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Hendrick has survived a lot to reach 30 years in NASCAR

By Jim Utter
jutter@charlotteobserver.com

Thirty years ago, Rick Hendrick nearly closed his fledgling race team as it appeared his organization was about to lose its primary sponsorship.

Nearly 10 years ago, Hendrick thought about walking away from the sport after the crash of a Hendrick Motorsports plane near Martinsville, Va., claimed the lives of 10 people, including Hendrick’s son, brother and two nieces.

Imagine NASCAR minus the organization which has produced 11 Cup series championships by drivers Jimmie Johnson (six), Jeff Gordon (four) and Terry Labonte.

As HMS embarks on its 30th anniversary in NASCAR this season, the organization’s absence on the NASCAR landscape – where it has collected 218 Cup victories – seems unfathomable.

Particularly as Johnson is on the cusp of joining Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt as the only drivers to win seven series titles.

A victory at Martinsville Speedway in April 1984 by Geoffrey Bodine kept the company’s doors opened.

But what still drives Hendrick?

“I’ve kind of grown up being able to do the two things in life I love the most and that’s racing and the car business,” Hendrick said Tuesday during the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour at the Charlotte Convention Center. “There are times when I’ve thought, ‘When do I want to go do something else?’

“By the end of the year after all the pressure of the season is deflated, all I have to do is watch a video at the banquet and the energy comes back and I’m ready to race again.

“I really think I’d be lost if I didn’t have this to do.”

Much has changed in NASCAR since HMS opened its doors.

Certainly, much has changed at the company, which began with five employees and 5,000 square feet of work space and has transformed into a vast 430,000-square-foot complex on 140 acres with more than 500 employees.

One thing that hasn’t changed is Hendrick’s key to success – finding the people who, together, help achieve what you can’t do individually.

“It’s really about the people. They built the company. It’s not about me – it’s about all the folks who’ve worked for me on both sides of the fence, automotive and the people in racing,” he said.

“As long as my health remains good, there just is really nothing else I’d rather do.”

In the midst of probably his most successful stretch as a race team owner, Hendrick, 64, seriously considered stepping away from racing after the April 2004 plane crash.

“Right after the accident happened, I didn’t know if I could go back (to the Hendrick racing complex). I just didn’t know if I wanted to be at that place where (son) Ricky was, my brother and (engine builder) Randy (Dorton),” Hendrick said.

“When I went to see all those people and I walked into that room – all like a big family – it was like I had to go back.”

It wasn’t easy.

“I didn’t want to go to the first race, I didn’t want to go to Homestead (the season finale in Florida) that year, but I went because we were in contention to win the championship,” he said.

“When I saw the people, I knew my family – my son, my brother, my nieces, all of them – that’s what they loved, so we would honor them by going on.”

Hendrick said he realizes now his grief at the time was overwhelming, but when he attended the driver’s meeting before the Homestead race, he came face-to-face with his NASCAR family and knew he was where he belonged.

“People like (team owners) Roger Penske and Richard Childress and Joe Gibbs and those guys are friends of mine and I have to compete against them every week,” he said.

“But I still think a lot of them. I’m proud to say they are some of my best friends.”

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.
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