CONCORD, N.C. — The scene is routinely played out in Victory Lane at almost every NASCAR Sprint Cup race. Driver climbs out of his car, takes a gulp of the beverage of his choice, and sprays his crew members with the rest. Then, the driver thanks his sponsors, his pit crew, and, last but not least, gives a shout out to the boys back at the shop for giving him such a fantastic racecar.
Sometimes, though, the compliment can be so rushed and contrived, it can seem impersonal.
Not so at Hendrick Motorsports, one of NASCAR’s biggest teams. Owner Rick Hendrick has emphasized teamwork by making all 500 of his employees feel an integral part of its 10 Sprint Cup championships.
“I think that’s one of the neatest parts about my teammates here, from the folks who are on the very front end — the race teams and the crew chiefs — all the way back in the organization to the folks who are starting up the construction of the car by laying up the raw steel,’’ said Marshall Carlson, Hendrick team president. “From one end of the process to the other, everyone knows we’re here to win. It’s not about building the finest racecar, or the most powerful engine, or having the fastest pit crew.
“The difference is all of that coming together on a Sunday afternoon — to win.’’
And so when any of Hendrick’s four drivers wins — be it five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne, or four-time champ Jeff Gordon — he isn’t merely paying lip service to those unheralded teammates at Hendrick’s 140-acre campus who worked behind the scenes to give him a winning car.
“We say that not because we’re told to say that, we say that because we care,’’ Johnson said. “We say that out of respect for the effort that goes into letting us go out there, race around, and chase a trophy.’’
Said Gordon, “We’re with 10 or so guys that are traveling on Thursday through Sunday — minus the pit crew guys — so you get a chance to be with them and have a sense of appreciation for one another.
“But the guys at the shop, a lot of times they do so much behind the scenes. These days it’s the whole complex because you got people building the chassis and hanging the bodies and a lot of other detail work that goes into getting the car to the racetrack.”
“You just don’t get to see them as often,’’ added Gordon. “There are a few guys in the shop when I’m in the shop and a lot of times there are other guys within the shop who are kind of hiding off in the back corner. So when you have a good day, you want to thank all of them.’’
That show of gratitude often resonates with the boys back at the shop.
“There are a lot of people back at the shop,’’ said Jon Plyler, a manager at the 48/88 shop, the 60,000-square foot home of Johnson’s and Earnhardt’s race teams. “For the longest time I was on the road side. When the drivers and the crew chiefs thank the guys at the shop, they’re not just saying it. If the work isn’t done right here, then the guys at the track cannot do their job as effectively as they do.’’
Founded in 1984 as All-Star Racing, Hendrick’s empire had modest beginnings with five full-time employees toiling out of 5,000-square feet of leased workspace, campaigning a single car for Geoff Bodine, who finished ninth in the championship points after posting three victories and three pole wins in its inaugural season.
Rebranded as Hendrick Motorsports in 1985, the team is headquartered about a mile from Charlotte Motor Speedway. The original shop overlooks a modern facility where 500 employees work in engine and chassis-building areas that support Hendrick’s four full-time Chevrolet-backed Sprint Cup teams.
And the work, which goes on well beyond the 36-race season, is almost never done.
“For our offseason, a lot of people think, ‘Well the racing season’s over and those guys are chilling out,’ well that’s our busiest time,’’ said Ron Reedy, body shop manager at HMS, where 14 cars are produced each year for each of the four teams.
“From the end of the last race until Daytona,’’ Reedy said, “we’re hammering down trying to get new cars built, especially this year with 2013 [model] coming out. We’ll be rebodying everything in the fleet. So it’ll be a lot of long hours.
“But it makes it all worth it when you can go to the racetrack and run good.’’
Reedy’s workload can be compounded by unexpected repairs and wrecked cars.
“We like to call it job security,’’ he said.
It can disrupt the smooth work flow from the chassis shop, where manager Mark Whitten, a native of Gloucester, Mass., oversees the construction of a car’s skeletal steel frame. Once welded, the chassis is sent to the adjacent body shop to have the sheet metal skin hung on its frame. From there, the car is sent for finish work to the 5/24 and 48/88 race shops, which sit side-by-side in buildings located on the highest point of the facility.
It often coincides with work being done in the composite shop, where fabricators produce carbon-fiber layered seats for all but four Sprint Cup drivers on the circuit, and in the engine shop, where raw materials are turned by computerized mills and lathes into custom-designed components.
The engine components are calibrated and tested to meet team and NASCAR specifications, then validated with simulated runs on an engine dynamometer. The components then are cataloged and sent to engine assembly, where a jigsaw puzzle of parts and pieces is turned into a working engine. By year’s end, they will have built almost 700 engines.
“It’s like a restaurant,’’ said Doug Duchardt, HMS vice president of development, as he stood in the receiving bay at one end of the engine shop. “We like to say the raw food comes in at one end, and we plate it up at the other end.’’
It’s a company-wide effort that leaves many a visitor to the Hendrick campus flabbergasted by all the work involved in getting a team ready for competition.
“It all starts here,’’ said Kenny Francis, Kahne’s crew chief, whose team shares workspace with Gordon’s team in the 5/24 shop. “It starts in the fab departments where they build the cars from scratch and start with a rack of steel tubing and sheet metal and a basic chassis and body comes out the other door of the shop.
“Pretty much the whole car is built in-house. Most of the components are made here. There’s very little that’s purchased, except for maybe some specialized things that race teams can’t make, like drive-train parts and gears and things like that.
“But most of the basic parts are made here — from raw materials.’’
The growth of Hendrick’s operation has resulted in an exponential growth of its facility and workforce.
“If you think about it, if you go back to 1998 or 1999, we were running about 30-31 races and had about 250 people,’’ said Scott Lampe, HMS vice president and chief financial officer. “So we doubled our head count, and close to doubled our square footage, and we’re only running five more races.
“It gives you some sense of the complexity of each preparation, and that drives complexity everywhere,’’ Lampe said. “In the mid-90s, we didn’t even have a [human resources] department. You worked and got along with the crew chief or you didn’t. It was a pretty simple process.
“You didn’t have all these marketing folks, you didn’t have this PR group and the expectations of sponsors have increased because if you’re going to ask them for twice the money, then you’ve got to provide twice the value. So you’ve got to be more creative in how you do that and more responsive in how you do that. So the race teams run more paint schemes now than they used to, which means we’ve had to hire more people to literally paint more racecars.’’
At Hendrick Motorsports, teamwork is not just a motivational gimmick. It is a mission statement.
In the foyer of the 48/88 shop, the gleaming cars of Earnhardt and Johnson sit side by side on a circular platform, beneath which reads the motto: “Teamwork is the fuel that allows common people to produce uncommon results.’’
When that effort results in a victory, everyone at Hendrick Motorsports shares in the glory. No one gets overlooked. When Earnhardt snapped a four-year victory drought last month with a triumph at Michigan, he gladly participated in the ritual of ringing the Victory Bell, bringing it around every part of the Hendrick campus.
“It means a lot when they come by here,’’ said Whitten. “Junior came by after his win and everybody was all fired up.”
“For those guys to make the time to spend a couple of hours, shaking everyone’s hand and expressing that gratitude is meaningful to the folks here,’’ Carlson said. “It’s a real recognition that it takes all 500 folks pulling, as competitive as this series is these days, to have that success on the track.’’