NASCAR Champion Owner Rick Hendrick Builds New Engine

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

 

First taste of tantalizing new prototype battle set for Rolex 24

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No. 85 JDC-Miller Motorsports Oreca 07 Gibson and No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R. Photo courtesy of IMSA
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The sports car world’s first race glimpse of the new Daytona Prototype international and new-for-2017 LMP2-spec chassis will come at this week’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, where months of testing for both type of cars will help determine who draws first blood out of the gate in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season opener.

A 12-car Prototype class grid features seven of the DPis, three Cadillac DPi-V.Rs, two Mazda RT24-Ps and two Nissan Onroak DPis, while the LMP2-spec cars include three Oreca 07s and a single Ligier JS P217 and Riley Mk. 30 chassis apiece. The LMP2-spec cars all have the spec Gibson engine while DPis allow manufacturers to run both their engine and designed bodywork over one of the four base chassis.

The last time a sea change this big came to the Rolex 24 occurred in 2003, with the debut of the first iteration Daytona Prototypes. The tube-framed chassis defined the future for the GRAND-AM Rolex Series, with a field of six at the first race growing to 30 just three years later in 2006.

Of course that first run in 2003 was always going to be littered with mechanical maladies and by the time the race was over, TRG had captured a shock but well-executed overall win with a GT class Porsche 911 GT3.

DPi PRIMER

The Cadillac and the Mazda edge ahead of the Nissan Onroak in terms of test miles prior to this year’s Rolex 24, and haven’t sacrificed performance in the process.

Ricky and Jordan Taylor. Photo courtesy of IMSA
Ricky and Jordan Taylor. Photo courtesy of IMSA

For Ricky and Jordan Taylor, who’ve shared the Konica Minolta-backed Corvette DP for Wayne Taylor Racing the last few years, the chance to develop a manufacturer-based DPi from scratch has provided them a new dose of experience to their burgeoning careers.

“Even compared to the P2 car I drove in Le Mans (an open-top Morgan Judd) in 2014, this is a totally different planet,” Ricky Taylor told NBC Sports. “It’s such a huge evolution from P2 cars in the past. It’ll likely take a season to get up to speed and how it responds to changes, how it drives, lot of learning curves. How stiff the car it is, how responsive. The power is nice obviously. It’s been a pleasure to drive.

“(Dallara’s) main department is the aero department. So with all the work they do being aero driven in P1, F3, GP2, F1, IndyCar… everything is so aero driven. With their body, it can stand out what they can do.”

These two share the No. 10 Cadillac for Wayne Taylor Racing with Max Angelelli, who was instrumental in working with Dallara throughout the design and test process, and a certain fourth driver who may generate some buzz this Rolex 24 in Jeff Gordon.

At Action Express Racing, meanwhile, defending IMSA Prototype champions Dane Cameron and Eric Curran have their first new car to develop in the No. 31 Whelen Engineering/Team Fox Cadillac. Christian Fittipaldi and Joao Barbosa, in the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac, have driven a bevy of prototypes throughout their career.

Yet it might be their extra drivers – Filipe Albuquerque (No. 5) and Mike Conway (No. 31) – who add the most help to the full-season duos at the Rolex. Both have raced full-time in the FIA World Endurance Championship and have raced both LMP1 and LMP2-spec cars, with Albuquerque (Audi) and Conway (Toyota) having had the chance to make their mark understanding how those cars work.

Conway, who along with Sunoco Challenge winner Seb Morris make their Rolex 24 debuts as extras in the No. 31 car, described how this Cadillac drives compared to the LMP1 Toyota he races full-time and the LMP2-spec Oreca 03 and Oreca 05s he’s raced in the past. As you’d expect, the DPi seems to fit well between the two.

“I’ve not done loads of laps, but enough to learn the track and car,” Conway told NBC Sports. “It’s an LMP2 car with more power really, so I knew what to expect. It’s more just learning the tires.”

At Mazda, the RT24-Ps have the base Riley Multimatic chassis with the Mazda-designed aero styling as the bodywork. Speed gaps from the December test were erased at the Roar and the Mazda actually topped the speed traps there, with Jonathan Bomarito in at over 197 mph.

Tom Long and his Long Road Racing team/family have been integral parts of Mazda’s development work over the years, mainly in the MX-5 platform including the new Global MX-5 Cup car which premiered last year. Although the platform is new, Long hailed Mazda’s aspects of continuity for its new car.

No. 70 Mazda RT24-P. Photo courtesy of IMSA
No. 70 Mazda RT24-P. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“It helps that we have the same engine package as before, so we do have that on our side,” said Long, who will share the No. 70 Castrol Edge Machine Gray Mazda with Joel Miller and James Hinchcliffe. “Having that continuity between the driver lineup, crew chiefs and engineers helps so much. We learn together; we’re already ahead in that standpoint. That’s the Mazda mantra to never stop challenging. We’ll push forward.”

The Mazdas fought through suspension issues at the Roar but will look to press on for the rest of the month. The No. 70 is Mazda’s Chassis 1 while the No. 55 Soul Red Mazda, driven by Bomarito, Tristan Nunez and Spencer Pigot, is the Chassis 3. The lone base Riley Mk. 30, an LMP2-spec car, is entered by VISIT FLORIDA Racing, with Renger van der Zande, Marc Goossens and Rene Rast sharing the No. 90 Gibson-powered entry.

The new Nissan premiered publicly in December. Despite the car’s outward appearance looking similar, save for the GT-R inspired nose assembly, more is different under the bodywork to clearly differentiate it from the Ligier JS P217 base chassis.

No. 2 Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPi. Photo courtesy of IMSA
No. 2 Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPi. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“The car carryover is actually nothing from last year,” Ryan Dalziel, co-driver of the No. 2 Tequila Patron ESM Nissan with Scott Sharp and Pipo Derani, explained. “It’s new regulations and the ’16 Ligier was obviously based on the ’14 rules. So we were one of the few cars in P2 not built with a narrow tub.

“Everything is new, from the suspension and the like. Really no carryover parts. Between the WEC-spec and our spec there’s a massive difference in powerplants. The differential, rear end, driveshafts; basically the whole rear end is mechanically different. Add in the different routing on the sidepods, which is a lot of the reason why the sidepods are different. It’s not so much styling cues as intercoolers, but radiators for the turbo motor. That said, it still feels fundamentally like the previous Ligier and it means they’re using what they’ve learned.”

That No. 2 car is alongside the team’s sister car, the No. 22 entry, driven by Ed Brown, Johannes van Overbeek, Bruno Senna and Brendon Hartley.

LMP2 PRIMER

No. 81 DragonSpeed Oreca 07 and No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier JS P217. Photo courtesy of IMSA
No. 81 DragonSpeed Oreca 07 and No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier JS P217. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The base Ligier is the progression from the Ligier JS P2, which in its third year in 2016 had a banner campaign winning at Daytona and Sebring with ESM, and Petit Le Mans with Michael Shank Racing. The Ligier was unlucky to have not won at Le Mans in three tries.

Ethan Bregman, North American Market Manager, Onroak, explained the design and test process for one of the four new LMP2 chassis for 2017, the new Ligier.

“I believe for us, our aero work is an advantage,” he told NBC Sports at the Performance Racing Industry Trade Show in December. “Our worry was (DPi) manufacturer styling could slow the cars down. We’ve done 2000-plus runs in wind tunnel, plus CFD, so there’s been huge amount of time optimizing this car.

“Compared to the DPi model, the P2 cars will remain the baseline with the spec-Gibson (engine) and the DPis BoP’d to match. The DPis are great structure for manufacturer involvement. They can put their branding behind it. But at same time, a privateer can get a P2 and have it competitive, because they’re there.”

The lone privateer Ligier entry comes in the capable hands of PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports, which steps up from PC into Prototype this year. Bobby Oergel’s team knows how to win endurance races, having captured Daytona, Sebring and Petit Le Mans in recent years, and has a sneaky good lineup assembled with Tom Kimber-Smith, Jose Gutierrez, Michael Guasch and sports car debutante RC Enerson.

That saves Oreca for last, although their pace at the Roar should have put them much higher. Three teams are running the Oreca 07, in full-season entrants JDC/Miller Motorsports (Stephen Simpson, Misha Goikhberg, Chris Miller, Mathias Beche) and partial season teams Rebellion Racing (Neel Jani, Nick Heidfeld, Sebastien Buemi, Stephane Sarrazin) and DragonSpeed (Ben Hanley, Nicolas Lapierre, Loic Duval, Henrik Hedman), the latter two teams having led all but one of the Roar sessions.

As the logical evolution from the previous generation Oreca 05, the new Oreca is quick out of the box and well-honed in development. Jani delivered good first impressions.

“To be honest, I’m not reading too much into it yet. We’ve just been focusing on getting to know the car – it’s completely new,” he said, via IMSA, at the Roar. “Working with the team’s engineers, we’ve made a lot of changes on the car. There’s still some room to improve, but that’s normal. But I don’t think everyone else is really showing what they can do. The main thing for us was working on reliability, and so far it’s great – knock on wood.”

The technical variations in all six car combinations are part of the allure and draw for the race, and the intrigue in wondering which car and team will nail the combination of pace, performance, patience and reliability makes this year’s prototype battle a fascinating one to watch.

Vettel rides solo en route to ROC Nations Cup win for Team Germany

ROC Nations Cup finalists Team USA NASCAR, Kurt Busch (USA) and Kyle Busch (USA) with ROC Nations Cup winner Team Germany Sebastian Vettel (GER) during the ROC Nations Cup on Sunday 22 January 2017 at Marlins Park, Miami, Florida, USA
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Four-time Formula 1 world champion Sebastian Vettel led Team Germany to its seventh Nations Cup victory at the Race of Champions on Sunday in Miami, picking up his first major honor of the 2017 racing season.

Vettel saw his individual Race of Champions title defence end in the group stage on Saturday as IndyCar star Juan Pablo Montoya took a shock victory on debut.

Vettel had never previously appeared at the Race of Champions without winning one of the two titles on offer, having claimed six straight Nations Cup wins alongside Michael Schumacher between 2007 and 2012.

Following a frightening crash in Saturday’s event, Sauber F1 racer Pascal Wehrlein was forced to withdraw from the event, leaving Vettel to represent Team Germany alone on Sunday.

However, the Ferrari driver made the most of the opportunity, winning all eight of his match-ups en route to an unlikely victory.

Vettel topped Group B after beating Tom Kristensen, Petter Solberg, Jenson Button and David Coulthard, sending Team Nordic and Team GB – the latter out to defend its teams’ title – home in the group stage.

Vettel faced off against Team Colombia in the semi-finals, facing Saturday winner Montoya and coming out on top. The German completed a 2-0 victory after easing past Gabby Chaves in the second heat.

The nature of the draw guaranteed either Team USA or Team Canada would reach the final, with three American teams featuring in Group A. Team USA IndyCar and Team USA NASCAR both made it through, the former courtesy of a last-ditch victory for Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi.

Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay faced off against NASCAR brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch, with the match tied at 1-1 ahead of the decider. Kurt Busch appeared to jump the start, moving into a lead that remained to the checkered flag, securing Team USA NASCAR a place in the final in a controversial manner.

Vettel managed to see off Kurt Busch in the first heat of the final, but a loss in revs gave Kyle Busch an advantage off the line in the second match-up. However, Vettel was able to claw it back and cross the line ahead, wrapping up a 2-0 victory and Germany’s seventh Nations Cup win.

“I had a better day than yesterday,” Vettel said. “It’s a bit of a shame that Pascal is missing, but I did my best.

“In the last round against Kyle I was really nervous. The car nearly stalled. But then I came back so really, really happy.”

Nico Rosberg: More to life than driving around in circles

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP celebrates finishing second on the podium and winning the World Drivers Championship during the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg says there is more to life than “driving around in circles” after retiring from Formula 1 at the end of last season.

Rosberg clinched his maiden F1 drivers’ title in Abu Dhabi at the end of November before sensationally announcing his immediate retirement from racing five days later.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this week, Rosberg opened up on his decision to call it quits.

“To do sport at the highest level, it is really 110 per cent focus that is required and there is no room for any compromise whatsoever,” Rosberg said.

“Everything else is secondary and far behind, and that’s even family. I have a one-and-a-half-year-old daughter now. Friends and any other fun or exciting projects – everything is way, way behind.

“So, there’s a time for everything and I find that life has more to offer than driving around in circles and it just felt like the right moment. I want to go for new challenges.

“Of course, there is the side now of having more time for family, more time for friends and being in control of my own life as well.

“For the last 21 years of racing, even starting as a 10-year-old, the whole season is planned by other people, telling you where you need to be and especially in F1 – it’s really, really intense. And now all of a sudden I have this complete freedom.”

Rosberg said that he plans to spend some time focusing on charity work, particularly helping children.

“One of the avenues that I want to go down is to give something back, find something that really touches my heart,” Rosberg said.

“Now I have the time, I’m going to go exploring different avenues. I’m going to go to Germany and visit children who are quite ill, especially of the age of children who are really happy to see me.

“I would really like to go and see them at the age where I can give them a great time.”

Pascal Wehrlein withdraws from ROC Nations Cup on medical grounds

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22:  Pascal Wehrlein of Germany and Manor Racing walks in the Pitlane during qualifying for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Sauber Formula 1 racer Pascal Wehrlein will take no part in Sunday’s Race of Champions Nations Cup in Miami after being withdrawn on medical grounds.

Wehrlein sustained a frightening crash during Saturday’s ‘Champion of Champions’ event, rolling his KTM X-Bow with a passenger inside after crossing the line during a heat against Felipe Massa.

Both Wehrlein and the passenger escaped unhurt, but the Race of Champions organizers confirmed on Sunday that the German would not be racing on Sunday as a precaution.

“I’m very sorry to withdraw from today’s ROC Nations Cup. I’d really like to race again and I feel fine, but the doctors have advised me to rest so of course I will take their advice,” Wehrlein said.

“It’s no more than mild discomfort but my real priority for the coming year is my Formula 1 season. So while I’m sad to be missing out on all the action, I send my best wishes to my team-mate Sebastian Vettel and the rest of the competitors here in Miami and I wish them another exciting day’s racing.”

Event officials are yet to confirm who – if anyone – will replace Wehrlein in Team Germany’s line-up.

The Race of Champions Nations Cup takes place later today at the Marlins Park in Miami.