Legends of retail: Rick Hendrick

on Jun26

CONCORD, N.C. — For mega-dealer Rick Hendrick, growing up on a farm meant never tossing anything out.

The toolbox he used when he was 18, for example, is still around — displayed, alongside thousands of other memorabilia, in a 55,000-square-foot personal museum here called the Heritage Center. Or, as Hendrick calls it: “Redneck Disney World.”

Hendrick finished building it and opened it in late 2010 to honor his family. Admittance to the deeply personal shrine, inspired by family and tragedy, is by invitation only.

“My dad died about 90 days before my son was killed and so after that I said, ‘OK, I can pay tribute to my entire family here,’ ” Hendrick said in his doleful, soft-spoken drawl.

Hendrick grew up on a tobacco farm outside of Palmer Springs, Va., building and racing cars with his father, “Papa Joe.” His mother was a bank teller who helped secure 90-day loans to fund his early days selling cars.

Today, Hendrick, 67, is chairman of Hendrick Automotive Group, the sixth-largest dealership group in the country. He also owns Hendrick Motorsports, which has earned a record 12 car-owner championships in NASCAR’s premier division. The two companies are separate yet inseparable, with success in racing bolstering success in retailing. His dealership empire includes 105 new-vehicle dealerships selling 26 brands, plus 11 used-vehicle dealerships, 23 collision centers and one motorcycle store, spread across 12 states. While most of his dealerships bear his name, a few carry the names of his NASCAR drivers: Jimmie Johnson, Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Although he sells 26 brands, having just added Jaguar, two dominate, with 16 stores each selling Chevrolet and Honda vehicles. In keeping with the deep track rivalries of NASCAR, Hendrick owns no Ford stores.

“He is very much a leader,” said Jim Campbell, Chevrolet’s U.S. vice president of motorsports and performance vehicles, “who is in service to his managers, all of his team members and employees to deliver the best service to the customers who come into the dealerships.”

Finally, there’s Chevrolet’s most visible partnership with Hendrick in NASCAR racing. In the three NASCAR national racing series, Hendrick has 302 wins as a team owner, all in Chevrolet vehicles.

Hendrick’s victories at the track and in business are only part of his story. His life has included not just triumph, but also turbulence and tragedy as well. Family, friendships and cars bind it all together.

“If I had one dealership in a small town,” Hendrick said, gazing out at a row of 20 of his prized 1967 Corvette convertibles in the Heritage Center, “I’m not going to say I’d be happy, but I think I would be.”

Red Chevy

Those 20 ‘Vettes are among 210 of his personal cars, family heirlooms, and dozens of replicated buildings from his hometown that illustrate his life story at the Heritage Center.

On the second floor is a 3,000-square-foot “man cave” with 165 autographed guitars. A 500-pound NASCAR engine hangs from the ceiling, serving as a chandelier, made and given to him by his employees.

Hendrick likes to come here alone to take a melancholy walk down memory lane.

“I look at the cars. I’ll say, ‘This was the first one I got,’ and I remember it,” he said. “There are so many stories.”

It begins with a cherry-red 1931 Chevrolet coupe that sits front and center on Camaro Boulevard in the Heritage Center. It is his favorite.

“This car,” Hendrick said, beaming. “I bought it when I was 14 years old. My dad and I built it and I raced it.”

Farther down is a replica of the general store his grandfather owned. A young Hendrick converted the back of it into a garage. Near it sits a replica of the Bank of Virginia, where his mother worked.

There is also a replica of Brentwood Citgo, the service station where, at 18, he worked as a mechanic. There he met his wife and found his calling. He bought a car from a man who came in for service work, thanks to a loan Hendrick’s mother got him at the bank. Later he sold the car for a big profit. He​ recalls thinking, “I need to start selling them and quit working on them.”

The 1931 Chevy, which he had paid $250 for, ended up in storage while Hendrick pursued a co-op work-study program with North Carolina State University and Westinghouse Electric Co. in Raleigh in 1968.

A replica of Hendrick’s first dealership, prized cars and more are displayed at the 55,000-square-foot Heritage Center. Photo credit: David Harris

Youngest dealer

In 1976, Hendrick sold off his assets to buy a struggling Chevrolet dealership in Bennettsville, S.C. He became, at 26, the youngest Chevrolet dealer in the country. Two years later, he bought City Chevrolet in Charlotte, the precursor to his empire.

It was there on his 40th birthday that he saw his beloved red 1931 Chevrolet again after Papa Joe had restored it.

“My dad drove it into City Chevrolet with my wife inside and my two kids in the rumble seat,” Hendrick said. “It was so emotional when he drove it in, because it had my family in it and the car meant so much to me because he and I built it together.”

In front of a replica of his late son Ricky’s motorcycle shop sits a 1932 teal-and-white Chevrolet coupe. Papa Joe and Ricky built it together.

“This car would be second to my 1931 car that I wouldn’t get rid of,” Hendrick said. “People ask me, if the building was on fire, which one would you take out? I’ve got some real rare Ferraris and Porsches and things like that, but the family and personal cars are the most important to me.”

As Hendrick built his dealership group, he started a drag boat racing team in 1979. A dark-red race boat sits in the Heritage Center in honor of the team’s three consecutive national championships and world record of 222.2 mph. It all came to an end in 1982 when Hendrick’s boat driver and friend, Jimmy Wright, was killed.

“When I went back to the race after Jimmy was killed, I just couldn’t do it,” he said. “It didn’t feel the same.”

Hendrick with driver Jimmie Johnson. Hendrick’s racing career nearly ended before it got going when he almost shut down six races into his first season. Photo credit: David Harris

Give NASCAR a try

Through boat racing, Hendrick met car racing crew chief Harry Hyde. They decided to give NASCAR a try.

“I hired Geoff Bodine to drive. He was an unknown rookie then, and we had no sponsor,” Hendrick said, standing near a race car used in the Tom Cruise movie Days of Thunder, loosely based on Hendrick’s life. “So six races into the season, I told Harry, ‘Look, we gotta shut the doors because we don’t have any money.’ “

Hendrick had about seven dealerships then. To continue racing without a sponsor endangered his auto retail business. Hyde persuaded him to do one more race.

“We won that race, we got a sponsor and we finished the year. We got another sponsor and the rest is history,” Hendrick said. “But we were close to being out of business. We were already out of business, but we held on for just one more.”

In 2013, Hendrick was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and, in January, the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

In the1990s, Hendrick’s auto retail and racing empire was burgeoning, but he would be rocked with a diagnosis of chronic myelogenous leukemia, and a mail fraud conviction in a Honda bribery scandal. That conviction cost him three Mazda dealerships and a year of home confinement. While confined, he recovered from his illness.

By 1999, he was in full remission from leukemia. Then-President Bill Clinton pardoned him in 2001.

Tragedy

But in October 2004 his world turned upside down again. His son, Ricky, 24, was one of 10 people killed aboard a Hendrick Motorsports plane when it crashed en route from Charlotte to Martinsville Speedway in Virginia. Hendrick’s brother, John, 53, the president of Hendrick Motorsports, and John Hendrick’s twin daughters were also killed.

Ricky Hendrick was co-owner of two Hendrick racing teams and a former driver himself. During his races, he’d given away a lot of his uniforms, helmets and other memorabilia to employees. The employees gave the mementos to Rick Hendrick, creating the third most valued possession inside the Heritage Center: Ricky’s racing trailer.

The 9-foot wide, 36-foot long Gooseneck trailer Ricky used early in his racing career had sat behind a Motorsports building for years, rusting.

“We probably would have sold it,” Hendrick said. “But when the accident happened, the guys here, who he’d given uniforms to and helmets, gave them all back and restored this trailer.”

In 2005, the employees surprised him by presenting the trailer to him. It was a year before he could go inside.

“It was hard to go in it because there are all these pictures of him and my dad and the original radios, the chairs that my wife and my dad and I were sitting in. There are days when, especially when you lose a child — he would be 37 right now…” Hendrick said, before trailing off in thought.

Ricky’s daughter is 11. She stays with Hendrick and his wife every Thursday night, giving them, in his words, “a little of piece of him.”

But the trailer represents more to Hendrick than just memories of Ricky’s life. It’s reflective of how his employees feel.

‘Which harkens to the lessons Hendrick learned on the farm: People are the biggest asset.

“I believe in servant leadership, and I turn the pyramid upside down. I’m there to help them and serve them,” said Hendrick. “Growing up on a farm, you learn that you have to depend on other people because you don’t have everything you need. If a guy’s barn burns, you help him. If you have a problem, the tractor breaks, you borrow his tractor until you can fix it. My dad instilled that in me, my mom, too. I’ve practiced that all my life.”

Rick Hendrick

Retailer:Owner of Hendrick Automotive Group, Charlotte, N.C.
Size: Nation’s sixth-largest dealership group, with retail sales of 117,946 new vehicles in 2016
Racer: Owner of Hendrick Motorsports, Concord, N.C.
Results: Has a record 12 car-owner championships in NASCAR’s premier division



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