The most accomplished team owner in NASCAR — perhaps in all of professional sports — says one of the secrets to his success is failure.
“I do not study how companies succeed and got to be great,” Rick Hendrick told USA TODAY Sports. “I study companies that fail. The reason is their leaders do. They refuse to change and don’t stay abreast of what’s going on in the world. I share this with every department in every company we have, because we have to change.”
If adaptability is the bedrock of Hendrick Motorsports’ unprecedented run in NASCAR — a record 14 national series championships, including 11 in Sprint Cup, and a modern-era record of 219 victories — Martinsville Speedway is the team’s best example.
This weekend, Hendrick will be celebrating its 30th anniversary in NASCAR at the 0.526-mile oval that’s the site of its first victory -- April 29, 1984 with Geoff Bodine. The track also has yielded more victories (21), top fives (70) and top 10s (110) than any other track for Hendrick.
But those triumphs also are mitigated by the team’s greatest tragedy â€” the Oct. 24, 2004 crash of a plane on its way to Martinsville that claimed 10 lives, including Hendrick’s brother, son, nieces, his team’s head engine builder and general manager.
Since regrouping and restructuring in its wake, Hendrick has enjoyed its best stretch, winning six of the past eight championships with Jimmie Johnson and the past two Daytona 500s with Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. The team believes it’s the most efficient in U.S. pro sports, earning 11 titles in 30 Cup seasons — a 36.7 winning percentage that’s ahead of the Boston Celtics’ 17 titles in 67 seasons and the Montreal Canadiens’ 24 Stanley Cups in 95 seasons. The New York Yankees — the team to which Hendrick most often is compared in NASCAR -- are fourth with 27 World Series titles over 113 seasons.
The comparison isn’t entirely analogous — Hendrick has four chances at winning every race with drivers Johnson, Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne. But it still is competing against 39 teams in each game, and no team in Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NFL or the NHL has won as many crowns since Hendrick started from the modest beginnings with a 5,000-square-foot shop and five employees in 1984.
“When I first got in, nobody wanted to work for me,” Hendrick said. “Dale Earnhardt shook down my first car, thought about it a little bit but knew he’d have a better opportunity with Richard Childress. As you start winning races, you get opportunities and more people.”
Over three decades, the team has expanded to 500 employees on a 140-acre campus with 430,000 square feet of workspace near Charlotte Motor Speedway.
It’s mirrored the 38-year rise of Hendrick Automotive Group, which has grown from a staff of nine to 10,000 and annual revenues of nearly $6 billion on more than 150,000 cars sold.
“His love and passion for cars is second to none,” six-time champion Johnson said. “He has an automotive empire and then his racing stuff, and they really play off of one another. I know a lot of other successful business men diversify, but Rick is a car guy, and I think there is a lot of weight in that. People want to work for him and they show up and do the best that they can.”
Felix Sabates has been a close friend of Rick Hendrick for 30 years, as a rival team owner in NASCAR, as a co-owner of the Charlotte Hornets and as a competing businessman. Sabates has owned a few dealerships in Charlotte for several years and has found the competition as stiff as on the track.
“It’s difficult to hire people away from his dealerships because they all like working for him so much,” Sabates said. “I know a lot of professional owners, and they don’t even want to know the names of the executives who work for them. Rick knows all their names and their families. It’s like a cult.”
At Hendrick Motorsports headquarters, the staff universally precedes Hendrick with “Mr.” or often “Mr. H.” Even team president Marshall Carlson, who happens to be Hendrick’s son-in-law, uses the courtesy title, which isn’t a company policy.
“He wouldn’t be offended if any of us called him Rick,” Carlson said. “We have a lot of respect for what he does for all of us and want to show him the respect he’s earned.”
Said Gordon: “He’s a very loyal guy. If you need something, and you’ve been there for him, he’ll take the shirt off his back and do whatever it takes for you. He really respects loyalty, but he also knows how to read if you’re the right person for the job or not. He can be around somebody for a short period of time and tell you right away their...
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