Of Tragedy and Teamwork

Oct. 24, 2005
Oct. 24, 2005

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Oct. 24, 2005

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Of Tragedy and Teamwork

A year after the plane crash that took his son and nine others, all family members or close friends, NASCAR owner Rick Hendrick has his drivers behind him and another title in his sights

Rick hendrick is tired. He was up late last night at an NFL game in Charlotte--the woman sitting next to him wouldn't stop talking about how polite Hendrick's son, Ricky, had been the times he'd sat in his father's seat--and now, on a Tuesday morning in early October, he's being bull-rushed by memories of the accident. Sitting in a conference room at Hendrick Motorsports, he closes his eyes and allows it all to come back to him: the horror of the first phone call almost exactly a year ago; the roiling pain of having four family members and six friends die; the what-ifs that still haunt his thoughts.

This is an article from the Oct. 24, 2005 issue Original Layout

"If I had been on that plane," he says, "things might be different. Maybe my brother doesn't get on. Then maybe his daughters don't get on. Maybe Ricky.... I can't.... I ... gotta stop doing that."

Now it's noon on this bright day in Concord, N.C., and the 56-year-old Hendrick, the most successful owner in NASCAR over the past decade, is walking onto a stage at his headquarters. Almost all of the 550 people who work in Hendrick's race shop--engineers, crew chiefs, drivers--are sitting in this large room, eating chicken and hamburgers, as Hendrick grabs a microphone. The room quiets. Hendrick gazes out above the audience to a line of photos on the far wall, the faces of the 10 people who were lost in the fog at Bull Mountain in Virginia. He looks at the floor, takes a deep breath, then raises his head, and suddenly all the fatigue, all the sadness that was etched on his face ... disappear. He beams as he talks about the people in the room helping one another through the tragedy, becoming as close as family. This is why, he says, Jimmie Johnson, the only Hendrick driver in the Chase for the Nextel Cup, has an edge over the other contenders.

"We have one goal, and that's to get the 48 team the title," Hendrick says, referring to Johnson's car. "We're all going to work together--all our teams. This is where we have an advantage. We've been through tough times. We're close, and we share everything.... Rusty [Wallace] and Ryan [Newman] won't do that. The Roush teams won't do that. We will."

When Hendrick steps off the stage, everyone claps as if at a pep rally. That's when it dawns on a visitor: Rick Hendrick, the man who must carry the heaviest heart in sports, is making the comeback of his career.

one year ago this Sunday, Hendrick was driving alone in his black 2004 BMW X5 through the treelined streets of south Charlotte. He'd just had lunch with his wife, Linda, at Harper's, one of their favorite restaurants, and was headed across town to see his mother, Mary. Hendrick had considered flying on his private plane to the Cup race in Martinsville, Va., which was to begin in a few minutes but had opted to spend the morning with Linda and then visit Mary, who was still grieving the loss of her husband, Rick's dad, Papa Joe Hendrick, who had died 14 weeks earlier at age 84.

Hendrick pulled onto Seven Eagles Road, thinking what a beautiful fall day it was. Life itself was beautiful for Hendrick: Two of his drivers, Johnson and Jeff Gordon, were battling for the Cup championship. Rick's only son, 24-year-old Ricky, was overseeing a successful Busch Series team. Rick and Ricky were inseparable--they were building adjacent new offices--and Rick took comfort in knowing that soon Ricky would ascend the throne of the Hendrick empire, which includes five Cup teams, one Busch team and 60 car dealerships.

Rick didn't know it, but that morning Ricky had boarded a plane at Concord Regional Airport to go to Martinsville--the same plane that Rick would have taken. Rick's brother, John, the president of Hendrick Motorsports, was also on board, along with his 22-year-old twin daughters, Kimberly and Jennifer. Also with them were one of Rick's best friends and his lead engine builder, Randy Dorton; his general manager, Jeff Turner; an executive with DuPont, Hendrick's top sponsor, Joe Jackson; a pilot for driver Tony Stewart, Scott Lathram; and two Hendrick Motorsports pilots, Richard Tracy and Elizabeth Morrison.

Hendrick continued to drive. Just before 1 p.m. his cellphone rang. It was Ken Howes, the team's director of competition. He told Hendrick to pull over immediately. "Rick," said Howes, "we've got a plane missing. That's all we know right now."

"Oh, my God," said Hendrick. "Who's on it?"

the only reason Rick Hendrick got into NASCAR was because of a high-speed accident. Growing up on a tobacco farm in southern Virginia, he'd fallen in love with race cars. As a teenager racing his '31 Ford over the country roads, Rick was rarely beaten. He wanted to become a professional racer, but his mother thought the sport was too dangerous, so she forbade him to pursue it. Rick found another way to get his speed fix: drag boat racing. By 1982 he'd won three national titles, but that year, in Lynchfield, Ill., a friend of his, Jimmy Wright, was racing in one of Hendrick's boats when he lost control. The boat slammed into a bank, and Wright was killed. "I lost my passion for the sport that day," says Hendrick. "I was done after Jimmy died."

After he walked away from boat racing, Hendrick, who was becoming a successful car dealer, turned to stock cars. In 1984, operating out of a small boat shed north of Charlotte, he started a NASCAR team. "We didn't have a sponsor and only had five people working on the car," he recalls. "I didn't think we'd make it."

But in only his eighth Cup start as an owner, Hendrick reached Victory Lane at his home track: Martinsville. The .526-mile oval in the foothills of the Appalachians is only 50 miles from the Hendrick family farm. After that win Hendrick signed his first major sponsor, and his victories began to multiply. Since then he has won five Cup titles (four with Gordon and one with Terry Labonte) and revolutionized the sport by originating the multicar team.

"Rick continues to amaze me," says Gordon. "Even going through this tragedy, he's been making sure that everyone else is O.K. He'll never look at life the same, but he's getting through this."

"I am getting through this," says Hendrick. "It was such an unbelievable event that you wonder if you'll ever get your spark back. I don't know if I will. But I know I miss them all more today than I did the day it happened. Not a minute goes by that I don't think about all of them on the plane."

at 12:24 p.m. last Oct. 24 Hendrick's Beech 200 King Air, a twin-engine propeller plane, was cleared to land in fog at Martinsville's Blue Ridge Airport. According to a National Transportation Safety Board report, at 12:33 p.m. the pilots radioed the tower to say they had overshot the runway. No further word came from the plane, but later that day the wreckage of the King Air was found on Bull Mountain, 10 miles from Blue Ridge Airport and 20 miles from the Martinsville track. There were no survivors.

That evening, after Johnson won the Subway 500 at Martinsville, he and Gordon and another Hendrick driver, Brian Vickers, went to Hendrick's house in Charlotte. "We just had to be there with him and Linda," says Johnson. "The house was full of friends. I don't think Mr. Hendrick realized how many people care about him."

For a long time Hendrick didn't want to return to the track or even watch a race. The memories were too painful, especially the one of seeing his boy light up as if it were his birthday every time the engines roared. But a teary-eyed Hendrick attended the final race of last season, at Homestead, and he has been to several races this year, including last Saturday night's UAW-GM Quality 500 at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte.

An hour before the race Hendrick joined his five drivers for a photo shoot. His son's former fiancée, Emily--who in June gave birth to the couple's daughter, whom she named Ricki--stood nearby in the infield as a smiling Hendrick exchanged hugs with his drivers. This, he said, is how he has endured. "Everyone at Hendrick is my family," he said. "They're the reason I'm still going to the racetrack. It's all because of them."

And if Johnson takes the title--he won Saturday's crash-filled race and is now tied with Stewart for the points lead--it'll all be because of Rick Hendrick.

"I am getting through this," says Hendrick. "But I MISS THEM ALL more than the day it happened. Not a minute goes by that I don't think about all of them on that plane."

PHOTOPhotograph by Michael J. LeBrecht II/ 1Deuce3 PhotographyALL FOR ONE Hendrick (front) has drawn strength from his team, just as (from left) Cup chaser Johnson has from teammates Vickers, Kyle Busch, Labonte and Gordon.PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANN (HENDRICKS)SON AND HEIR Rick saw Ricky as his company's future leader before last year's crash (inset). PHOTOPATRICK SCHNEIDER/CHARLOTTE OBSERVER/KRT/ABACA  [See caption above]