Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 3. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.
The luncheons take place every three months or so, and they reveal everything you need to know about Rick Hendrick, my nominee for SI's Sportsman of the Year.Some background for the NASCAR-challenged: Rick Hendrick, at this moment, is the most successful man in NASCAR. His team, Hendrick Motosports, won exactly half of the 36 Nextel Cup races this season. His drivers finished first (Jimmie Johnson), second (Jeff Gordon) and fifth (Kyle Busch) in the final points standings. In this season's Car of Tomorrow races, which is the next generation of stock car that will be used full time in the series next year, Hendrick drivers took nine of the possible 16 checkered flags, meaning they won 56.3 percent of the CoT races. The era of Hendrick dominance won't be over anytime soon.
That is really saying something, given all Rick Hendrick has overcome. Three years ago a plane owned by Hendrick Motorsports was in route to Martinsville (Va.) Speedway when it crashed in rural Virginia. Ten people perished, including Hendrick's son, Ricky, his brother, John, the president of Hendrick Motorsports, two of his nieces and Hendrick's best friend, Rand Dorton, who was his chief engine builder.
A year after the tragedy I spent a long afternoon with Hendrick in a conference room down the hall from his office at his Concord, N.C., headquarters. It was obvious he was still profoundly hurting -- he had to close his eyes when the conversation veered onto that awful autumn morning -- but I was struck that day by his quiet dignity and his unbelievable strength to soldier on. He believed he needed to keep showing up at work, no matter how heavy his heart was, because he didn't want his organization to be smothered by the weight of his grief.
Of course, it wasn't. Ever since the plane crash, I've talked to dozens of the 550 people who work at Hendrick Motorsports. And every one of them swears they would do anything for Mr. H -- as Hendrick is known around his sprawling complex -- because he treats all of them like family. The stories of Hendrick's generosity to even the lowliest of his employees are legion: He's been known to find doctors that specialize in a particular field in a moment's notice; he's helped with medical bills; he's paid for funerals; he's offered up his plane and motor coach if someone has a transportation or lodging need and he's always quick to open up his wallet if there is an emergency that involves one of his own. Small wonder that virtually everyone in NASCAR -- drivers, crew chiefs, engine builders, mechanics, you name it, -- wants to work for Mr. H.
Before the 2007 season started I was invited to sit in on one of the quarterly luncheons he holds in the museum at Hendrick Motorsports. All of his employees were on hand, and as they munched on chicken and mashed potatoes, Hendrick briefly addressed his troops, prophetically telling them this year was going to be a special one for everyone at Hendrick. Then he began giving away different prizes that included cash awards, televisions, watches, and vacations. (For the record: No other owner in NASCAR does anything like this.)
As Hendrick stood on the stage that winter afternoon, I looked around at the faces that comprise NASCAR's most dominating organization. They were all staring up at Hendrick, and it was obvious by their expressions that they had for their boss the one thing that every CEO craves, but rarely achieves:
Admiration, genuine admiration.
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