Rick Hendrick has a lifelong passion for Chevrolets.
His dad, Papa Joe, raced a '37 Chevy on weekends.
"Dad was a serious racer, and if he could have made a living at it, he'd have done it," says Hendrick, 62, owner of Hendrick Motorsports in Charlotte, N.C.
Hendrick's first car, a red two-door 1931 Chevy that he and his dad built into a hot rod in his grandfather's store, is prized among Hendrick's collection of 220 Chevrolets, mostly Corvettes and Camaros.
"My family always raced Chevys," Hendrick says. "It's all we ever owned. I had this love affair with muscle cars. It's the history, the aura, the power, the handling, the styling and the looks."
Hendrick Motorsports has fielded teams that have won 14 NASCAR championships, including a record 10 with Chevrolet in the Sprint Cup Series.
Hendrick also is chairman of Hendrick Automotive Group in Charlotte, the seventh-largest dealership group in the United States with 2010 new-vehicle sales of 59,403.
He was an adviser for the 1990 movie Days of Thunder starring Tom Cruise, and Cruise narrated a 2009 documentary, Together: The Hendrick Motorsports Story.
Hendrick spoke with Neil Roland about his love for the car business, racing, and Chevy muscle cars.
Professionally, what makes you proudest?
I've been able to do the two things I enjoy most in life outside my family: the car business and racing cars. Since I was a kid, I've always had a dream of owning a Corvette. I never thought I'd own one. I also had a dream of racing back then. How many people from the time they can remember have had a dream and can make a career out of it?
To what do you attribute your success?
I think it's passion and not looking at it like a job. I've been working on cars since I was 14. I found I was a natural salesman with a mechanical background.
I've been surrounded by great people, and I take good care of people. You can't have happy customers if you don't have happy employees.
What new chapters do you hope to write in your life?
I want our company to be looked at as the best, not the biggest. I've got family in the business, and three grandchildren. I want to see where they can take this thing. We've built a culture that I think will go on and on -- as long as we stay tight and stay together.
In racing, I want to be looked at as the best.
What's your management philosophy?
Team and community oriented. We have weekly conference calls and quarterly meetings, and I tell them, "We don't have to do it my way. If you have a better idea, we'll do it your way." We learn from each other, and we challenge each other.
We recognize the top performers. We make it fun, and we make it competitive. We promote from within.
We do that in racing, too. We have four cars that race each other, and we ask them to share everything they're doing. They see it makes us better.
It comes from my mom and dad. I grew up in rural Virginia, and on a farm, you have to help each other. If someone in our company has fallen on hard times, we help.
What was your father's involvement with cars?
He'd take a '37 Chevy and add a V-8 motor and big tires. He'd run it on weekends on asphalt. He was a crew member in NASCAR-sanctioned modified racing. Dad was a serious racer, and if he could have made a living at it, he'd have done it.
What was your first car?
A red two-door 1931 Chevrolet with a rumble seat in the back. If you told me I had to sell every car I own, that would be the last one.
How did you come to own it?
When I was 14, my dad and I were on our way to drag racing. We stopped at a service station, and it was sitting there. It looked so cool! I had never seen a Chevy with a straight up-and-down grille that looked like the 1932 Ford. It was the station owner's and needed a ton of work. Dad told me he could advance me the money. I paid $250.
We built it into a hot rod in granddad's general store. It was an old schoolhouse, and we used the girls' commode.
I drag-raced the car when I was a teenager and later stored it in Virginia.
On my 40th birthday, Dad drove it in with a restored Corvette motor, with my wife and two kids as passengers.
What has drawn you to Chevys?
My family always raced Chevys. It's all we ever owned. I had this love affair with muscle cars. It's the history, the aura, the power, the handling, the styling and the looks. It's a sports car, a race car, a luxury car. It's just a gorgeous piece of art to me.
How did you get your start as a car dealer?
After college, I'd buy cars that needed repair and fix them. I'd get 90-day notes from a bank where my Mom, Mary, worked. I'd then sell the car and pay the bank back.
At an auction, I met a dealer who offered me a job on his used-car lot and later selling new cars. When I was 26, I sold off my assets to buy a struggling franchise in South Carolina. After proving myself, Chevy called and offered me City Chevrolet in Charlotte. That was the launching pad for everything that happened with Hendrick Auto Group.
How did you meet Tom Cruise?
I was already in NASCAR when a friend asked if I'd like to meet Paul Newman, who came over. Newman said: "I like your Corvette race car." I said: "We're going to test it next week if you want to come." He said, "Mind if I bring a young man with me, Tom Cruise?"
Tom and I became friends, and still are. He'd come into my Charlotte office wearing a T-shirt. The girls got used to seeing him. Tom later said: "We need to make a movie." Days of Thunder is based on my NASCAR racing. Robert Duvall played my crew chief, Harry Hyde, and Duvall was so much like him in mannerisms it was almost spooky. The team owner played by Randy Quaid was me.
How are you coping with leukemia?
I was diagnosed in 1996 and have been in remission since 2000. I'm a little overweight, but my health is good.
Chairman, Hendrick Automotive Group in Charlotte, N.C., 7th-biggest U.S. dealership group
Owner, Hendrick Motorsports in Charlotte, whose teams have won 14 NASCAR titles
Collector of 220 Chevrolets dating to 1931
Adviser for 1990 movie Days of Thunder starring Tom Cruise and Robert Duvall