most race teams say that but really aren't.

"And it was that way," Labonte said in the film. "I couldn't believe it."

The theme was constant throughout, particularly in the imagery. Nowhere was it more vivid than Victory Lane in Atlanta a week after the plane crash. There was race winner Johnson united with HMS' three other drivers at the time -- Gordon, Labonte and Brian Vickers -- and all of their crews.

And they all were honoring Ricky by wearing their caps backward, a habit that once drove Hendrick nuts.

"[When I first saw] little clips of it, I said we may have too much family in it," Hendrick said of the film. "They came back and said, 'We think that's the story. It's not just your story, it's everybody at Hendrick Motorsports.'"

Hendrick's competitors should watch the documentary when it is shown to the public for the first time before the Pepsi 500 at Auto Club Speedway. Maybe they'll have a better understanding of why they always seem to be playing for second -- or maybe even third or fourth.

Chances are it'll have to be updated to reflect a ninth title before it's had much more than a month on the streets.

"That's the plan," Hendrick said. "I can tell you this after drinking from the Mark Martin fountain of youth: They're going to have to deal with us for another 25 years. That's bad news for the competition."

It most definitely is.

But that's the future. Tuesday night was about the past and why HMS has such a bright future.

"I'm glad it's over," Hendrick said. "I sweated going up there at the end more than anything I've done in a long time."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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