NASCAR Race Weekend Central

30 Years and Counting: A Look at Rick Hendrick’s NASCAR Contributions

On April 29, 1984, at Martinsville Speedway, Geoff Bodine took his No. 5 City Chevrolet to victory lane for a single-car program known as All-Star Racing. That organization is now known as Hendrick Motorsports, and owner Rick Hendrick will be celebrating that team’s 30th anniversary this weekend at the place it all began.

Throughout the past 30 years, Hendrick has grown his organization from a small team with just five employees to the full-blown, four-car operation it is today with 11 Sprint Cup Series championships. Along the way, Hendrick and Co. have made some contributions to the sport that should not go unnoticed by others.

Expanding the Rulebook

A crew chief’s job is to set up the car to the best of his ability, while searching for that competitive edge that takes him above the rest. Many head wrenches have done that throughout the years, and Hendrick Motorsports is the home of a couple of those types. One of the most famous renditions of pushing the envelope was the car known as “T-Rex.”

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Rick Hendrick’s Hendrick Motorsports turns 30 this week, and already the team has made many major contributions to the sport.

“T-Rex” was built in 1997 by Hendrick Motorsports engineer Rex Stump. Ray Evernham, Jeff Gordon’s crew chief at the time, asked Stump to build the car for the All-Star race. The idea was to throw out all conventional chassis designs and the status quo in general to build the most innovating car within the NASCAR rulebook.

Carrying a Jurassic Park paint scheme, Gordon dominated the 1997 All-Star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway with the car. Following post-race technical inspection, NASCAR noted it was within the rules — however, the sanctioning body asked for the team to not bring it back to the track. In the months that followed, changes were made to the rulebook to prevent a car being built of its nature.

Beyond that, Chad Knaus, who trained under Evernham, has been caught pushing the rules multiple times throughout his time atop Jimmie Johnson’s pit box. Some of those penalties that NASCAR has levied have stood up, while others were overturned by the appeal panel as a result of the infractions being within the rules – if only barely. Working in the gray area is one way in which Hendrick’s mechanical masterminds have been coached to excel.

Teamwork

In a special that aired on SPEED a couple years ago, Rick Hendrick was quoted saying that “teamwork is the fuel that allows common people to produce uncommon results.” Hendrick has accomplished many things as a car owner, including the team of Johnson and Knaus’ five straight championships, and he’s done so with everyone on the same page.

Back in the 1980s and early ’90s, the idea of teams working together was a foreign concept. Teams had multiple cars within an organization doing their own thing. If anything, rivalries brewed, type-A personalities fighting in order to be “alpha dog” instead of working to help each other out.

Hendrick had that happen, too, a four-car tandem in the late 1980s that was supposed to be known as “the dream team.” However, everything fell apart as none of the cars actually talked with each other. The driver/crew chief combination of Darrell Waltrip and Waddell Wilson also feuded throughout their seasons together. As a result, the idea was quickly shelved, Hendrick’s vision needing to wait for the right people.

The idea of a different multi-car organization came back to play in the 1990s with Jeff Gordon, Ken Schrader and Terry Labonte. Not wanting the same results to occur a second time around, Hendrick instilled a thought process — everybody was to share information, and if you didn’t believe in the process, you were asked to leave. At the same time, they developed an engine shop that would produce motors as an assembly line does, rather than certain engine builders only working with certain drivers within the organization.

Looking back, the practice seems to be childish considering how much we’ve seen teamwork help organizations over the years in strength. However, back then, the old school train of thought was to not share a single thing with anybody in fear they would beat you. For Hendrick to change that philosophy, over time within the sport was unprecedented.

Youth/West Coast Movement

Until NASCAR entered the 1990s, a lot of team owners were centered on hiring good ‘ol southern boys who had been running late models throughout the eastern United States. Team owners also focused on hiring drivers with experience, in their late twenties, believing the additive that experience equaled lots of success.

This thought process changed in 1992 when Rick Hendrick hired California native Jeff Gordon to drive for him in the Sprint Cup Series. At the time, Gordon was only 21 years old, running in the Busch Series, and had come from an open-wheel background, running USAC Midgets. The decision was, of course, successful; Gordon has gone on to win four Cup Series Championships.

Gordon’s success kicked off the initial youth movement in racing, with drivers aged 20 to 25 being offered Sprint Cup Series rides. It also sparked team owners looking at other avenues beyond the southern short tracks; young guys like Kevin Harvick emerged from California and Kasey Kahne rolled in from Washington. Many drivers were hired, with this ideal in the years that followed, and slowly the age has grown even younger for hiring. Now, you have 15-year-olds being signed to drive for top-tier NASCAR Camping World Truck Series organizations in hopes they’ll soon move to Cup.

Beyond expanding the hiring landscape, the addition of Gordon caught the attention of many people on the west coast, therefore expanding NASCAR’s fan base. Both West Coast and young race fans were able to relate to Gordon and connected with him where they hadn’t previously with other drivers. As a result, NASCAR also expanded the race tracks that they head to, sprinkling in some visits to the west coast with new markets that are known as common practice today.

Hendrick Motorsports Today

After years of operating on the cutting edge, Hendrick Motorsports now stands as the most successful team in the modern garage area. Years of taking chances, instilling a sense of teamwork into its employees, and lots of know-how have helped turn a ragtag newcomer to the NASCAR circuit into the sport’s most dominant team.

Rick Hendrick is certainly an innovator, and with a thriving organization, it doesn’t look like his success will be stopping anytime soon.

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