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.
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,” the 58-year-old Hendrick 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.”