Hendrick stronger 10 years later

So much was lost on the side of Bull Mountain on Oct. 24, 2004, for Rick Hendrick and his team. What Hendrick rebuilt in the face of tragedy is a testament to his strength and that of the people who remained. AP Photo/The Charlotte Observer/Patrick Schneider

One day each year, during this exact week in late October, just as the wind begins to blow colder and the air breathes crisper and the leaves explode with color, Rick Hendrick removes the cover from a Chevrolet Tahoe in his garage on the Hendrick Motorsports campus, unlocks it and drives it home.

Inside the vehicle, he feels close to his son.

It is black, a 2004 Z71 model. It was the vehicle that Hendrick's son, Ricky, drove to the private hangar that housed his father's fleet of aircraft on the morning of Oct. 24, 2004. Ricky parked the vehicle just before noon and boarded a Beechcraft Super King Air 200 with nine other people. Soon thereafter, en route to Martinsville Speedway, the plane crashed into Bull Mountain in Patrick County, Virginia. There were no survivors.

In that moment, Rick Hendrick lost his only son, his brother, his nieces, his best friends and his most-established, loyal business associates. A decade later, his pain is like the tide -- it ebbs and it flows, but it never stops. After 10 years, the hurt is mostly manageable, he said, but it still overwhelms him at times.

Regarding most every topic, Hendrick looks you square in the eye when he speaks. So it is striking on this day and regarding this subject that he stares blankly toward the intersection where the wall meets the ceiling, or his eyes are closed altogether. He rubs them in thought occasionally with his hands, searching for words to make some sense of the senseless.

Seated in a black leather computer chair at a black marble table in a conference room adjacent to his office, Hendrick discusses the crash's aftermath at length.

"You blame yourself a lot. Then you blame the sport. Then you blame everything," Hendrick said. "The first thing I always do is ... If I had been on that plane that day, Ricky wouldn't have been on it. We wouldn't have taken that plane. You start playing [mind] games with yourself."

Hendrick remembers vividly the moment he found out. He had gone over to check on his mother, who was living alone only a few months following Hendrick's father's death. On the return trip home, his phone rang. It was Hendrick Motorsports vice president Ken Howes. He knows exactly where he was. He does not verbalize it.

"Ken said, 'Where are you right now?'" Hendrick explained. "I said, 'I'm driving.' He said, 'Pull off a minute.'"

Hendrick pulled over, fearing something was wrong at Martinsville with one of his race teams.

"And then he said, 'Are you by yourself?'" Hendrick continued. "'The plane's missing.'"

Hendrick's mind raced. What plane? Who's on it? Where is it? Why?

"And then he started naming them off ... And it was Ricky, Kimberly and Jennifer, John and Jeff ... And I said, 'Oh no ...'"

He got back on the road and drove home to tell his wife, Linda, hoping the plane had landed somewhere else due to weather. It was foggy in Martinsville that day, so maybe they diverted. But as time ticked by, he knew. If they were OK, they'd have called. It was bad. By that afternoon, the Hendrick home was full. Family members of the missing had assembled there. Then the phone rang again. It was NASCAR president Mike Helton.

"He said they'd found the wreck ... And there were no survivors ..." Hendrick said.

John Hendrick was on the plane. He was Rick's brother and the president of Hendrick Motorsports. John's twin daughters, Kimberly and Jennifer, were on the plane. Jeff Turner was on the plane. He was Hendrick Motorsports' general manager. Randy Dorton was on the plane. He was Hendrick Motorsports' lead engine builder -- and one of the first people Rick Hendrick hired at HMS.

Joe Jackson was on the plane. He was an executive for Jeff Gordon's sponsor, DuPont. Scott Lathram was on the plane. He was a pilot for driver Tony Stewart. Richard Tracy and Elizabeth Morrison were on the plane as its pilots.

And Ricky was on the plane. He was the heir apparent, a young man with tremendous passion and a giving heart who had two years prior foregone his own driving aspirations to learn from his father how to lead the organization.

Most companies could not sustain a loss of that magnitude and survive. For a time Rick Hendrick wondered if his could. He wasn't sure how he could ever set foot on the Motorsports campus again.

"The hurt was just so bad, and it was so much grief," Hendrick said. "The crash made all these holes, and all these people had meant so much to me. Plus ... my family ..."

On Nov. 2, eight days after the crash, he knew it was imperative that he address the organization. He knew he must go to Motorsports and he must stand in front of his extended family of hundreds, and he must assure them and he must tell them that they would press on in the name and in the honor of those lost. It was the hardest thing he's ever had to do.

And when he decided to go, Linda wanted to join him. And his daughter, Lynn, wanted to join him. And his son-in-law, Marshall Carlson, wanted to join him. They wouldn't let him go it alone. The Hendrick racing compound sits down a hill on Stowe Lane in Concord, North Carolina. To get there, you turn onto Stowe from Morehead Road and ease right around a 90-degree corner and down a steep hill.

He feared that drive down the hill terribly. Because he knew as soon as he took that 90-degree right-hand turn and drove down that hill toward the Hendrick Motorsports museum, the entire company waited.

"I went in the back door, and I walked in, and the first person I made eye contact with was Jeff Gordon. And he was just bawling," Hendrick said. "I went up there, I remember just how emotional it was, how hard it was just to try to talk. But I had to thank them and tell them I was thinking about them.

"And when I saw the people, I said, 'This place is going to go on, and we're going to take care of each other. Because you're family, too. And we're going to do whatever we got to do to take care of each other. We're going to get through this.' And then I left."

That is, in fact, not true. As Hendrick said those words, he peered across the table at his longtime publicist and chief sounding board, Jesse Essex, for confirmation of accuracy.

"You didn't leave," Essex said. "I remember you shook every single person's hand in the room."

"Well ... " Hendrick continued. "I know that something came over me when I walked in. Because I wasn't sure -- I really wasn't -- that I could do it again."

That meeting saved Hendrick Motorsports. It stood as proof that they would stand as a company and as a family and fulfill the dreams of the people who died on that airplane.

"It was like a family reunion or something. I can't explain it," Hendrick said. "I just know that the moment I saw them, something told me you've got to reassure them. They've got to know where you stand and how you feel. I think that was a real special time. It was damn emotional, but you get to where you can't cry but so much. You're numb. But every single person in there was upset."

On that day, when he saw the passion in the eyes of his employees, Hendrick knew his race team not only wouldn't fail competitively, but it in fact would thrive. And it has.

"It was like I was with my extended family, and the love and support in that room was just overwhelming, how we all were so emotional," he said. "But it gave me tremendous strength. I fed off of that."

A decade later, Hendrick Motorsports is a stronger, more dominant organization now than it was then. That is because, Hendrick said, disciples of those lost are so staunch in the mission to keep their mentors' legacies strong that they will not settle for anything but excellence. They work hard and weed out pieces that don't fit the mission's puzzle.

Several lawsuits were filed against various parties, including Hendrick Motorsports, regarding the crash, and all have been long-since settled.

No one departed. All bonded in pain. That is what makes Hendrick the proudest.

"You just don't think you can get through something like that," Hendrick said. "And I really believe if you don't have any faith or a lot of friends and family -- and my family is huge, because of these folks, here.


Hendrick We would not let their dreams die, but instead to go out and take it to the world. It's amazing when you look at the record since then. It's all about folks bonding together and needing each other and working together. And if we didn't have the character and the chemistry we have here, it would have all fallen apart.

"-- Rick Hendrick

"We would not let their dreams die, but instead to go out and take it to the world. It's amazing when you look at the record since then. It's all about folks bonding together and needing each other and working together. And if we didn't have the character and the chemistry we have here it would have all fallen apart.

"It was a point in time that this place built more character than any group I've ever seen."

That group was supposed to Ricky's by now. This was about the time father and son had planned for Rick to step aside in a lesser semi-retired role and hand the company to his son. As he thinks about that, he thinks about some of the funny stories he hears this time of year. He enjoys greatly corralling Ricky's buddies, and listening to them tell tales of his son's youth. When Ricky died, he was just 24 years old.

"One thing I can say about him: He lived his life," Hendrick said. "He had a good time while he was here. There are sad times when you don't want to talk about it, and then there's time you want to talk about it and talk through it and talk about all the good times and the fun things.

"I read somewhere, if you had a choice to forget all the pain, you'd never have to think about it again, if you never knew him -- would you rather have him for that period and have the pain, or never have him at all and have no pain? I'd much rather have the pain."

One of those photographs is from July 2001, when Ricky won the Craftsman Truck Series race at Kansas Speedway. It was Rick Hendrick's proudest racing moment. Another was snapped in 1987, at the Daytona 500. Ricky was 6 years old, sitting atop his father's shoulders.

Just below it hangs another picture, this one hanging on the wall across the table from Hendrick, directly in his sight line. It is a close-up of Ricky, holding an American flag, looking upward, likely during the national anthem at a NASCAR event.

While walking through the building one day, Hendrick swore Ricky's eyes in that photo followed him. He froze. No matter where he walked, Ricky's eyes followed.

"That's the most eerie picture I've got," he said. "And I said, 'Well, do you want to put it in here where you see it every single day? Or is that torture? I thought, 'No, I'm going to put them all in here -- my mom, my dad, John, all of them. Because that's my family.'

"I don't know how to answer these questions. That office was built for him. You had a plan, and the plan got shattered. And you come back. A lot of people say, 'What for? What for? Why? Why do it anymore?' I have a special relationship with the people here. And I think about Ricky."

He regrets all the times before he told a parent how sorry he was that they'd lost a child, and that he knew how much it must hurt. He'd like to go back and find every one of them and apologize, because until he experienced it, he "didn't have any damn idea what they were going through."

Dick Ebersol knows. Chris Myers knows. Hendrick told the story of his return to the racetrack after the plane crash. It was at Homestead Miami Speedway, at which he received a standing ovation in the prerace driver meeting.

Afterward, Ebersol, then president of NBC Sports, handed him a DVD of family memories. Hendrick left Homestead and flew to Key West to get away. And while walking through the house one morning he heard a report on the news that Ebersol had been involved in a plane crash. His son, too, had died.

The two heartbroken fathers talk every year at this time. They had just spoken a week before this interview.

"You talk about how tragic and unfair it is," Hendrick said. "You have all these plans in life. But it wasn't God's plan. You think about how your whole world shifts."

It's difficult to go back to Martinsville. He grew up loving the place. He's won more races there than anywhere else. It's the first track he ever attended with his father. It's the track where he earned his first win as an owner -- a win that kept a then-fledging Hendrick Motorsports in business. It is the closest track to his hometown, Palmer Springs, Virginia.

"And then, when you fly in, there's the mountain," he said. "And I go up there and I look at the cross. It sure means a lot to win there now. I haven't made up my mind yet if I'm going or not this year. That's the way I am every year. I can't explain it. I can't believe another year has gone by. I can't believe it's been 10 years.

"My wife said to me one time, I was going to stay home, and she said 'You're going to be just as miserable here. You'll probably be less miserable there, because you're around your guys.'"

If he wasn't racing, he'd never go back.

"It gets easier," he said. "But there's days that just cripple you. I don't want to run from anything. I'm supposed to be the leader here and be strong."

On Oct. 21, 2014, Hendrick Motorsports held a celebration on the racing campus in remembrance of the lives lost in that crash. Six hundred seats were available. Not one was empty. Family members were in attendance. All four HMS drivers -- Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne -- showed up. They didn't feel obligated. They felt honored.

Rick Hendrick carries a piece of his son with him everywhere he goes. Ricky's little girl, Ricki, is 9 years old. She looks just like him, and her grandfather says she acts just like him, too. The child born from Ricky's relationship with fiancée Emily Maynard stays with Rick and Linda each Wednesday night, and they wake on Thursday and take her to school.

For the first two or three years following the crash, Hendrick would see young men from time to time who looked like Ricky. He still sees them sometimes. He was at Atlantis once, and there was a young man wearing a camouflage sun visor, just like Ricky used to. Hendrick went and got Linda and they just sat and looked at him, awestruck by the resemblance to their son.

"It was spooky," Hendrick said. "For the first few years you go through, 'It's not fair to see young couples and young guys out with their sons.' And I'd tell them sometimes when they'd say, 'Man, I'm sorry about Ricky.' I'd tell them, 'Listen up, you better love your son every minute you get the chance. Because you never know when he's not going to be around.'

"But that little girl really does look just like him. So we do have that, and a lot of really good memories."