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Q and A: Rick Hendrick Talks Racing

| , RacinToday.com Monday, November 28 2011

Rick Hendrick talked with the media on Monday. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Christa L Thomas)

Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports, held a teleconference with the media on Monday. The following is a transcript of that teleconference:

RICK HENDRICK: Good morning, Jesse, and everybody there. Just looking forward to getting ready to start a new year. I really appreciate all the cards and letters after the accident my wife and I had. We’re doing well. Now is the time of year you reflect back on your season and what could you do better. This is the end of our five-year run with the championships. All in all, I think we had a pretty good year. We sure would have liked to have closed it out a lot better, but we just have to ramp it up now and get ready to go next year.

MODERATOR: Mr. Hendrick, with the No. 48 team’s five-year run as champions having come to an end, can you give us your perspective on the accomplishment and what you expect out of Jimmie (Johnson, driver) and Chad (Knaus, crew chief) going into next year?

HENDRICK: You know, I’m really proud of what they’ve accomplished. I don’t know if anyone will ever do that again. To be able to win five of these things in a row is unbelievable. When you’ve been to the top of the mountain like they have, and you’ve been up there, and then you don’t do it the sixth time, of course you start trying to figure out how you can be better. Definitely, the competition has gotten stronger and stiffer. Everybody knows, and I think those two guys know as well as anyone, that it had to come to an end. The odds of you winning six years in a row, especially with the new format, with the point system like it is, I think it’s going to be harder and harder for anyone to be able to do that. But I think the bottom line is we were not as competitive as we would like to be. We had a lot of things that happened with the wreck in Charlotte (N.C.) and Talladega (Ala.). We played our cards wrong at Talladega, our whole organization did, to have cars as good as we had and end up where we did. But that’s racing. I think when you’ve tasted the success they have, and now you’ve been beat, you’ve got to go to work, and you’ve got to come back stronger. We’ve got to look at all the areas of our teams — all of our teams — to see how we can get better. I was real happy to have three of them in the Chase, and I’m real excited about having Kenny Francis (crew chief) and Kasey (Kahne, driver) coming over. I think it’s going to help our organization a bunch and get some fresh blood in there and some new ideas. I think that’s going to be good. We’re right now talking about, and guys are meeting on, let’s dissect what happened last year and where are some areas we can improve ourselves and go out and go for it again. In a nutshell, we’d definitely like to be better, but we’re competitive. At times, the (No.) 24 looked super strong. It looked like Jeff (Gordon, driver) was really going to make a hard run. At times, Jimmie looked like, at first there in the Chase with back-to-back opportunities for wins, the (No.) 48 was there. And Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) ran better this year than he did the year before. We know we’ve got more (room for) improvement there. It’s just a constant battle in this sport. You never can rest on what you did yesterday. You got to look at what you’ve done and how to do it better. Everybody’s doing the same thing. We’re excited about 2012. I think it’s going to be a very competitive year. I was excited to see the Chase come down to the two cars, and I’m real happy to see Tony (Stewart) and Gene Haas win that thing. That was a great battle. I don’t know how it could get any better than what we saw, and I’m sure next year is going to be the same way.

QUESTION: Good morning. I just wanted to ask you if you could talk about the sponsorship picture. You have some companies (sponsors) cutting back and teams leaving and being cut back. Your company is obviously the healthiest in the sport, but just give your perspective on where you see the sponsor picture in 2012 and the health of NASCAR overall.

HENDRICK: Well, first of all, it’s good to see the TV ratings up 20 percent or 18 percent at the end of the year. And it’s good to see some new sponsors coming into the sport. You hate to see people like UPS cutting back or Red Bull leaving the sport, but I think as the economy kind of chugs along, we have seen more and more people, more companies, looking now. I know there have been several new ones announced. Farmers Insurance with us next year, we’re real excited about. We’ve had several meetings with some other new potential people that have not been in the sport before.

I think we’ve definitely hit the bottom, and I think it’s coming back. I think as the economy shores up, we’ll see more people looking at our sport. I think NASCAR is a victim of what’s been going on in the economy, period. Everybody’s marketing dollars have trimmed up, and companies are watching their expenses. But to me it does feel better. This past year, 2011, was better than 2010, and I think there’s more movement and more folks looking than I’ve seen in the last couple of years. With that, I think it’s going to settle out, and we’ll just see. Again, I think the fan interest and looking at the stands, we had a lot of races that had really good crowds, and TV picking up. And again, the competition we saw in the Chase this year, and the way it came down to the wire, can’t do anything but help us.

QUESTION: One quick follow up. Even though you have remained very healthy over there, how have you had to change your approach, or how you work with companies, to keep them (sponsors) involved and keep them on board?

HENDRICK: Well, you know, we’ve always — and it just didn’t start when the downturn came — I’ve always had the philosophy that you need to go out and work with your sponsors. Understand what their needs are. Have a marketing arm that can help put together some business-to-business opportunities between some of your other sponsors, whether it’s General Motors and Lowe’s, or DuPont and Lowe’s — whoever. Just how can you get in there and understand their business and try to help create some opportunities for them and show them some benefits of the relationship outside of what goes on on the racetrack. We have been doing that for years, and I think we just stepped it up more and more this year. By doing that, we have had some situations where we had some sponsors that would partner up and sell, swap off some races with each other if one wanted to cut back a little bit and the other one picked them up. Again, I think it’s just working with your sponsors, having that kind of relationship that you understand their business, and trying to be a tool that helps them, whether it’s awareness or moving product, that you’re ingrained in what they do and you can adjust with them. I feel like they need more than just their name on the car. They need the people they’re sponsoring, whether it’s a driver as a spokesman that’s going to work harder out in the field for them or that business-to-business opportunity. We met with all of our sponsors trying to understand what their needs were and how the markets changed for them and what can we do to help. And be good partners, not just on the racetrack, but in that area of the marketing and business-to-business opportunities.

QUESTION: One thing that I find intriguing is that with Stewart-Haas, you provide Stewart-Haas with their equipment, and Tony (Stewart) thanked you in Victory Lane when he won the championship. When you’re giving people equipment, and they turn around and end your five-year championship streak, doesn’t that feel a little funny to you?

HENDRICK: Not really. Honestly, and I’ve been over this with my guys before, I’d feel a whole lot different if we got beat by some equipment and we thought, well, they’ve got better motors, they’ve got better chassis than we do, so we got to go figure out how to make this better and this better. Getting beat by your own stuff, then you’ve got to look in the mirror and say, ‘OK. They had the same thing we did and they whipped us. Now we’ve got to go to work.’ I think most of the equipment in that garage area is pretty even. I’m real proud of our engine shop for winning it six years in a row. I think the people make the difference. You’ve just got to give it to Tony (Stewart) and Darian (Grubb) and Gene Haas and that whole organization. They just turned it on there at the end, and they just were not going to be denied. Again, it answers some questions for you. You don’t have to look at the motor shop. You don’t have to look at the chassis shop. You’ve got to look at the people and what adjustments they’re making and the commitments of the drivers and how bad do you really want it. I personally think it’s not a bad thing.

QUESTION: Are they going to let you walk on stage and just wave? Say, ‘I gave them all this stuff.’

HENDRICK: I’d love to get the money, but I don’t (LAUGHS). Maybe I’ll keep a customer for another few years. Again, Gene Haas has been a good supporter of our organization. He was a sponsor for us (with Haas CNC) before he got into racing, I guess 10 years ago. His equipment has helped us in our engine shop and our chassis shop to make parts and pieces. I’m real happy for him. He’s sure paid his dues, and Tony’s done a great job. It’s well-deserved. I’ll tell you, they put on a show there at the end.

QUESTION: They’ve got that new rule coming out with the Electronic Fuel Injection, and historically at Hendrick you have the resources to get ahead of everybody quick. Do you see that happening with EFI?

HENDRICK: I don’t really think so. We do have a lot of smart people, and I’m really proud of them. But you’ve got to look at it, we’re competing against Toyota and all the money they have and all the resources they have. And Ford and the Roush-Yates program with all the resources they have. So I don’t see us being able to get out in front of it. We’ve spent a lot of time and a lot of money trying to be prepared, and we’ve been to all the tests and have gotten good feedback. But there’s just so many smart people in this sport now, and the resources are so deep everywhere. I’d like to think we could be even with them. But as far as trying to maybe be ahead of anybody, I don’t think that’s going to happen.

QUESTION: It was basically confirmed for us after Tony (Stewart) won the championship that Darian (Grubb) was gone from his role as crew chief at the 14. Most of us just made the presumption that he may end up back in your camp. Have you had any discussions with Darian? Do you expect that he’ll be back? Is there a place for him there?

HENDRICK: I have had discussions with Darian. When he left (at the end of 2008), we told him we’d always have a place for him if he wanted to come back. Darian is a very smart guy. I know he’s entertaining a lot of offers out there. We don’t have a crew chief role. We have an engineering role that we think Darian would be really good in. But at the end of the day it’s got to be what Darian wants to do. I know he is close to all of our people and our guys are close to him. We’d love to have him back in the organization, but I quite honestly don’t know where he’s going to end up. We would like to have him, but whether or not he’s going to decide he wants to be in the role we’ve offered him or he wants to do something somewhere else, I’m just not sure.

QUESTION: Jimmie (Johnson) was saying going into the finale that not being in the game for the first time in many, many years was like a gut shot to him. Did you get that same sort of feeling, and is it something the organization as a whole can use for motivation for next year?

HENDRICK: Absolutely. Sometimes when you win and you win a lot. And I’ve been through this with Jeff (Gordon). We actually won (four) championships in a row back with Jeff and Terry Labonte, and I thought we would get to 10 in a hurry, and then we went through a dry spell. When you’ve been successful, and then you get knocked off the block, it fires your people up. After you’ve won it, you want to do it again and again. But I think when you get beat, it’s extra motivation, another incentive, to go out and really dig deep and come back and hit it with everything you’ve got. We’re doing that right now. Everybody over there (at Hendrick Motorsports), we’re not leaving any stone unturned. We’re trying to really do a self-examination of ourselves and say, ‘What can we do to be better, and where did we get beat?’ We see areas that we need to improve in. I’ve talked to Chad and Jimmie as well as Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) and Stevie (Letarte) and Jeff and Alan (Gustafson). Now having Kasey Kahne come on and Kenny Francis. We’re excited about that (Kahne and Francis) because we think that the way they run on mile-and-a-half tracks, we might be able to learn some things there. Getting beat sometimes is not a bad thing. If you’re a very competitive company, you got to know you’ve got to work a lot harder to get back to where you were. So we’re motivated.

QUESTION: When you talk about adding Kasey Kahne this upcoming year, how hard is it to manage making that a big asset, as opposed to maybe changing the game up a little bit too much and maybe throwing you off your game?

HENDRICK: The thing about our guys is they’re very cautious not to get too far out on a limb. We’ve already been working with Kenny some, looking at some of the cars and some of the things that they’re doing. We’ll try what they’ve got, and they’ll try what we’ve got, and we’ll try to take the best of both deals. Nobody is going to run off and cut up a bunch of our cars to be exactly like theirs. And we’re trying to build them cars close to what they’re used to. And then we’ll tweak them in each direction to see who’s got the better ideas. I’ve learned in this sport, different drivers take different setups and different car types. Even in our own camp, they’re not all just alike. If you try to force a guy to use something that he’s not comfortable in, then you’re kind of doomed out of the gate. I think the key is having a lot of smart people that are being open-minded and working together and they’re willing to try different things. You can’t have too many smart people as long as they’re working together.

QUESTION: I wanted to ask you about the Dale Earnhardt Jr. situation. There was some improvement this year, but clearly it’s still not where you want it to be. Are there changes that can be made or more effort put into something to try to turn that situation around?

HENDRICK: There’s always more effort that can be put in, I’m sure. But we look at the improvement over a year, and now we get to go back and try to look at areas of the team, whether it’s people or it’s getting everybody working together again for another year. I think the most exciting part of that relationship is it takes five or six months for a crew chief and a driver to see if they can work together. And they’ll have a lot of tolerance of each other early on. And then toward the end of the first year, you kind of find out what you really have. These two guys really like working with each other. I’ve seen some really good runs and then some areas where we’ve kind of fumbled the ball a little bit. From where I sit, and as far as those two guys and our whole company feel, we’ve got a good combination there, and it’ll get better. You just don’t go from running 15th and 18th to be winning every race or winning four or five races. I think what we said we needed to do was finish in the points, up in the Chase, lead some laps, be in a position to win some races, and we were in a position to win two or three races and didn’t get it done. I’m happy with the progress and looking forward to next year. I think we’ll be better still.

QUESTION: How are you doing physically, and do you plan to be in Las Vegas this week?

HENDRICK: I’m not going to be there. I’m doing pretty good. I broke four ribs and my shoulder. It’s been four weeks today. But trying to sleep and move and getting therapy, it takes most of the day. My wife (Linda Hendrick) is doing good. She busted her leg up. I’m not a spring chicken anymore, so I don’t bounce back quite as quick. But we’re doing good. I’m just going to take it easy here for a few more weeks and continue to do my therapy. I’m able to sleep now at night, where I slept in a chair for three weeks, and that’s no fun. But I do appreciate all the cards and the people calling. We’re doing good. Just need a little more time.

QUESTION: First of all, I believe you pretty much answered this, but just to be clear because you snuck one up on us last year, are the same crew chiefs with the same drivers next season?

HENDRICK: Yes, sir. Same crew chief-driver combination.

QUESTION: With Darian (Grubb) leaving (Stewart-Haas), are you concerned at all that if he gets scooped up by another manufacturer that it would gain them an advantage in the garage area?

HENDRICK: Darian is a very smart guy and a very capable guy, and he will do well anywhere he goes. Whatever driver (he works with) or whatever position he’s in, he’s a very talented guy. And we’ll just have to wait and see, but like I said before, you just can’t go get a guy out of one organization and stick him in another organization and he’s going to be the fix-all. I don’t think that happens that way. It takes a combination of a lot of things. And the cars are so close anyway. The area for us to work in is so small with the new car, the way NASCAR’s rules are written. It comes down to mainly the personalities and the communication between the engineers, the crew chiefs, the driver and the team, the chief mechanics. Everybody working together. So I don’t have any idea. I hope Darian ends up back with us, and I think he would help our organization a lot. But I’m not sure if he wants to be a crew chief. We don’t have that spot. We’ll just have to wait and see.

QUESTION: Did you watch the season finale on television?

HENDRICK: Yes, sir. I did.

QUESTION: Can you tell me as a viewer what you thought of all the things that went through for Tony (Stewart) to be able to win that championship during that race?

HENDRICK: That was the most unbelievable finish. Number one, when I saw that part go through his (Stewart’s) front end, I thought it had to get the radiator and then it’s over. And Carl (Edwards) was so good that I was watching the lap times, and I thought, ‘Well, it’d be a heck of a race if they get together.’ Then that gas mileage deal, stretching that fuel mileage, that was brave. It was kind of like a gunslinger race. Tony appeared that he had a ton of confidence, and Carl was super-fast, and his car was super-good, and they made no mistakes. I think if the cautions hadn’t fallen the right way, and Carl had been out front, I don’t know that Tony could have caught him. It was an exciting race from a spectator’s (point of view). It was kind of cool to be able to watch it and not have a lot of skin in the game. Just being a fan. It was a heck of a race.

QUESTION: As far as the plane accident, can you describe what you felt and what you saw, and how did you break your ribs and clavicle?

HENDRICK: We were going into Key West (Fla.), and some kind of failure with the brakes, and we went off the end of the runway. Of course, you don’t remember everything exactly how it happened, but somehow, my seat belt was on, and something came lose in the seat itself. I hit the bulkhead and my wife. I think my chest and head went into the seat in front of me, and that’s where I got my (broken) ribs and had a concussion. Broke four ribs and my clavicle. We were very fortunate. We were glad that it wasn’t any worse than it was. We’re healing up, and we don’t have any of the answers yet on exactly what happened there, but a lot of smart people are involved, so we’ll get that figured out here pretty soon, I hope.

QUESTION: Were you aware that there was any problem? Were you looking out the window and thinking, ‘Wow, we’re going way too fast?’

HENDRICK: Just for a second or two, and that’s about all you got. It’s a short runway down there. You sense something was wrong, but then it happened so quick. It goes so fast that you don’t have time to hardly react.

QUESTION: I wanted to ask you about Gene Hass. Can you go back to when he decided to bring Tony (Stewart) on and how much counsel you offered? And what it means to the sport for Gene to win a championship? He kind of gets overlooked.

HENDRICK: I remember very well the first time Gene mentioned it to me, we were at Indianapolis. He said, ‘I think I want to start a team,’ and I thought why, you know? But he’s a racer. Raced in the desert. He and Joe Custer, had been, like I said, good sponsors with us with their equipment. They started the team, and they just never had the combination of drivers, crew chiefs all at the same time. I remember, I guess what happened was Tony made the statement he wanted to drive a Chevrolet, and Joe Custer mentioned to me they were talking to Tony Stewart. I said, ‘How in the world are you going to hire Tony Stewart?’ They put a deal together, and the rest is kind of history. Gene has spent an awful lot of money in racing in this sport. He built that wind tunnel. I think it’s the only rolling road wind tunnel in the U.S. right here at the end of the runway in Concord (N.C.). But I think the combination of Gene’s a racer, might be a desert racer, but he’s a racer, and he’s a very smart guy. Tony bringing the ability to hire some of the best people. I tell you, I watched Tony. He worked his butt off putting that team together. We offered them engineering support. It’s amazing to see it. It didn’t just happen easy. I know Tony and Gene both have put in a lot of effort, money, time into building a team, and he (Gene) never, ever denied that team anything — facilities, equipment, anything and everything they needed. For the 10 years I’ve known Gene Haas, he’s put the money in it.

QUESTION: Does it go back to how essential it is to have the really upper-echelon driver to win the title?

HENDRICK: It’s so hard. There’s some good rookies out there that do a great job, but when the chips are down and you get under the pressure of falling behind and having to carry the team, or just the pressure of what you’re trying to accomplish in that last 10 (races). I think that’s where you see those guys, like the Jeff Gordons and the Tony Stewarts and the Kenseths — all of those guys who have been around that can handle that kind of heat, they do well. But you have to take your hat off to young guys like Brad (Keselowski) who finished up there in the points and had a real streak going this year. But I think you get back to those old crusty veterans that have been there and done that. You get them where they can taste the blood and see the finish line, they usually can kind of cinch it up and get it done.

QUESTION: Not to pick on Kyle Busch in particular, but just generally talking about behavior of drivers, on the track and off the track, and other athletes. Other sanctioning bodies and organizations will sanction athletes for improper behavior. Do you see any trend that highly-paid athletes feel a certain entitlement to behave badly?

HENDRICK: You know, that’s kind of a hard one for me to answer. When you look at professional sports, there always seems to be athletes that are more vocal and say and do things that other athletes don’t do. We’ve seen it in football; we’ve seen it in racing and every sport. The sanctioning body or the organization is going to monitor it when guys do something that is detrimental to the sport. No matter how talented they are, the ruling body is going to step in. A lot of times you see guys that don’t make it because they can’t control themselves. I’m not talking specifically about this situation with Kyle, either. I think Kyle has made a lot of improvements and tried. The sport, when you’ve got sponsors and people involved, it’s not like you can just do what you want to do anymore. I think teams — football teams, basketball teams, any organization — there’s just a certain amount that they can tolerate, and when you get beyond that and people say it’s just not worth it.

QUESTION: In your history of owning teams, your drivers tend to be winning and, on the other hand, better behaved. Is this something that you have discussions with them, or it’s not necessary because you pick the right guys or what?

HENDRICK: I think you develop a culture inside of a company. You’re representing a lot of people. Especially in our sport when you go out on the racetrack and you’ve got all of these logos for these sponsors that you’re representing, they expect you to act in a certain way. We believe that in order for us to do what we’re supposed to do, and really adhere to the contracts we have with our sponsors, that we are supposed to be, in a lot of cases, role models. In some cases, you want a guy to be out there a little bit.

We don’t try to change (our drivers). I said this when Dale Earnhardt (Jr.) came on board. We don’t want to take Dale Earnhardt’s edge away. We want him to be edgy a little bit. We want him to be the Dale Earnhardt that everybody knows and loves. But everybody knows there’s a fine line, and when you step over that line you create problems for everybody in the sport. And you’ve just got to stay within that box. We don’t want to change the personality of a guy, but there are certain things you just can’t do.

QUESTION: Rick, you mentioned the five-year championship run. It’s not likely that Jimmie (Johnson) and Chad (Knaus) had a five-year championship plan; it’s more like a dream than a strategy. Going forward, what plan works best for Hendrick as a whole? Is it just one race at a time? Do you have a season plan to get that all-important championship?

HENDRICK: To be honest with you, you can have all the five-year plans, two-year plans or plans you want, but in order to be successful in this sport, you’ve got to adjust and you’ve got to do it weekly. You can start out with the best-engineered plan and you get to the first racetrack and somebody has a new rule or something changes. Then you’ve got to adapt. I think the key in our organization has been communication. Having a lot of smart folks that are working together, and when we see something that needs to be fixed, we fix it. If we get a rule change or a curve ball thrown to us, we have to adapt. It’s day-by-day, race-by-race. Things change. Someone gets hurt on the crew. A pit-crew guy gets hurt. Somebody comes up with a much better setup than you’re running. Your old setup was good, but it doesn’t work anymore, so you’ve got to scrap it and go toward something different to keep up. It evolves race-by-race, and you go in as prepared as you can be, but knowing that you may have to change at any time.

| , RacinToday.com Monday, November 28 2011
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