Haunted by tragedy

No stranger to pain, NASCAR's Rick Hendrick took his heaviest hit when a plane went down Sunday.

Auto Racing

October 29, 2004|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Ricky Hendrick had wanted to be a race-car driver, and he was for a while. But then he decided it was time to get out of harm's way. His friend, Adam Petty, had died in a racing accident four years ago, and Hendrick had endured his own share of crashes.

Last January, he stood in the garage at Hendrick Motor- sports, the business his father had built into one of the best in the history of stock car racing, and talked about his decision.

He said that he realized there were better drivers than him and that he was giving up his driving dreams to learn more about his dad's business and be an asset, not just the son of the boss who would one day run the place.

But none of us is ever truly out of harm's way. Ricky Hendrick, the 24-year-old son of Rick Hendrick, died Sunday, among 10 killed in a small-plane crash in the mountains near Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.

In one horrific incident, Hendrick Sr. lost his son; his brother, John, who was also the company president; two nieces - John Hendrick's twin daughters Jennifer and Kimberly; the company's engine department director, Randy Dorton; and its general manager, Jeff Turner. Two pilots, a DuPont executive and the pilot for driver Tony Stewart also were killed.

"In a sport that has seen tragedies occur throughout its existence, this is by far the worst that it has ever experienced," said Penske Racing South owner Roger Penske.

"Our sport teaches us to deal with adversity and disappointment because there are far more losses than there are victories, but this event transcends all of these disappointments. This is a tragedy of insurmountable proportions."

Cast your mind through the history of major league stock car racing. Tragedies are plentiful. Among them: Bobby Allison lost two sons to racing. The Pettys lost Adam, Kyle Petty's son and Richard Petty's grandson. NASCAR's 1992 champion, Alan Kulwicki, died in a small-plane crash on the way to Bristol Speedway just before the 1993 season. Seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt died racing in the Daytona 500 three years ago.

Tragedies are not difficult to find. But this one hit especially hard. Not only were a number of members of the racing community lost, but the tragedy struck Rick Hendrick, one of the most loved and respected men in the business.

Wednesday night, a public candlelight ceremony was held at the Hendrick Motorsports complex near Charlotte, N.C., in remembrance of the 10 who lost their lives. At Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend, the Busch and Nextel Cup races will be preceded by moments of silence.

"If his teams didn't have one title, people would still respect Rick," said Barry Dobson, general manager for Rusty Wallace Motorsports, who was the crew chief on Wallace's 1989 championship team.

"We're talking about an icon in our sport. No one has represented our sport or carried its flag better or made NASCAR more proud than Rick Hendrick."

This season is the 20th in the sport for Hendrick, who has seen his efforts richly rewarded over the past decade. Since 1995, Hendrick teams have won five Cup championships and three Craftsman Truck Series titles.

This season, two of his teams are among the 10 vying for the Nextel Cup.

But during that same period, Hendrick, 55, has coped with debilitating physical and emotional battles, too.

Battled cancer

He was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia, a bone-marrow cancer, in November 1996 that nearly killed him and kept him away from the sport for three years. At the same time, he was charged in the 1996 American Honda Motor Co., bribery and kickback dealership scandal.

Hendrick, who said he was so ill he couldn't focus on a conversation, let alone defend himself, pleaded guilty to a single charge of mail fraud in 1997 that resulted in a $250,000 fine, a three-year probation and one year of home detention in 1998.

Last July, Rick and John Hendrick dealt with the death of their father, the well-liked "Papa Joe," who shared ownership of Brian Vickers' car with his grandson, Ricky.

And now this.

This week, it was impossible to talk to those who know the Hendrick family without having to wait for tears to pass. Everyone feels bad about the pain Rick Hendrick is enduring.

"This area around Mooresville [where many race teams are headquartered] is called Race City," said Dobson, his voice hoarse with emotion. "There are thousands and thousands of people around here, and every one of them is somber and quiet this week. It's raining, but even if it wasn't, it would be dismal.

"We're all feeling his pain."

Rick Hendrick earned his fortune by founding Hendrick Automotive Group and building it into one of the largest auto retailers in the United States. Hendrick controls more than 60 automobile and truck dealerships, employs more than 4,500 workers and has revenues totaling more than $2.3 billion annually.

But there is nothing arrogant about him. Nothing formidable.

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