Rick Hendrick runs multimillion dollar enterprises with love and appreciation

on May20

“I pinch myself sometimes,” Rick Hendrick says of his career. Clockwise, from left: Hendrick with Tom Cruise on the “Days of Thunder” set; Hendrick gives his acceptance speech at the NASCAR Hall of Fame; Hendrick with crew chief Chad Knaus, left, and seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champ Jimmie Johnson. Photo credit: PHOTOS COURTESY HENDRICK AUTOMOTIVE GROUP / AUTOMOTIVE NEWS ILLUSTRATION

EDITOR’S NOTE: Come back to autonews.com/racing on Monday for our in-depth look at racing and the key role it plays in the auto industry. This story will be part of that section.


When employees at Hendrick Motorsports’ sprawling campus here see a dark red helicopter approach, they spread the word: Here comes Airwolf.

Airwolf — the chopper’s nickname — shuttles Rick Hendrick between his two companies: Motorsports racing here and Hendrick Automotive Group, about 20 miles southwest in Charlotte.

Hendrick is the glue that bonds the businesses. He operates them to complement each other in branding, recruiting and retaining talent, and delivering profits.

“I pinch myself sometimes because I’m so appreciative that I get to make a living doing what I love,” said Hendrick, 67, chairman of the dealership group and owner of Hendrick Motorsports. “I have never done either one of these businesses for money. I did it for love.”

Hendrick entered the racing and retail worlds early. He built his first drag racer at age 14. At 26, he bought a run-down Chevrolet dealership. Today, his 102 dealerships with nearly 10,600 employees constitute the sixth-largest car dealership group in the U.S., based on new-vehicle retail sales.

In 1984, he entered the racing business with five employees. Since then, Hendrick Motorsports has earned a record 12 car-owner championships in NASCAR’s premier division. Hendrick Motorsports employs about 560 people. 

Each business must be profitable on its own, Hendrick said. 

“But the racing brand helps us. We have 11 million people who follow us with Hendrick Motorsports. That’s 11 million opportunities to sell a car. Racing has done a lot for my automobile business, and my automobile business has gotten me into racing.” 

Hendrick is most at ease in his Heritage Center on the Motorsports campus. The 58,000-square-foot building houses 210 cars and a museum that traces his life story. Getting in is by invitation only. 

Hendrick goes there to reflect, relax and conduct business meetings in a conference room where the chassis of his first Corvette, a 1963 model, supports the long glass-topped table in the center. 

Hendrick typically starts his day at 6 a.m., spending about 70 percent of his time on the retail business and 30 percent on racing. Last year, those ratios reversed because his race team was struggling. 

The extended enterprise relies on technology, he said, plus a lot of “good people.” 

“Thank goodness for video conferencing now. It’s saved me,” said Hendrick. “But I put a lot of miles on in the air, traveling to the races and to the dealerships.” 

Hendrick, at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in the mid-1980s, says racing helps retail. Photo credit: HENDRICK AUTOMOTIVE GROUP

At the start of each month, Hendrick begins a series of video conference calls at 8 a.m. Over the next 12 hours, he will speak to each dealership’s general manager about the prior month’s results. 

“I’ve got all the Chevy guys on a screen, and then when I finish with them, I’ve got all the Toyota guys, all the Honda guys, and we go through each dealership, their numbers, how their month was, did they hit their performance plan,” Hendrick said. He prefers the calls to reading reams of financial statements because he can “get the pulse of what’s going on, not just numbers.”

Hendrick, foreground, and his mechanic classmates work on his 1931 Chevrolet. Photo credit: HENDRICK AUTOMOTIVE GROUP

Similarly, Hendrick isn’t interested in dissecting engines at the Motorsports facility, where engineers and technicians spend about a month to hand-build each NASCAR car at a cost of about $100,000. 

“Rick doesn’t try to micromanage the technology side,” said Doug Duchardt, general manager of Hendrick Motorsports. “He puts his emphasis on the people side and putting the right people together and resolving conflict. He understands the technical, but he trusts the pros with it.” 

Hendrick uses Airwolf to visit Motorsports at least once a week, Duchardt said. He likes to attend the Tuesday two-hour meeting with the crew chiefs and drivers to discuss strategy. “Then, on Sunday, I fly to the races. And fly back Sunday night and start it all over again on Monday,” Hendrick said. 

He attends most of the 39 race dates each year, missing only those that conflict with certain church services. 

“During a race, I’m texting with him constantly,” Duchardt said. “He might see something, or he might ask me what they’re saying on the radio.” 

The hours spent on racing and retail seem distinct, but “There’s so much bond between the two,” Hendrick said. “It’s really one brand — one half selling cars, the other half racing.” 

Racing and retail employees wear the same logo, for consistent branding. “When we go into a market and we have Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet, people back up under the sign to take pictures,” he said. “Our brand helps us to sell cars.”

The invitation-only Heritage Center on the Motorsports campus houses 210 cars. Photo credit: HENDRICK AUTOMOTIVE GROUP

Hendrick insists he will work “until my body won’t go anymore.” When that happens, his succession plan calls for several people to take over his various duties. His son-in-law, Marshall Carlson, is the COO of Motorsports and involved in the automotive side. Carlson, along with Hendrick’s daughter and some “longtime minority partners,” including some of his race car drivers, will all run the businesses in various capacities, he said. 

The symbiotic relationship between racing and retail will continue, because Hendrick could never part with either. 

“I love them both. It’s like having two children; I couldn’t pick between them,” Hendrick said. “It was racing that taught me how to work on cars, and it was the love of cars that got me in the automobile business.”

Rick Hendrick

Rick Hendrick owns the nation’s 6th-largest auto dealership group. He is also one of the most successful NASCAR team owners.

  • 1949: Born in Warrenton, N.C.
  • 1963: Rebuilt a 1931 Chevrolet, began drag racing
  • 1965: Won Virginia division of the Chrysler-Plymouth Troubleshooting Contest, a competition for engine builders
  • 1968: Pursued co-op work-study program with North Carolina State University and Westinghouse Electric Co.
  • 1972: Became general sales manager for a Raleigh, N.C., import dealership
  • 1976: Acquired a Chevrolet franchise in South Carolina, making him the youngest Chevrolet dealer in the country
  • 1978: Bought City Chevrolet in Charlotte
  • 1979: Founded a drag-boat racing team that won 3 consecutive national championships
  • 1982: Drag-boat driver Jimmy Wright killed in a boating accident. Hendrick switches back to car racing.
  • 1984: Founded All-Star Racing, a NASCAR Cup Series team; won 3 races in its 1st season
  • 1985: Changed team name to Hendrick Motorsports
  • 1996: Diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia
  • 1997: Started the not-for-profit Hendrick Marrow Program to support blood cancer patients
  • 1999: Declared in full remission from leukemia
  • 2004: 10 people, including Hendrick’s son, brother and 2 nieces, killed in an airplane crash in Virginia
  • 2012: Became the 2nd NASCAR Cup Series owner to reach 200 wins
  • 2017: Inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame

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