CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- With a garbage bag to protect him in case
it started raining, Rick Hendrick once rode 350 miles in the back
of a pickup truck from his Virginia farm to a race in Trenton, N.J.
"I was a kid with a rag in my pocket who did what I was told,"
he said. "We slept six to a hotel room and I was just happy to be
there. Back then, you raced because you loved it.
"People act like we're some big car dealer who just happened to
go racing. But I don't think anybody was any poorer in racing than we were."
As Hendrick Motorsports closes in on its seventh Cup
championship -- four-time champion Jeff Gordon and defending
champion Jimmie Johnson are locked in a tight battle with two races
to go -- the owner who built the powerful organization can't help
but remember his early days in NASCAR.
There were challenges in building a team from the ground up, and
the little-known fact that Hendrick nearly shut it all down less
than two months into his first season.
Hendrick provided a tour this week of the tiny shop where
All-Star Racing was formed in 1984. He bought the 5,000-square foot
building, with its wood-paneled walls and just enough room for his
eight original employees, from legendary crew chief Harry Hyde.
Hyde lived in a single-wide trailer under a tree right outside
the shop, earning $500 a week to direct a five-man crew. Engine
builder Randy Dorton worked out of a back corner, relying on two
employees to build the motors.
Hendrick had grown up around racing, building cars with his
father and the locals of Palmer Springs, Va. His mother didn't want
him racing them, though, so he instead migrated to boat racing,
where he won three national titles and set a world record at 222.2 mph.
But cars were his first love, and in 1976 he bought a struggling
Chevrolet dealership in Bennetsville, S.C. General Motors had
promised that if he could turn it around, they'd reward him with
another dealership, and when Hendrick delivered he took charge of
City Chevrolet in Charlotte, N.C.
It moved him into the hub of NASCAR, and when presented an
opportunity to field a team for Richard Petty with STP as the
sponsor, Hendrick couldn't race into the sport fast enough.
"I'd come up and visit with Harry in that trailer, and it's
almost like he was hypnotizing you with the stories he told,"
Hendrick remembered. "And he always said 'If I just had one more
chance, I could do it with the right driver.' "
So the two moved ahead, planning to go to the 1984 Daytona 500
with Petty behind the wheel.
Only the deal fell apart and Petty never signed with All-Star Racing. Hendrick had no driver, no sponsor and not much time to put together a new deal.
He first offered the ride to Tim Richmond, who said he needed
time to think about it. Hendrick was waiting for a decision when
Geoff Bodine stopped by the dealership and said he wanted the job.
"It was about 10 a.m., and I told Geoff that Tim Richmond had
until 4 p.m. to decide. If he didn't want it, it was Geoff's,"
Hendrick recalled. "And Geoff said to me 'If you don't mind, I'll
just sit here in the lobby and wait.' I went outside, called Tim
Richmond and told him I was doing a different deal."
The car still didn't have a sponsor, and Hendrick had to fund it
himself. He warned Bodine that the team might not be able to race the entire year.
Frank Edwards watched Hendrick grow up in Virginia, raced with
him and made the headers for the 1931 Chevrolet Hendrick built with
his father when he was 14. Edwards worked under Hyde as one of the
first employees at All-Star Racing, and the 71-year-old is still
working out of the shop today.
Edwards knew it would be a struggle to keep the team afloat
without a sponsor, but believed Hendrick could pull it off.
"None of us knew if the deal was going to last six days, six
weeks or six months," Edwards said. "But I knew if he was
involved, he was going to find a way to make it work out."
The team made it to Daytona, finished eighth and added top-10
finishes in the next two events. But money was running tight, and
Hendrick didn't think he'd make it past the fifth race of the year.
He told Hyde he thought they'd have to close the team down.
"Harry said, 'We've got to make it to Darlington. I can win
Darlington,' " Hendrick said. "Well, we ran 35th. So Harry
convinces me to just take the car to Martinsville the next week.
Just give it one more go."
Hendrick pushed on, allowing Northwestern Security Life to put
its logos on the car for free the next week in Martinsville. Then
Bodine went out and won the race, and as company executives
celebrated in Victory Lane, the insurer signed on for the rest of
the season -- saving the team that has won 217 NASCAR races and 10
championships in three different series.
"It's amazing how close we came to not being Hendrick
Motorsports," Hendrick, 58, said.
Those early struggles made Hendrick appreciate how hard it is to
stay in NASCAR and compete on the highest level. With sponsorship
so vital, he made customer service a staple and was wooing company
executives long before it became the norm.
His father, "Papa" Joe Hendrick, didn't agree with the
approach and grumbled behind the scenes when Hendrick was letting
Proctor & Gamble executives drive Hendrick cars around Road Atlanta
for fun. And when an executive went off the course, into the woods,
knocking a pine tree over and onto the car, Papa Joe might have
been on to something.
"Rick didn't care," Edwards said. "He said 'When everybody
else is looking for sponsors, I'm still going to have them."'
That commitment paid off in 1986 when Hendrick used motor oil
off the shelf in Bodine's 1986 Daytona 500 winning car, a risky
move that paid off with more financial stability when the oil
company signed on as a sponsor.
More than two decades later, Hendrick has the best team in
NASCAR. His cars have won 17 of 34 Cup races this season and
sponsors were banging down the door this summer when he signed Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The old shop sits high above a sprawling campus that has
600,000-square feet of work space, and his crew chiefs have hefty six-figure salaries.
"You have no idea what that cat went through to start all of
this," Edwards said. "But he's the one guy who could have pulled it all off. And he did."