Class of 2017: Rick Hendrick

Rick Hendrick

Hendrick’s Chevrolet team remains stock car racing’s platinum standard: a record 12 NASCAR premier series titles – including Jimmie Johnson’s record-matching seventh crown in 2016 – and 245 victories with 16 different drivers. (Photo: Getty Images)

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It’s said reaching the top is the easy part; staying there is more difficult.

For Rick Hendrick, the climb up the mountain required a decade of hard work culminating in Hendrick Motorsports capturing its first NASCAR premier series championship in 1995.

Two decades later, Hendrick’s Chevrolet team remains stock car racing’s platinum standard: a record 12 NASCAR premier series titles – including Jimmie Johnson’s record-matching seventh crown in 2016 – and 245 victories with 16 different drivers.

“It just seems like yesterday we didn’t think we’d even make it through our first year (1984) and now we’ve won 12 of these things, and it’s hard to do,” said Hendrick following Johnson’s title-winning victory last November at Homestead-Miami Speedway in south Florida.

The 67-year-old Hendrick will reach yet another career milestone on Friday when he’s inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame (8 p.m. ET on NBCSN). The Class of 2017 includes fellow team owner Richard Childress, former Hendrick Motorsports drivers Mark Martin and Benny Parsons and pioneer car owner Raymond Parks.

Born in Palmer Springs, Virginia, Joseph Riddick “Rick” Hendrick III envisioned a professional baseball career during high school but instead enrolled in a co-op work study program administered by North Carolina State University and Westinghouse Electric Co. in Raleigh, North Carolina. At age 23, he became general manager of a small used car lot.

He tells of his boss needing a clutch for an Opel so the car could be sold for $300. Hendrick bought the car for $325, fixed the clutch and sold the Opel for $700.

“That’s when I learned that you could make more money selling cars than working on them,” Hendrick said in a June 14, 1987 Los Angeles Times story.

Today, the Charlotte-based Hendrick Automotive Group is the nation’s largest privately-held dealer organization with nearly 100 outlets.

Hendrick became involved in drag boat racing – “I liked racing boats; there are no speed limits on water,” he told The Times’ Shav Glick. Leaving that sport and looking for somewhere to store his boats, he came across an old warehouse in Harrisburg, North Carolina. By chance, the property was owned by Harry Hyde, an out-of-work NASCAR crew chief who had won the 1970 championship with NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Isaac.

Hyde proposed starting a racing team, which Hendrick agreed to do. Hendrick thought big from the outset, attempting to hire NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt but was rebuffed by both champions. All-Star Racing debuted with then-lesser known Geoff Bodine, who won in the team’s eighth start at Martinsville Speedway on April 29, 1984.

Hendrick expanded to two cars in 1986, adding the late Tim Richmond, who won seven times – the organization’s best until Jeff Gordon matched the number en route to his first championship in 1995. The team currently is a four-car operation with Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chase Elliott and Kasey Kahne.

Hendrick’s willingness to spend top dollar for the best technology while working closely with General Motors helped separate the organization from its competitors. But Hendrick Motorsports has always been about people – finding and keeping the very best, from driver’s seat, to pit box and engine room.

Hendrick pulled Gordon, a 20-year-old California open-wheel sensation, out of obscurity. He worked a similar magic with off-road and motorcycle racer Johnson. He backed them up with talented organizers like crew chiefs Ray Evernham and Chad Knaus – all of them future NASCAR Hall of Famers. Johnson won seven titles, Gordon four and NASCAR Hall of Famer Terry Labonte added another. The team also counts three NASCAR Camping World Truck Series owner championships.

But Hendrick’s leadership role also is unquestioned. He has led from the front since the beginning, as exemplified by a 20-hour wind tunnel stint last August.

“If you ask guys to work 20 hours in a wind tunnel, being there to support, looking at the data with them, it shows I’m willing to do what it takes,” Hendrick told NBCSports.com. “Being a servant leader … that means you’re there to support the rest of them. I’m accountable and they’re accountable.”

There have been downsides along with the success. In 1996 Hendrick was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia but has been in full remission since December 1999. The Rick and Linda Hendrick earlier began the Hendrick Marrow Program, raising funds to help find bone matches for patients.

On Oct. 24, 2004, one of the team’s aircraft crashed en route to the race at Martinsville Speedway. Among the 10 who perished were Hendrick’s son, Ricky, and his brother, John. The team grieved but moved forward in the victims’ memory.

“If we didn’t have the character and the chemistry we have here it would have all fallen apart,” Hendrick told ESPN.com on the 10th anniversary of the accident. “It was a point in time that this place built more character than any group I’ve ever seen.”

Hendrick Motorsports is the fourth-longest tenured current organization in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, behind the Wood Brothers, Richard Childress Racing and Team Penske.

“I told somebody the neatest thing in almost 30 years are the friends I’ve got, the guys I’ve got to race against every week,” Hendrick said in the 2012 Autoweek article. “This is special. I don’t care what anybody says, this is family and the NASCAR family is special.”

This is the final of a five-part series in advance of the 2017 NASCAR Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in Charlotte, N.C., on Friday, Jan. 20. Motor Racing Network - "The Voice of NASCAR" - will have live coverage starting at 8 p.m. (ET) with live streaming at MRN.com.

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