Sunday, May 13, 2012

Hendrick: The Myth And The Machine

With Jimmie Johnson's win in the 2012 Southern 500, Rick Hendrick now has 200 wins as a Winston Cup car owner. The accomplishment has already brought out the expected hagiographical pieces about Hendrick's humble beginnings in NASCAR. The reality is not so wholesome.

Joseph Riddick Hendrick began in drag racing and boat racing while building his way up in the car dealer business. The way he was building up the business empire that would seed his racing empire, though, would not exactly hold up in court. Hendrick as a youth befriended Jack Billmyer, an official with the US brand of Honda who was building up the US end of the company by wallowing in bribes and kickbacks from dealers. "All it took was a few gifts," as former American Honda official Steve Lynch once noted, and Rick Hendrick's business empire began with "a few gifts" transmuting in a steady stream of "gifts" - periodically at the expense of rival dealers who would find cars allotted to them instead winding up at Hendrick's stores.

With his car dealer empire growing on graft, Hendrick's racing interest soon found the man who could make it happen in NASCAR in the wild and wooly days of the 1980s when business of lavish appearances (and dubious bank accounts) began populating the sport. When Hendrick was looking for a place to store his drag boats, he found former crew chief Harry Hyde, the 1970 Grand National champ bankrupted by crooked coal miner James "J.D." Stacy in the late 1970s. They wanted to form a NASCAR team and after an aborted alliance with Richard Petty, they hired Geoff Bodine to be their driver. The team clicked and in their third season Hendrick decided to add a second car; he hired Tim Richmond and teamed him with Hyde, a pairing that went poorly at first until both men figured out each other and a spectacular 1986 season ensued.

The success on the track wasn't sustained - after nine wins in 1986 the organization won seven races the next two years - yet Hendrick added a third team in 1987 with Darrell Waltrip as driver, and with that Hendrick Motorsports became almost the only organization to win for Chevrolet in NASCAR's Winston Cup Series (the Richard Childress team was the other, and it out-won Hendrick Motorsports badly). The team rebounded with eight wins in 1989 then hit a skid, winning only six races 1990-3 even as the team was commanding more and more of Chevrolet's resources - Hendrick and RCR were Chevy's lone front-runners, where rival Ford worked to sustain success for a wide variety of its teams and Chevy's GM brethren Pontiac worked aggressively to build a deep roster of race teams.

But even as Hendrick looked to the world as a bloated, inefficient outfit (it won just one race in 1990 and at times looked even worse than that), a fatal NASCAR rule change of 1990 began the path toward a monopoly. NASCAR limited teams in testing to seven test sessions during the season; it left a mid-November to mid-March opening for unlimited testing and teams took advantage of it; in 1990 the Cup series saw 14 different winners (matching the total of 1988) but RCR won just under 1/3 of the series races; in 1991 fourteen winners was replicated but this time competitive depth for the series took over as muscle was flexed by RCR, Robert Yates, the Leo Jackson-Andy Petree outfit, and others.

Then in 1994 as Chevy was granted control of all of GM's racing efforts (and the company cut back to backing just Chevy and Pontiac), NASCAR cut testing to seven per season with a test ban period for November-December. Suddenly the sport had a condition that favored multicar giants like Hendrick - and by 1997 the sport's exodus of team owners had begun as multicar teams squeezed out prospective new winners. It was also when Hendrick was indicted in the mammoth bribery scandal at American Honda. Hendrick escaped punishment despite conviction and was eventually pardoned by Bill Clinton - in part because of Hendrick's involvement with Bank Of America. The conviction nonetheless exposed Hendrick not as someone who reached success from humble beginnings but as someone who took bribery to a new level - especially with hints his car dealership briberies extended to brands other than Honda.

He's continued on and now has 200 wins and ten NASCAR titles. Yet one would feel better about it if Hendrick really were someone of humble beginnings.

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