Podcast: Rick Hendrick on his happy place and ‘toughest year’ for his team

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There is a 60,000-square-foot happy place at Hendrick Motorsports where the team’s founder and owner goes for reflection and solace.

Inside his Heritage Center, Rick Hendrick has more than 200 vintage cars, about as many guitars and some life-size reminders of the people and places that have shaped his life.

“I can come over here, have lunch and look out among the cars, and it’s almost as good as the ocean, but in a different way,” Hendrick said in discussing the museum and its many artifacts on the latest NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “That place I can see my mom, dad, granddad, brother, son and all the folks that aren’t here anymore. And my first Corvette, my first car, my first toolbox.

“You kind of pinch yourself and say when you were walking through a tobacco field when you were 12 years old, you were dreaming some of this, not this big, but you were dreaming, and this dream has come true.”

From the humble beginnings of his family’s tobacco farm in tiny Palmer Springs, Virginia, Hendrick has built a $9 billion automotive dealership empire with 11,000 employees and a NASCAR team that has won 12 Cup championships.

But Hendrick Motorsports also has been stuck on 249 victories in NASCAR’s premier series for more than a year. Kasey Kahne‘s July 23, 2017 win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was the team’s most recent trip to victory lane in Cup as the move to the Camaro model has been more challenging than expected.

“I didn’t think it would be this tough,” Hendrick said. “I underestimated the car change. We definitely are not used to this kind of year. I think we won 17 (races in 2007). That was like it’s automatic. Four championships back to back with (Jeff) Gordon and Terry (Labonte) and five with Jimmie, and you think, ‘Hey, this is easy.’

“We underestimated how much better the competition was going to be, and how much work we needed to do to the new car.”

There have been signs recently of a turnaround. Chase Elliott earned the team’s first two stage wins this season in consecutive races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Pocono Raceway. Alex Bowman (third) and William Byron (sixth), both in their first Cup seasons with Hendrick, also turned in season-best results at Pocono.

Beyond adapting to the Camaro, Hendrick also overhauled its processes for building cars and moved all four of its teams into the same building.

“(The Camaro) is a great piece, but we decided at the end of the year, we were going to change the way we did things, rework the facility, change the way we operated,” Hendrick said. “Well with that and the new car and shifting drivers and teams and crew chiefs around, it was a load. And we got behind.

“We’re trying to catch up. It’s been the toughest year, one of the toughest years I can ever remember. But I feel like we’ve got the best effort (and) organization of people working together in the face of not being successful as we want to be, but we’ll get there. That’s what I tell the folks. Surrender is not in our book. We keep seeing a little better, little better, little better. You don’t go from running 15th to winning.”

Hendrick, who recently turned 69 has made a similarly long climb through life, which the Heritage Center tracks in vivid detail. The building has replicas of the general store where he built his first race car (a 1931 Chevrolet that he drag raced), the bank where his mother worked (and provided loans for his first dealership) and the Citgo station where he met his wife, Linda, 46 years ago.

The building grew out of a difficult 2004 for Hendrick, who endured the death of his father a few months before losing his son, brother, two nieces and six other people connected to Hendrick Motorsports in a plane crash. “How do I remember all these people and all this stuff?” Hendrick remembers asking.

“That building is a timeline of my life,” he said.

It’s also a pristine warehouse for what some have called the world’s best Corvette collection (Hendrick owns more than 130, including 40 of his favorite 1967 model) and a second-floor nook that houses a diverse lineup of music memorabilia.

Among the featured artists are the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Holly, Led Zeppelin, Johnny Cash, Iron Maiden, Brad Paisley, Zac Brown, Darius Rucker and Steve Winwood, who is among a few musicians to make an in-person appearance at the museum (“Higher Love” is Hendrick’s favorite song).

“I listen to music all the time,” said Hendrick, who has taken guitar lessons but gave up quickly on mastering the instrument. “I like a little bit of everything.”

You can listen to Hendrick on the podcast via the embed below or on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or Google Play.