Even after 30 years in NASCAR, it’s still all about winning and people for Rick Hendrick

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In the last 30 years, Martinsville Speedway has figured in the highest of highs and the lowest of lows for NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick.

In just its eighth start, the fledgling Hendrick Motorsports earned its first-ever win at the .526-mile paper clip-shaped bullring on April 29, 1984.

Hendrick’s first driver, Geoff Bodine, brought home what would be the first of 219 Sprint Cup victories to date.

Sunday’s STP 500 will mark the 30th anniversary of HMS’s first win as a team.

Martinsville has also been the site of 16 Sprint Cup race wins for Hendrick Motorsports, including eight apiece by Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, part of 21 overall HMS wins that have also included NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip and Bodine.

At the same time, Martinsville will forever be etched into the darkest, deepest and most tragic recesses of HMS legacy. It was just a few miles away from the racetrack, back in 2004, that a HMS airplane crashed into nearby Bull Mountain, killing all 10 occupants onboard, including Hendrick’s only son Ricky Jr., older brother John, John’s two daughters, HMS general manager Jeff Turner, HMS chief engineer Randy Dorton and four others.

Rick Hendrick has been a success in both business (chairman of the Hendrick Automotive Group, which now has 80 franchises and over 10,000 employees) and NASCAR racing, where his teams have won 11 Sprint Cup championships.

But 30 years is 30 years, a long time in anyone’s book. Still, Hendrick remains pretty much the same today as he did when he left his native Warrenton, N.C., to start building his empire.

And even though he has branched out into selling other brands of cars to consumers, one thing has remained constant with Hendrick: he started selling and racing Chevrolets and continues to do so today.

“We are extremely proud of our partnership with Rick and the Hendrick Motorsports organization,” Jim Campbell, U.S. Vice President, Performance Vehicles and Motorsports, said in a statement. “Rick’s success over the past three decades is the result of his passion, persistence and emphasis on teamwork to get the job done.

“As a result, Hendrick Motorsports has 272 wins and 14 NASCAR Owner Championships (both categories including the Nationwide Series) – all with Chevrolet. As a key partner and respected friend, we congratulate Rick and Hendrick Motorsports on 30 great years of racing and winning.”

Not coincidentally, Chevy is also the winningest manufacturer in Sprint Cup racing at Martinsville with 52 wins, with HMS leading the way.

Friday at Martinsville, Johnson reflected upon his boss’s success, as well as the sadness that is still as fresh today as it was on that fateful October day in 2004.

“It’s always exciting to come back to Martinsville and with this being the site of Rick Hendrick’s first win, 30 years of Hendrick Motorsports and obviously 2004 with the plane crash, there is a lot of motivation when we come to this race track,” Johnson said. “It’s great to be back and it’s nice to know that this track is strong for the Hendrick cars and very strong for myself.

“We would love to check the win column box (on Sunday). We are certainly close and we were knocking on the door last weekend and I think we have had a couple other looks at wins. I think we are really understanding this 2014 package and getting some speed out of our cars and we should be contending and racing for wins I believe.”

And although the plane crash was a decade ago, it still feels like just yesterday, Johnson said.

“Absolutely we are sad that the aircraft went down and we lost everybody that was on the airplane, but I am finding today that there are a lot more happy stories as we are reflecting back,” Johnson said. “Especially of thinking about little Ricky and the crazy stuff he would do and the stunts he would pull on his dad.

“There’s a lot of laughter, and I would assume if one of the Hendrick drivers get to victory lane, it would be a very joyful celebration and emotion. Rick and Linda would probably shed some tears later in private, but from a team standpoint, and everybody at HMS, it would be a very uplifting experience.”

Someone who has watched HMS grow from both an outsider and eventually insider point of view is Dale Earnhardt Jr., who joined the organization in 2008 after a failed attempt to wrest the company his late father started, Dale Earnhardt Inc., away from his stepmother Teresa Earnhardt.

“It’s been interesting to see how Hendrick Motorsports has progressed and changed and evolved,” Earnhardt said. “They were tough competitors when I was young going to races, watching my father race.

“They seemed like they had so many resources and they had quite the dynamic when it came to drivers. It was just a team that always was going to be challenging for the win and challenging for championships, especially once Jeff (Gordon) got there they were almost unstoppable at that particular point in the ‘90’s.

“Ever since Jeff (Gordon) got there they have never fell off. They have always maintained their status as one of the top teams with a lot of growth and success. I think that is a credit to the people working there, management, just a lot of great decisions putting people in key positions.”

HMS now has somewhere in excess of 500 employees. If there’s been one constant that the company patriarch has always stressed, be it in his auto dealerships or his race teams, it’s getting the best personnel and letting them do what they do best.

As a result, loyalty is perhaps the biggest attribute within the organization and it starts at the top, according to a story in USA Today.

“He’s a very loyal guy,” Gordon told USA Today. “If you need something, and you’ve been there for him, he’ll take the shirt off his back and do whatever it takes for you. He really respects loyalty, but he also knows how to read if you’re the right person for the job or not.

“He can be around somebody for a short period of time and tell you right away their strengths and weaknesses. If their strengths outweigh their weaknesses, he’ll give them the opportunity to show their strengths.”

Earnhardt had his choice of rides when he let it be known in 2007 that he was looking to leave DEI. Many observers felt the obvious choice would be Richard Childress Racing, where his late father won six of his seven championships.

But there was just something in Hendrick’s personal touch that ultimately swayed Earnhardt in his direction and not RCR’s. It’s the same for Earnhardt as it is for all of HMS’s employees.

“Understanding people’s talents and being able to maximize their potential just in management and other key roles in the company,” Earnhardt said of Hendrick’s essential hands-off policy, letting employees carry the ball they’ve been given and running with it.

“Obviously, Rick has an influence on his employees,” Earnhardt added. “Everybody really strives from the top to the bottom to give their best. It’s a cliché but it’s so true when you actually get to work there and get behind closed doors and see the influence that he has just on individuals. Everybody just pushes so hard to do something good every day. It makes everybody else’s job that much easier. It’s just good reflection of his influence on the company as a whole, but yeah it’s fun being a part of it.

“All those years as a young kid before I drove and then as a driver competing against them you always wonder what is the culture like. Then when you get behind there and see how they are working on their cars, how they set their cars up, for year’s you have wanted that access. To finally have it it’s pretty mind blowing in certain areas. It’s been a fun experience for me.”

Ironically, it was Earnhardt’s own father who Hendrick courted heavily back in the early 1980s when he was putting together what would become NASCAR’s premier racing empire today.

“When I first got in, nobody wanted to work for me,” Hendrick told USA Today. “(The late) Dale Earnhardt shook down my first car, thought about it a little bit but knew he’d have a better opportunity with Richard Childress. As you start winning races, you get opportunities and more people.”

And winning races has become not just a measure of success at HMS, it’s become an obsession, not to mention championships. Look at Johnson: he’s won six of the last eight and is going for a seventh this season.

If he achieves it, he will tie the late Earnhardt and Richard Petty for most Sprint Cup championships (seven) – and most likely in the shortest amount of time and wins, as well.

Johnson is a prototypical example of Hendrick’s sixth sense. When Gordon approached the boss, saying he should give this former motorcross rider from Southern California a look-see, a sentiment that was seconded by Rick’s late son, the elder Hendrick did what he has done countless times: he took yet another chance.

And the rest is NASCAR history.

“I was willing to try whatever,” Hendrick told USA Today. “If we dreamed it, we tried it. So many teams have blinders and want to stay in a rut. We weren’t afraid to step out. I tell people I used to throw for the end zone every time I got my hand on the ball. I’m not quite that brave anymore.”

If Johnson, Gordon, Earnhardt or Kahne end up in victory lane on Sunday, it will be further extend the Hendrick winning legacy not just at Martinsville, but throughout NASCAR.

There’s been a lot of good times, and some sorrow. But through it all, Rick Hendrick has stayed constant to his life, his family, his business and most importantly, his people.

For when you’re with the best, you too are the best.

“Maybe I should have gone to school to be a psychiatrist or something,” Hendrick told USA Today. “I try to get the people to believe in the good of the company. People think it’s corny, but I believe in that family atmosphere.

“We look after each other and go through the tough times and celebrate together, and it builds character in the organization. I’m as proud of the relationships as the trophies and championships because we’ve done it together.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

 

Mid-Ohio returns to IMSA schedule in May 2018

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – The Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course will make its return to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship calendar in 2018, marking the first time Mid-Ohio has been part of an IMSA calendar since the 2014 merger that brought together the GRAND-AM Rolex Series and American Le Mans Series.

Mid-Ohio’s return to the calendar will occur in May 4-6, 2018, and will serve as the venerable Lexington, Ohio permanent road course’s kickoff to its new season.

It’s been since 2013 when GRAND-AM last competed there and 2012 when ALMS did, and from 2007 through 2012 ALMS was always on the same weekend as the Verizon IndyCar Series raced at the track.

More to follow…

Acura moving ahead to solidify NSX GT3 customers in 2018

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – Acura Motorsports is moving ahead with plans to get its first NSX GT3 customers to race in North America, as well as worldwide, following Thursday’s formal confirmation of the manufacturer announcing it will sell the NSX GT3.

The two teams who have developed and run the car this year, Michael Shank Racing (IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GT Daytona class) and RealTime Racing (Pirelli World Challenge GT class) had team principals Shank and Peter Cunningham on hand today at Mid-Ohio to describe the work they’ve done in the process of getting the car ready for customers in 2018.

Shank highlighted the customer service performed by Honda Performance Development when he ran a Honda-powered Ligier JS P2 prototype in IMSA in 2015 and 2016.

The media availability this morning at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course stopped short of confirming both teams will continue their own programs with the NSX GT3 next year, which would be customer-based and not factory as they are this year. That being said, both teams are working with Acura and HPD as they develop their 2018 programs.

Steve Eriksen, vice president and COO, Honda Performance Development, updated the production process in terms of getting NSX GT3s delivered to prospective customers.

“The production timeline and development was moved forward well ahead of Thursday’s announcement,” Eriksen told NBC Sports.

“That was done on purpose; the production was done well in advance to respond quickly when we get inquiries. The goal now is to move from interested parties to serious parties.”

Eriksen confirmed all four existing chassis, plus spares, run by Shank and RealTime this year are owned by HPD. It will be up to HPD to determine the path forward for those chassis after the respective seasons conclude.

For IMSA, the season finale is at Petit Le Mans on October 7 at Road Atlanta, and PWC’s last event of the year is a week later with the eight-hour SRO Intercontinental Challenge on October 15 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey.

Today’s media availability came a day after Acura confirmed the car will be available for sale worldwide at a price of €465,000 ($545,000).

This occurs after a year where there’s been more than 50,000-miles of on-track development between the two teams.

Shank has already delivered the car its first two wins in its inaugural season of IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship competition. The Pataskala, Ohio-based team is working to figure out its 2018 plans, with Shank preferring to focus on his sports car component first before adding any potential IndyCar program.

Here’s slightly more info about that from the release:

The NSX GT3 is eligible to race in more than two dozen FIA-sanctioned racing series around the world, including:

  • The Pirelli World Challenge and WeatherTech SportsCar Championship series in North America
  • The Blancpain GT Series and 24 Hours Nurburgring in Europe
  • The Blancpain GT Series Asia and GT Asia Series
  • The Super GT GT300 class in Japan
  • The Australian GT Championship
  • The Intercontinental GT Challenge

Additional options and complete customer support, including parts and service, training and engineering services are available.  Orders for the NSX GT3 are being taken now by HPD, responsible for sales in North America, at AcuraClientRacing.com.  JAS Motorsport is responsible for NSX GT3 sales in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, excluding Japan.  MUGEN is responsible for sales in Japan.

Pagenaud paces Mid-Ohio opening practice

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – Defending Verizon IndyCar Series and Honda Indy 200 champion Simon Pagenaud paced opening practice for this year’s occasion, posting a quick time of 1:04.9079 at the 2.258-mile Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Pagenaud, in the No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet, sits third in this year’s championship with 404 points. Interestingly his only win this year has come on the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway back in April.

Graham Rahal, the 2015 Mid-Ohio winner, was second in the session in the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing at 1:04.922. Marco Andretti made it into third in his No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda at 1:04.9814.

The top nine drivers down to Scott Dixon in ninth were separated by only 0.3241 of a second and all 21 drivers bar JR Hildebrand were within one second.

Other than a near miss when Helio Castroneves almost hit Esteban Gutierrez exiting the Keyhole, there were no issues in the session and no red flags.

Second practice runs from 2:15 to 3 p.m. ET and local time.

Times are below.

Toyota ‘sad and disappointed’ by Porsche’s LMP1 exit

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Toyota president Akio Toyoda says he is “sad and disappointed” that Porsche will be ending its LMP1 program at the end of the year, leaving the Japanese marque as the sole manufacturer in the FIA World Endurance Championship’s premier class.

Porsche announced early on Friday that it would be pulling the plug on its LMP1 operation following this year’s season finale in Bahrain, switching focus to Formula E, where it will race from 2019.

Toyota and Porsche have battled for top honors in the WEC since 2014, leaving Toyoda with a heavy heart after hearing the news.

“I felt that it was very unfortunate when I heard that Porsche decided to withdraw from the LMP1 category of the WEC racing series,” Toyoda said in a statement.

“At last year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans race, we were honored that Porsche considered Toyota as a rival. It was a great battle as we fought against each other for victory.

“Looking towards this year’s series, we aimed to rise to and even surpass Porsche’s challenge. Those thoughts drove us to work harder and put forth our best efforts in realizing new technologies and skills.

“At this year’s Le Mans, I again had the opportunity to meet and talk with Dr. Porsche. He told me that, much like us, his company participates in motorsport to enhance its production cars. As a carmaker that has been doing such for a very long time, Porsche deserves a great deal of respect.

“I feel very sad and disappointed that we will no longer be able to pit our technologies against such a company on the same battleground next year.

“However, the fight is not yet over. We will continue to battle with all our strength in the remaining five races of this year.

“Let’s make it an amazing competition that will remain in the hearts of the teams as well as of the fans.

“I am full of gratitude to Porsche, but I will save my thanks for when the season is over. At that time, I wonder which of us will be congratulating the other.

“Let’s look forward to that moment as we continue to fight. To everyone at Porsche, we’ll see you on the track!”