Dorton's stamp still found all over Hendrick Motorsports' success

CONCORD, N.C. -- At almost every turn in the surgically clean engine department at Hendrick Motorsports one can see a large picture of Randy Dorton, arms folded across his chest and that familiar warm smile that made even the toughest days bearable for employees.

It's as though he's still overseeing day-to-day operations.

In a way, he is.

Although the shop has almost doubled in size and there are new toys to make cars faster and more durable than ever, this was the vision Dorton had before he and nine other Hendrick employees and family members were killed in a plane crash on the way to Martinsville Speedway in Virginia in October of 2004.

Without the foundation he built, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson might not be atop the championship standings heading into Sunday's race at Martinsville.

Dorton is as responsible for HMS cars' having blown only one engine among four drivers -- Casey Mears lost his at Darlington -- as any of the 150 engine department employees.

He played a key role in the development of Chevrolet's new R-07 engine that Mears drove to victory for the first time at Lowe's Motor Speedway in May and Gordon won with last week at LMS to give him a 68-point advantage over Johnson.

"You see Randy's fingerprints all over the place," said team owner Rick Hendrick, who also lost his son, brother and two nieces in the crash. "He laid the groundwork for so much of what we do on the engine side, and he deserves a ton of credit for the program's success.

"I know Randy would be proud of what these folks -- the team he built -- have accomplished. He'd have a big smile on his face."

Randy always preached about depth. He had a knack with employees of getting them to end up in the right position and right place. The foundation, the structure and the way we do business and build our engines are still the responsibility of him.

-- Jeff Andrews

Not so much because of the success HMS is having on the track, but because of the way the people he left behind moved forward instead of backward as many anticipated following the loss of such a key member.

"Randy always preached about depth," said engine program director Jeff Andrews, who along with Jim Wall was charged with carrying on Dorton's legacy. "He had a knack with employees of getting them to end up in the right position and right place.

"The foundation, the structure and the way we do business and build our engines are still the responsibility of him."

Wall, the director of engine engineering, agreed.

"Randy is the bricks and mortar that grew the organization into what it is today," he said. "All the relationships he established with manufacturer support and in the community are vibrant relationships that we still have.

"He is still a big part of what we do."

Dorton, who began his career under legendary crew chief Harry Hyde in the 1970s, was responsible for five Cup titles between Gordon (1995, '97, '98, '01) and Terry Labonte ('96).

Most at HMS agree he played a key role in Jimmie Johnson's championship a year ago and for what appears to be a title run by Gordon or Johnson this year.

"Randy talked on more than one occasion about how important this place was to him, and how important more so were the people that were in place, that if he weren't around the place would go on," Andrews said. "I hope he would be proud. There's not a day that goes by that I don't walk through here or sit at home without thinking of him."

No favorites

Doug Duchardt pointed toward a big bulletin board full of names and numbers at the far end of the engine shop.

"We have 15 assemblers and each of them have a group of engines they assemble and are assigned to build," said Duchardt, a longtime friend of Dorton's who was hired from General Motors in 2005 to serve as the vice president of development.

"For example, for Martinsville we'll build a spec and they don't know who it's going to be for. Then we run them across the dynamometer, look at the output and make a decision on who gets what engine based on that."

This was one of Dorton's visions. He didn't want an engine to leave the shop separated by more than half a percent, or about four horsepower. Those that don't meet those criteria are used for testing or rebuilt.

Duchardt moved past rows of engines into the assembly room, stopping at a desk where Greg Gore was putting the number of cycles and laps run on each part into a sophisticated computer program.

"Some parts we race just one time," Gore said.

HMS builds about 700 engines a year, supplying other teams such as Haas CNC and Ginn Racing before its merger with Dale Earnhardt Inc. Each is run once and then completely rebuilt before going back out again.

Knowing how many cycles are on each part reduces the chance for failure.

"You figure a part has a certain life expectancy," Gore said. "We get the best half and then we sell the second half."

Again, Dorton's influence.

"Using our resources wisely to try to find and prevent problems before they actually occur," said Scott Maxim, the track support manager. "We try to have the foresight to always be looking ahead to find something before it ultimately causes failure during the race.

"It was never trying to access any kind of blame. That really started with Randy. The atmosphere and climate was just getting the job done and you weren't worried about anything else. We've always tried to maintain that."

Linking past with present

Duchardt moved down the hall that was constructed within the past year to connect the engine shop with the building in which Labonte won his title.

"The way we do things around here is we tend to build the building and figure out what we're going to do with it later," said Wall, who began working with Dorton in 1981. "This building was originally built as an apparel warehouse and the engine shop was next door."

The engine shop now consists of three buildings, about 50,000 square feet, all linked by other buildings.

"I remember getting these first two buildings connected was a hard sell," Wall said. "Our operations manager at that point didn't want to do it. Randy was determined to get it done and he got it done.

"But Randy's real vision was to level a few of these buildings and build something really big."

Duchardt then moved to a production cell, stopping in front of "our newest baby," an electric dynamometer that absorbs engine power and measures torque and rational speed under race conditions.

The machine costs about $1 million fully installed. Duchardt believes it, as much as anything, is why HMS engines have been so dependable.

"That was definitely Randy before he passed," Duchardt said.

Continuing down the hall, Duchardt moved into the old Labonte shop, where with Haas technology HMS develops parts that are exclusive to the company through high technology such as stereo lithography.

"We use this technology to mock up cars and look at designs," Duchardt said. "It's pretty slick."

It is one of many things that have given HMS an advantage over the rest of the field in 2007. But the greatest resources have been the people, most hired by Dorton.

"Mr. Hendrick gives us a tremendous amount of resources, but we've got to be wise with how we use those resources," said Wall, the resident historian at HMS. "We need to pick the ones that give us the biggest return, the ones that we can use most effectively.

"But just buying tools and technology doesn't guarantee you'll be successful. You have to have the people. They're the real tools."

Hard times

Jeff Gordon was in last place and basically out of contention for the championship five races into the 2006 Chase because of a failed fuel pump at Kansas and blown engine at Charlotte.

Johnson was in seventh place, 146 points out, before his miraculous comeback to win the title. A mechanical failure at New Hampshire put him in a hole from the start.

"This time last year we were definitely going through a hard time," Andrews said. "It seemed like there was something every week. To keep guys going and keep that attitude up, and say every race we will not have an issue, that was tough."

But people such as Andrews, Wall and Maxim somehow found a way to keep morale high, just as they knew Dorton would have.

"A Randy vision," Maxim said. "We don't dwell on what has happened. We identify the problem thoroughly, understand it, fix it and move on. So in that respect we may be looking back at something that has happened, but we're really doing it with a sense of looking forward."

The mood in the shop definitely is upbeat these days.

"We have an incredible amount of talent in our engine group, and they all take a lot of pride in what they do," Hendrick said. "It gives our crew chiefs confidence, knowing the last thing they need to worry about is having a motor problem."

That was always Dorton's goal. Nobody loved going to the track, meeting with crew members and trying to find ways to help, more.

"He was a communicator with drivers and officials," Wall said. "Jeff [Andrews] is there now filling that role. He brings that feedback, and it's feedback you've got to have, back to the people that need to hear it at the shop.

"That's critical information we need to know we're working on the right ideas."

Dark day
It was an overcast, foggy day as the Beech 200 left the regional airport in Concord, N.C., for Martinsville. Hendrick was scheduled to be on the flight but missed it because he wasn't feeling well.

The day turned even darker around 12:30 p.m., when the plane crashed on Bull Mountain about seven miles from the track.

NASCAR officials were notified there might be trouble at the start of the race. Johnson didn't know what happened until after he took the checkered flag.

Andrews isn't sure the entire scope of the tragedy hit him until midway through the 2005 season.

"Immediately after there is shock," he said. "Then there's a rush of adrenaline that keeps you going."

The adrenaline carried many at HMS through the 2004 season, when Johnson finished eight points and Gordon 16 behind champion Kurt Busch. It carried them through the start of the 2005 season when there was a scramble to put the pieces back in place with new

Scott Maxim

We all deal with [the crash] in our own personal way, but we all know what he would want us to do is move forward and be well prepared for the next race. I won't say any of us could do it in the way he did it, but in little ways we try to do what we can.

-- Scott Maxim

"Midway through the year it was like, 'This is really real,'" Andrews said. "I realized it was a heck of a responsibility. You realize this is [Dorton's] vision and you're the one making decisions.

"It was a time where you tell yourself that there are a lot of people relying on you to keep the ship going."

The ship is stronger than ever now. While most credit goes to the drivers, crew chiefs and pit crews, the people who handle what's under the hood make it all possible.

"You look at the job that the whole department has done, and it's just incredible," Hendrick said. "The competition gets tougher and tougher each race, but they've continued to push forward and stay ahead of the game. That says a lot about the kind of people we have."

That says a lot about the legacy Dorton left behind.

"We all deal with [the crash] in our own personal way, but we all know what he would want us to do is move forward and be well prepared for the next race," Maxim said. "I won't say any of us could do it in the way he did it, but in little ways we try to do what we can."

Wall leaned forward. He thinks of Dorton all the time, particularly this time of the season when the series returns to Martinsville, when he is reminded of his good friend by more than pictures on the wall.

He's not alone.

"What I've always done is try to carry on the way I know Randy would have wanted us to," Wall said. "And to know that if you don't, you're letting him down."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.