Race Weekend Central

Thompson in Turn 5: An Indomitable Spirit Prevails at Hendrick Motorsports

Jimmie Johnson‘s win this Sunday at Martinsville, Va. for Hendrick Motorsports was not just your average Nextel Cup win. It may very well have been a case of Divine Providence, especially when one considers the shocking circumstances Johnson encountered following his last victory at the famed .526-mile track. Circumstances that day turned what should have been a joyous occasion into one of profound sadness, snatching away any happiness from Johnson and his team.

On that day, Oct. 24, 2004, Johnson, as well as fellow teammates Jeff Gordon, Brian Vickers and Terry Labonte, were instructed by NASCAR officials to report to the NASCAR hauler immediately following the dropping of the checkered flag, and for Johnson to forgo the obligatory trip to victory lane for post-race celebrations.

The news that the drivers, as well as their crews, were given at that time by NASCAR officials was that a Hendrick Motorsports plane was reported missing. Later, the news that all feared was confirmed… a wrecked plane had been found, and all eight passengers and two crew members had been killed in the crash. In case you’ve forgotten or are new to the sport, here’s a reminder of the lives lost in the tragic accident:

John Hendrick – President of Hendrick Motorsports and brother of team owner Rick Hendrick, and his twin 22-year old daughters, Kimberly Hendrick and Jennifer Hendrick. Kimberly was an honor roll student at UNC-Wilmington, while Jennifer worked in the marketing department at Hendrick Motorsports.

Ricky Hendrick – Joseph Riddick Hendrick IV was named for his father and was the “heir apparent in training” to one day take over the reins of Hendrick Motorsports. After enjoying some success as a driver, the 24-year old had retired due to a race-related injury and joined with his grandfather to manage two of the HMS cars – the No. 25 Nextel Cup team and the No. 5 Busch Series team. It was Ricky’s decision to put best friend Vickers behind the wheel of his Busch Series car, contrary to his father’s advice.

The move paid off, as Vickers validated his boyhood friend’s faith in him by winning the Series championship; he was just completing his rookie year in Nextel Cup at the time of Ricky’s death. Following the death of his grandfather, Papa John, Ricky had assumed sole managing responsibilities for both teams.

Randy Dorton – The 50-year-old Dorton headed the engine department at HMS, where he had worked for almost 20 years. He was a renowned engine builder that provided the power plants for a combined five NASCAR Cup championships, won by Labonte and Gordon from 1994 to 2001.

Jeff Turner – The General Manager of HMS, Turner oversaw the day-to-day operations of the company and its five NASCAR teams. Before assuming the general manager responsibilities, Turner was the Vice President/Chief Financial Officer of Hendrick Motorsports.

Joe Jackson – Director of DuPont’s NASCAR Motorsports program, which included sponsorship of four-time NASCAR champion Gordon’s No. 24 car. Joe Jackson had been the catalyst between HMS and Dupont Performance Coating’s championship caliber team owner/sponsor relationship.

Scott Lathram – Helicopter pilot for NASCAR Nextel Cup Series driver Tony Stewart since October of 2003. The 38-year old retired Kentucky State Policeman and Army Reserve pilot was scheduled to rejoin his Aviation regiment in Iraq the following day. Scott Lathram had been on bereavement leave from the Army due to the recent death of his father and was traveling with the Hendrick group to Martinsville to present his boss, Stewart, with a plaque.

Elizabeth Lee Morrison – A three-year employee of HMS, the 31-year-old Morrison was a graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Dick Tracy – An employee of HMS for almost five years, Tracy was the pilot of the King Air Beech 200 airplane. He attended the University of Massachusetts at Amherst – Stockbridge where he received an Associate’s Degree in Environmental Technology. He also graduated from the Florida Institute of Technology in aviation science, and then went on to complete his Bachelor’s Degree.

The listing and reading of these lost lives, even two years after the tragedy, is numbing to the senses. The scope of the loss to Rick Hendrick and his wife Linda is still unimaginable. Hendrick lost a beloved son, brother and two nieces all in one fell swoop. Gone were longtime friends and employees Dorton and Turner, as well as valuable business associate and friend Jackson. Coupled with the loss of the remaining lives aboard the plane, it was uncertain that Hendrick or his closely knit family and employees would have the fortitude or desire to continue competing at the exceptionally high performance level they prided themselves on.

Well, adversity will do one of two things to an individual or group; it will either weaken and eventually defeat it, or it will serve to harden one’s determination and strengthen. But there had been glimpses into Rick Hendrick and his organization’s resolve when facing hardships prior to the terrible tragedy in the Virginia mountains, sneak peeks which should have predicted for us how this story was going to turn out.

In November 1996, Hendrick was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia, a rare form of the disease that, according to many medical experts, claims up to 95% of its victims. Doctors prescribed a course of two injections of cancer-fighting drugs a day for nearly 1,100 days to fight it. Well, it took more than three years of Hendrick battling for his life… but in 1999, the disease was determined to be in full remission. “Attitude is very important, and he has had a very positive attitude in spite of horribly toxic therapy,” said Hendrick’s attending physician, Dr. Steven Limentani. “Many people would have stopped their therapy had they had to go through what he did.”

Not only did Hendrick not quit his demanding drug therapy regiment, Hendrick Motorsports, with their leader sidelined to devote full efforts to his cancer battle, also never quit. During those trying times for the whole organization, they pulled together and won a NASCAR Cup Series championship, its third with Gordon, and came within three points of a second NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series title with driver Jack Sprague.

Also during this period of recuperation, Rick Hendrick, one of the nation’s largest automobile dealers, faced federal indictment for mail fraud. The charges were a result of alleged illegal “kickbacks” to the Honda Motor Company, and they could possibly have resulted in incarceration. Hendrick, while undergoing cancer treatment, pleaded guilty and was both fined and given three years probation in consideration of his medical condition. Rick Hendrick was later pardoned by then-President Bill Clinton.

But even with the knowledge of Hendrick Motorsports’ past tribulations and their demonstrated abilities to overcome them, nothing could compare with the loss of so many family members and friends. And there was the loss of people crucial to the day-to-day operation of the race teams. Among those losses were the President, General Manager, Chief Engine Builder and the youthful, energetic leadership of Ricky Hendrick. The loss of so much talent in one fateful swoop, and the heavy hearts that the organization would carry forward, could have been too much of a burden to overcome.

However, the people within the organization seemed to reach deep down within themselves and find an indomitable spirit that has not only sustained them, but also allowed for them to continue to succeed. Johnson won the following week in Atlanta in a highly emotional victory, and the winning ways at HMS have continued since that October Sunday in 2004. Many more wins and near wins have been recorded by HMS, and today we find three Hendrick teammates Kyle Busch, Gordon and Johnson vying for the 2007 NASCAR Nextel Cup championship.

Rick Hendrick, speaking to the public for the first time following the tragedy in 2004, said, “I can’t replace my family and I can’t replace people like Randy Dorton and Jeff Turner, but what our company has always done is [that] we’re a strong group, [with] a lot of people that are committed. The way we close those holes is together, each one of us picks up the pieces.” And Hendrick concluded by saying, “We’ve all kind of banded together. You don’t think you can get through, but again with faith, friends and family, you really can.

All the shattered pieces were picked up and put back together beyond belief, and the organization has worked even closer together to close the holes. Of course, that which does not kill you makes you stronger, but the hurt is still there for those left to carry on after the crash. You can see it in the Johnson’s demeanor when speaking of his heartbreaking fall, having the Chase in his grasp only to give it away… again. And the pain is still there, barely hidden below the surface for everyone to the point that Rick and Linda Hendrick still cannot bring themselves to attend the race that their friends and family never arrived at two years ago.

So, though Gordon swept the two 2005 Martinsville races to punctuate the determination of the Hendrick organization, Johnson finally was allowed to celebrate in victory lane at Martinsville last Sunday. And that can only be a good thing. The celebration was more than a demonstration of joy over winning an automobile race, it was a tribute to the amazing resiliency of the human spirit.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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