Feature Story

Racing For A Reason

By Marcy Beasley

(August 8, 1998)- - At the conclusion of the 1996 Winston Cup season, Hendrick Motorsports was at its pinnacle; the picture of NASCAR success both on and off the track. Terry Labonte had just won the second consecutive Winston Cup title for the organization and it looked as if nothing could derail the operation that has set the standard for multi-car teams in NASCAR. However, late in 1996, Rick Hendrick, the founder of Hendrick Motorsports, was diagnosed with a form of leukemia.

For awhile, it looked as if all hope was lost. Hendrick, the owner of the Kelloggs Chevrolet driven by Terry Labonte, the DuPont Chevrolet driven by Jeff Gordon, the Budweiser Chevrolet driven by Ricky Craven, and the GMAC Chevrolet of Jack Sprague in the Truck series, was battling chronic myelogenous leukemia. It looked as if the 1997 season would be filled with distractions; something that a championship organization does its best to avoid. But the mark of a champion is how they respond to adversity. Hendrick Motorsports is a championship organization; they responded in fine fashion.

Rick Hendrick has always been very involved with his race teams. He wasnít an absentee owner that just paid the bills for the race team. Starting with All Star Racing and driver Geoff Bodine in 1984, Hendrick took an active role in his race teams. He even drove in a few races in 1987. He was one of the largest auto dealers in the country, but racing was his passion. On race day, you could always find him standing in the pits, before, during, and after the race, talking with his drivers and the crews. All of his drivers refer to him as a good man, and more importantly a good friend. Now that friend wasnít at the track anymore and that made racing tougher than it already was.

"As much as it got us down it also got us back up," Jeff Gordon said. "Rick sat us down and said that he would take care of this and for us the best thing to do would to win races." Thatís just what he did. Gordon drove his DuPont Automotive Finishes Chevrolet to 10 wins and the 1997 Winston Cup, the third in a row for Hendrick Motorsports. "Wins," Rick told Jeff, "are the best medicine I could ever get." After Gordon, Labonte, and Craven finished 1-2-3 in the 1997 Daytona 500, the three drivers met in victory lane and held up a sign saying, "This oneís for Rick."

After Gordon won the race, he spoke with Rick for a few minutes before getting out of his car on a cellular phone; with all those people wanting his time at the moment, Rick was the one who got it. At the end of the season everyone could see how it hurt Jeff to not have Rick in New York. (Unless you forgot his very emotional speech at the Winston Cup banquet.) Benny Parsons, an ESPN commentator, said, "This is a case where this young man wants Rick here." It was an unbelievable season for Gordon and to not have the man who made it all possible not there was rough.

Leukemia had affected the DuPont team before Rick Hendrick was diagnosed with the disease. Ray Evernham, crew chief of the DuPont Chevrolet, had already been through the fear of leukemia with his son Ray J. Ray J. is now in remission but it had to have brought back feelings that Evernham hoped were behind him. When Ray J. was sick, Evernham saw what kind of a boss he had. At that time in 1992, Evernham had just started working at Hendrick Motorsports. Rick Hendrick gave him the use of his private plane to fly back and forth from Charlotte to New Jersey. "He is better now but you are scared to death every time he gets a cold," Evernham said about Ray Jís condition.

Before the 1997 Daytona 500, Evernham joined Gordon, Labonte, Craven, NASCAR President Bill France Jr., and others in the NASCAR community to raise bone marrow donor awareness. All drivers also carried the 1-800-MARROW-2 phone number on their cars. On that Sunday, over 200,000 calls were made to the bone marrow awareness number.

Terry Labonteís run at defending his title was met with ups and downs. His team was hampered by the departure of Gary Dehart, his longtime crew chief. As a result, the Kelloggs team lacked the communication of their title season. They stayed in the top 10 in the points standings, but didnít visit victory lane until October at Talladega. The relief on Labonteís face was noticeable in victory lane. In his post-race interview, he took the time to tell Rick hello. Rick was never out of the mind of his drivers.

Ricky Craven was "the new guy in town" heading into the 1997 season. Craven joined the team at the conclusion of 1996 and struggled throughout his first season with the team battling injuries. Craven had multiple races end in wrecks and bad finishes. After his car owner was diagnosed with leukemia, thoughts of an earlier time must have passed through his mind. When he was making his climb up the racing ladder, his mother was diagnosed with cancer. Eventually, she needed a bone marrow transplant. Luckily a donor was found and the transplant was a success. Earlier in the 1998 season, Ricky sat out four months in order to recover from post concussion syndrome. In his first race back in the car at New Hampshire, he claimed the pole position and thanked Rick and Linda Hendrick for "their support in all of this."

Hendrick Motorsports has spearheaded the campaign for bone marrow awareness in NASCAR circles. The Hendrick Marrow Program began earlier this year to make people aware of the need for marrow donors. The program seeks to launch drives to recruit donors, raise funds for "typing" and to educate people about the National Marrow Donor Program. Since The Hendrick Marrow Program began, almost 17,000 new volunteers have joined the registry and over $600,000 has been raised.

The drivers have gotten involved with the cause as well. In addition to donating money, the Hendrick Motorsports drivers have arranged marrow drives and have attended benefits in order to increase the donor pool. Jeff Gordon recently participated in an autograph session in Charlotte, North Carolina in order to benefit Charles Hayward. Hayward, a UNCC basketball recruit, was diagnosed with leukemia in October 1997. John Hendrick, whose brother Rick is also battling the disease, developed a friendship with Hayward soon after. Terry Labonte and wife Kim hosted a marrow drive in their hometown of High Point, North Carolina. Over 1,000 people came out to be marrow typed and to meet the Labontes. Ricky Craven holds an annual Snowmobile Ride for Charity each winter in his native New England. In addition, Close-Up toothpaste gave The Hendrick Marrow Program $10,000 to do a marrow drive during the Charlotte race in October 1997. This money helped to pay for new marrow volunteers to be tested.

In 1960 there was a 4% survival rate of 5 years with leukemia. In the 1990's, there is a 52% survival rate. So we are doing something right but there are still many people who die waiting for a marrow transplant. Anyone between the age of 18-60, in good general health, with no history of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, or a heart problem, can donate bone marrow. Itís strange to think that someone thousands of miles away or someone in your own town could be waiting for someone they have never met to give them a second chance at life. This article wasnít about leukemia in itself; it is about survival. Hopefully, that is what Rick Hendrick is on his way to doing so that he can return to the sport that he loves.

For more information about bone marrow awareness, please call 1-800-MARROW-2

Resources on the Web

The National Marrow Donor Foundation

The Hendrick Marrow Program

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