Sports

Hendrick commentary: Nice guys do finish first

If you had never met Rick Hendrick, you might think that "Together: The Hendrick Motorsports Story" was make-believe.

The man the documentary portrays is rich and successful, a workaholic who is driven by a variety of factors, among them beating everybody else. Yet, he is gracious and caring and humble, and he treats competitors and employeeswith respect.

It's not make-believe. I have known Rick 25 years. He was the first rich guy I ever met who did not act rich. You sit in his office, which is atop his building, which overlooks his motorsports empire, and as you talk you think, "regular guy."

That's tough to pull off. Yet he does.

I was fortunate to be invited to the East Coast premiere of "Together" Tuesday night at Ovens Auditorium. In the room were Hendrick Motorsports employees, among them drivers such as Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, and hundreds of friends Hendrick has collected along the way.

ABC will televise the documentary, which is narrated by Hendrick's buddy Tom Cruise, at 1:30 p.m. Oct. 11 before the Pepsi 500. That will be a condensed version. You can purchase the full-lengthBlu-ray DVD after Oct. 31. Go to www.hendrickmotorsports.com/hendrickdvd. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Levine Children's Hospital in Charlotte.

I was moved by the story. Hendrick grew up in rural Virginia like a lot of kids do with a passion for engines and speed. He realized early that he could make more money selling cars than fixing them, and he parlayed his hard work, business sense and charm into an automotive empire.

He tiptoed into NASCAR, an underfunded underdog. Quickly he became a racing success, too, underfunded no more.

Hendrick has won 12 championships in NASCAR's top three divisions and developed the most successful operation in the sport. He is to NASCAR what the New York Yankees are to baseball and the New England Patriots are to football. But there are differences. He wins even more than they do. And he never tells you how good he is.

The film recounts Hendrick's successes and tragedies. Foremost among the tragedies is the death of his son Ricky and nine others, including Rick's brother and twin nieces, including key employees and good friends, in a 2004 plane crash.

It was excruciating to experience those deaths the first time because who among us can fathom such pain? And, frankly, it was tough to experience again Tuesday night.

But Hendrick's story doesn't end with his son's death. Of course it changed him; it had to change him. Yet the business became even more successful, Hendrick even more dedicated. If there was bitterness, he kept it to himself. He still handled himself with singular grace.

I remember going on an extensive tour of Hendrick's headquarters a few years ago, looking for the secrets that enabled him to sustain success in such a competitive sport. I saw almost everything. And I found his secret. It is respect. Respect permeates the organization. There is no pretension, no caste system or iron-fist hierarchy.

They hug each other in Victory Lane and probably in private, too. They run the business as if it's a family. They act as ifeverybody, no matter what their role, is responsible forthe organization's success.

They act as if they are in it together.

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