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NASCAR Media Conference

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Stock Car Racing Topics:  NASCAR

NASCAR Media Conference

Rick Hendrick
November 24, 2009

DENISE MALOOF: Thank you. Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to our special back-to-back NASCAR teleconferences today in advance of next week's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champions Week celebration in Las Vegas. Joining us first today is Rick Hendrick. The owner of Lowe's Hendrick Motorsports and the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet, and now four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion, Jimmie Johnson. Welcome, Rick.
RICK HENDRICK: Good to be here.
DENISE MALOOF: Meanwhile, we have Rick. We're delighted he can join us. He and his organization made NASCAR history at last Sunday's season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway. Jimmie clinched his fourth title with a fifth place race finish, something no other NASCAR driver has done in its history. And that number ties Hendrick Motorsports with Petty Enterprises for the most in series history. This latest title also gives Rick his 12th national series owner title, which sets a new mark, Hendrick Motorsports with 11 national series titles. Rick, it was quite a weekend, indeed.
RICK HENDRICK: It was a great weekend. We're very, very thankful to be able to close the deal.

Q. Now that you've got all these records under your belt, you've got finishing one, two, three in the points this year, the four-time consecutive champion. You've got two four-time champions under your belt. What goals do you have possibly that you could fulfill next?
RICK HENDRICK: You know, this year I would like to have seen Jeff win number five, Jimmie win four straight, and Mark win his first one. So I think my priority right now is the 88 team. We're working on them to try to make that team stronger. The goal going into next year now will be win races and get all four teams in the Chase.
So I feel real good about the fact that we're rolling into the year with virtually no changes. You know, seeing the competition get stronger, so much stronger, like the Childress cars and the Gibbs cars are there all year anyway, and the Penske cars. It's going to be a dog fight. You know, we know we've we're going to have to be on our toes and work hard here now in the off-season.
But we're very, very thankful of what we've gotten done. These guys kind of set their own goals. You know, I believe that as soon as they finish this one Chad was thinking about number five, and Jeff and Steve are thinking about beating those guys. The planning and the execution has already started.

Q. Speaking of Dale Jr., have you guys put your finger on what it is that you need to do to make him more competitive?
RICK HENDRICK: Well, you know, you see this happen. I've seen it happen with Jeff Gordon and Jimmie had a slump back around last year about the time we were in Vegas. You just go through these. We know we can make the team better, and it's frustrating, and it's, you know, the driver begins to think that no matter what he does, that something's going to happen, because we just had -- we've had failures. We've had wrecks. We've just had a -- if it could happen, it happened to that team.
It's been really frustrating because about the start of the chase, the team was running better. It was probably the best car in Loudon, and it got swept up in a wreck. And we've had all the motors and all the transmissions and gears done in the same place. We had transmission failure, and we had a motor failure. The other guys didn't experience that the chase.
So when he's running good, something happened. And we just got to be better all the way around. I think when we do that, when Dale sees that we've stepped up in a lot of areas, it will give him the confidence he needs. So we're all over it, and we've been all over it. But it's really one of my focuses here. My priority -- my primary focus here starting this week, starting Monday, really.

Q. Wanted to get an update on your niece and can you tell us what it was like spending the day at the hospital instead of being there with your team? How and what that day was like?
RICK HENDRICK: Thanks, David. Yeah, well, you know I got the call on Friday and it was from her husband. I'm really close to her. She lost her dad and her two sisters in the crash. When he called me, I was concerned. As the day went on it became obvious that this was a critical situation.
I flew home Friday night. You know, everyone said well, there is nothing you can do here after we got -- after Saturday it was just very grim. Sunday the transplant team had came in and they found a liver and were able to operate that day. Saturday she was too sick to even have it. Sunday she picked up just enough.
It was never a doubt in my mind where I needed to be and where I wanted to be. I couldn't have enjoyed the race or the celebration. I mean, I just couldn't. I couldn't enjoy it. I needed to be there with my family.
It's hard to think about it. I mean, I got to go in the waiting room there a couple of times and watch the race. Then I saw the end of the race, but my family needed me.
I was perfectly content where I was. I mean I knew, again, I would love to have celebrate with them, but I wasn't in the frame of mind to celebrate. And they were going to get their job done no matter what, and I had a bigger job to do back here.
So I'm really proud of what they've accomplished, and I want to thank everybody on the call and the outpouring of support from people all over the country. You know, it just goes to show how people feel about you and concerned and all of the competitors. So I thank everybody for that.
The good news is the liver's working and she's stable, and we're going to have a really good Thanksgiving.

Q. When is she expected to get out?
RICK HENDRICK: Oh, it's going to be a while. These transplants are -- her kidneys aren't functioning yet. They should come around and the doctors are very optimistic, but she's very, very sick. When she's not -- she's not conscious yet, but she's responding. You know, we've got -- we're not completely out of the woods yet, but all of the things that the signals are pointing to, everything's working. This is just a very slow process when you have this much of a -- these transplants like this are very serious. You've got to worry about infection, bleeding. So far everything looks good.

Q. First question, can you just talk a little bit about having this kind of success on your 25th anniversary in the sport? And I guess taking a broader view, if you could weigh in a little bit on the increasing foreign influence in the sport between Toyota, Montoya's success, and the possibility that was talked about foreign ownership in recent months. If you could talk about that as well, thank you.
RICK HENDRICK: I guess it happened so quick. When you win a championship and you start a new year, you never take for granted, I never do, that we're ever going to win another one. You see the level of competition out there, and you saw it in that race Sunday night. It was an unbelievable race with as many guys capable of winning.
You can't cash the check until the race is over. You know, you worry about something happening to Jimmie. It was a little bit of a comfort -- a lot of comfort, I guess, knowing it had had to be one of those three. But I just think we had a lot of racing left this year, but the guys work so hard and I'm so proud of them.
Their teamwork and the way they worked together, and to compete against each other week in and week out and share information, I think that really made me proud and happy for the whole organization.
I think the fact that you're seeing drivers like Montoya coming in and ownership maybe from other parts of the world, just speaks to how and what an outstanding or worldwide sport this is.
I got a call from Tom Cruise who is shooting a movie in Austria, I think, Sunday night, to ask about my niece and to congratulate me. He was watching it on some kind of -- on satellite, I guess. So when you have people from all over the world following it and wanting to be a part of it. Drivers from Formula 1 and some of the best talent in the world coming into the sport, it just speaks for the way our sport is viewed by other people.
I think from the manufacturers that are coming in, I think it's all good. I think it helps support other teams and it makes for a lot of competition.
I think it's good to see all of the interest worldwide. I think it's good to have the other manufacturers coming in. You know, it just speaks for the health and the success of NASCAR.

Q. First of all, we're sending prayers for your niece. What a beautiful young girl she is. We'll send our prayers your way for that. Second, I want to ask you about Jeff Gordon really battling it out for Jimmie Johnson. That moment, I don't know if you were able to see that, maybe not, but I'm sure you heard about it. Then to follow it up by asking you about your teams and how you're able to keep all these guys and all these teams around. How much that makes a difference as you chased for this championship?
RICK HENDRICK: Jeff and Jimmie, they battle -- they battle hard. They battle each other hard. It's almost like two brothers wanting to beat each other. I see that with Kyle and kurt, and how hard they race each other in a race.
But, you know, they do it in a clean way. From Martinsville to Charlotte here when they were door to door. It always scares me when I see two of our cars running each other that hard. You see one of them slip and take the other one out because that makes for a bad Monday morning here. But I like the fact that they want to beat each other and the competition is kind of internal here.
What was your second question? I forgot.

Q. Well, it was really about the team guys. I know how important team guys are to winning a championship. But what is it that has you able to keep these guys? You said very little is going to change over there. That's really hard to do. It's hard to keep these team guys year after year. You've been able to do that. What's your secret, you know?
RICK HENDRICK: I think that's priority one for me. I think our people are the biggest asset. If you can keep it together and tweak it, it's much better off than tearing it down and rebuilding it every year. It slows you down.
I've seen this happen in my career here. You can have All-Stars together, there's no guarantee they'll work. I mean, you can guess the best so-called crew chief and best driver in the garage area and put them together, and that's not necessarily going to work.
You know, what I've tried to do is promote tweaking it rather than rebuilding it. I'd rather -- I'm a fix-it kind of guy rather than a strip it and rebuild it kind of guy.
Maybe I procrastinate sometimes too long, but I want to make sure that we make the right decisions. I have to give the guys credit. I mean, they -- I think it helps that Stevie and Allen and Chad grew up here, and lance. I think that it helps that they're not out putting their resumes out. At least I don't know about it. And the drivers putting together with Jimmie a year, year and a half in advance to know that we're going to be racing together through the 2015, and through that season.
You know, we can get your sponsors in place, your drivers and crew Chiefs in place. And you don't have to worry about how is the chemistry going to work? I worked really hard in that area.
You know, it's a situation where they want to be here. They got to believe in the place. They've got to believe in each other. That's kind of a chemistry and kind of a mission statement. I think the communications between the guys is the best it's ever been.
They feel like this is their company because it really is. They built it. They put it where it is. They have pride in it, and I try to share that. I mean to me I'm a very small part of this deal when you look at what Chad and Allen had done and what Jimmie and Jeff have done and Mark Martin. We knew he would help make us better. And Dale trying and not getting up when we stub our toe.
You know, it's just I see guys that came in here as unknown mechanics. Grow up and actually run the company. So I think when you do that and everybody has a voice and everybody has input and every driver we have signed off on Mark Martin. When we do crew chiefs, Ken House will get around to the other guys, and make sure it's compatible. Because we don't want to do anything to tear the place down. We want any change we make to be a positive for everybody.
So it's more of a democracy here. When you have the ability to have a vote and have input, you have to make your decision work. So it's like cosigning a note. We all cosign them together. So I think -- I'm real happy and real proud of the way we've been able to keep it together. But that is a challenge in racing.

Q. You touched on what I was going to ask you. But I kind of want to turn that around a little bit. Looking at a guy like a former Hendrick driver like Brian Vickers. His team makes the Chase. They have all that inexperience rather than that experience.
I guess when you're looking at a team like that, do you understand what they're going through and how difficult it is for a team like that to make the Chase and then perform at a high level? Because obviously the wheels sort of fell off once they he got in there. Can you talk about what kind of things they need to do and how they can improve and get better next year?
RICK HENDRICK: Yeah, absolutely. You know, I think the thing that you have to compliment Jay Frye and Ryan Pemberton on is that they made the Chase. They are a brand-new team, and you've got parts of it that have been there before. Ryan Pemberton is probably one of the sharpest crew chiefs in the garage area. And there is nobody that knows how to put a team together better than Jay Frye. But they only arrived on the scene mid-year.
You know, Brian Vickers' has got a lot of talent. They raced their way into the Chase. It's not so much the Chase, but they'll go back in that off-season and they'll look at where they're weak. They'll look at the tracks that they were weak on. They'll go to work on that. They'll look at the mistakes that were made or the wrecks or whatever got them or kept them from gaining points. They won't make that mistake again.
It sure helps us having three cars in the Chase. We lean on each other a lot. For example, we had a failure in I think it was the 88 car with the valve spring, and the race before California. Our guys went back and pull aid batch of springs that didn't run and proven. And I put them on the airplane with me and eight engine tuners and we flew to California in a hangar and changed all the springs on all our cars, including Tony's two cars to make sure that we didn't have another problem.
You get that kind of routine over years of experience and preparation. You hopefully have something that bites you or doesn't bite you again. You know, so, it's trial and error sometimes.
But then it's learning from -- not so much mistakes. I don't think they're mistakes. But I think they're situations and failures and problems that come up. You know, Ryan Pemberton probably didn't know the tracks that Brian was weakest on. And they'll go back and study set-ups and simulation and everything else. They'll be better. That team will be better next year.
So I think it's, again, just banking on what was said earlier. The longer you keep people together, the more that they work together. If they're headed in the same direction and the chemistry's right, they just get stronger because they've got more experience.

Q. From a businessman's point of view, when you look at this sport and certainly there are a lot of things that are in the sport's favor. But when you look at declining TV ratings, and while it can be argued that competition is strong. There seems to be a perception out there from a number of fans that it's not, and that's kind of leading to their waining interest in some of the events. As a businessman, when you see that kind of a downward trend in those particular areas, how does one reverse that? What are things NASCAR can do or things, you know, is it something as simple as getting the word out in a different way? Is it this is not going to change unless changes are made to the car or things like that? How do you look at it from a businessman's point of view?
RICK HENDRICK: When I look at it here in these buildings sitting over here in the middle of the woods, I think, man, this is a single purpose building. It has 600,00 square feet of it. You know, you can't sink half a ship. You want the sport to be healthy and vibrant and growing because, you know, it's better for all of us. That's why I like seeing different manufacturer's come in and so forth.
I think NASCAR has made some good adjustments this year. I think the Chase was a good thing. I may not like it some years, but I think it's a good thing. I think the double file restarts are going to help the fans and the excitement more than anything else. It's just one of those things that you never know how it's going to end up because when they have a caution with 10 or 20 laps to go, and you've got guys hungry up there and you've got all of the leaders bunched up together, you see them racing each other as hard as you saw down in Florida.
So I think that's going to help us. I think the fact that we're getting ready to start a new year off, the economy's better, I think that we are going to areas that we need to pick up on, and we will. I also think the rivalries are helping. I think having Montoya and Stewart go at it, you know, or Denny and Brad go at it, I think that's kind of good. I think it stimulates a lot of interest.
You don't want to see guys out there wrecking each other, but rubbing and gouging a little bit and trash talking, I think that's pretty good. I may be kind of by myself on that, but as long as it's not one of my guys, I kind of enjoy it. Anyway, I think the sport -- I think NASCAR has done some things this year that's really helped.
As far as the town hall meetings and letting drivers and owners and engine guys come in and be a part of forcing their opinion of what they like and dislike. I think the car -- there are some things that we might be able to do for downforce that will help it. Hey, I went to a town hall meeting and had half the drivers saying take down force away. The other half was saying add downforce. So we can't even agree on anything.
But I think the level of competition here in the second half of the chase with the Childress cars coming on, with the Penske cars running good. Where Denny Hamlin hasn't had the problems he had, would have been right there. I think it's going to be a pretty exciting year next year. There are a lot of hungry drivers, and the competition is fairly fierce.
So as a businessman, I always worry about the health of our sport. But I think we're doing everything we can do to make it better. Hopefully it's going to -- we're going to see it in the ratings and the attendance. At the good racetracks though I looked up in the stands at Bristol it was packed. You know, good crowd at Phoenix. The crowd looked good at Homestead.
You know, some of the tracks that were weak, were weak again. But I like the Saturday night racing. I think everybody's working on how to make it better.

Q. Some of the things you talked about, the things that are going well. But when you do look at the TV ratings and there is a decline there, is too much put into that? Or is that something that is a sign that should be looked at? How do you look at that? I mean, obviously in regards to attendance, there is a number -- part of that can be explained by the economy. No doubt about that. But the TV ratings are still dropping, too. The thought was if the people aren't going to the races they'd be watching it on TV. Yet you maybe don't see that as much. How big of a factor are TV ratings, and what should it be telling people or giving a clue as to what to do?
RICK HENDRICK: Well, you know, I don't know. I think me personally, and I'm no expert, but switching from one -- from fox to ESPN to ABC to ESPN2, whatever, going from 1:00 o'clock to 4:00 o'clock to nights and so forth, I think standardizing the time is going to help. You know, it's -- I really don't know what the answer is.
I know there are a lot of people that still watch it. It's up to us to make it better. I'm not sure I have all the answers, but I think it is definitely a concern when you want to see the ratings at least be as good as they were a year ago. And you want to see them improve.
Hopefully, when we start the year off in Daytona, the things that have been done, like the double-file restarts and all of that will help us make it more exciting. And the fact that we wiped the slate clean and we start new. You've got cars like Denny Hamlin and again, the Childress cars, and Kurt Busch running so well, that people are going to be tuning in and excited about what they're going to see.

Q. I was curious if you were able to tell us anything about what happened to her? We were told she needed an emergency transplant. You know, if something had occurred or if she had been ill. If you're able to divulge any details, I'd appreciate that?
RICK HENDRICK: Sure. Actually I was talking to her doctors this morning. They're somewhat baffled. It was a combination of, you know, she had a pain Korea ass that was enflamed. She was -- she was actually going to the ballgame to watch the Panthers on Thursday night and got nauseated and was throwing up and went back. So she had a virus.
So she had a virus, and she was taking Tylenol thinking her back was hurting. It was giving her a lot of pain. But it was really her pancreas. She had what they call a perfect storm, that all these things together just had her organs shutting down. From a person that was healthy enough to be in the car going to the ballgame to have a virus and trigger all of this. Then no food on your stomach and dehydrated and Tylenol is fairly toxic, I think.
So, you know, from the standpoint of they thought she just needed fluids to all of a sudden her organs shutting down in a 29-year-old healthy person, it was just unbelievable. Just thankful we were here in Charlotte at Carolina Medical Center. And they have one of the best transplant teams and one of the best trauma units.
She was in one of their satellite operations, and they moved her when she became critical Friday night and I flew home. And it just started unravelling right away. I mean it happens, and they say it happens. You don't see it much, but in some cases they never know what really caused it other than the virus, a bad virus, and what they would called attributed from a pancreas already enflamed. Not knowing that, and the liver started going south, it just went in a hurry.

Q. It may be tough to judge while it's still in progress. But I was hoping to get your opinion on how Jimmie's run -- how do you think Jimmie's run will be considered in the context of the sport's history? How should it be judged what he's accomplished in the last four years?
RICK HENDRICK: I don't think people really start looking at where a driver ranks until he's retired or down the road. I mean, I watch David Pearson, and I knew David Pearson was great. And I knew that Richard Petty was unbelievable. But you don't really give them their time in the sun or you don't acknowledge how great they were until after. Usually sometimes they retire or they quit winning.
I think when you look at Jimmie's stats, I don't think he's through. I think he's better this year than he was the year before. He just gets better all the time, he and Chad both.
So I don't think he's through setting records. I think he got to say with looking at what he's accomplished and he was eight points away from this one being number five in a row. He's got to be one of the greatest of all time.
I'm not just saying in this type of race, in NASCAR Cup race. I think with big guys like Montoya come in, and other Formula 1 guys looking at this sport, and IRL people, you know. It's kind of the -- the place the guys want to be. So I don't know how you would not say that he's going to be looked at.
And I've seen written, and I've heard his competitors say it in the last few races. The guy's just awesome. He's one of the best. You've got to be on your game to beat him because he doesn't make many mistakes.

Q. Having had just the best seat in the house for his run, and Jeff's run. What are the comparisons in contrast to those besides great performance on the track?
RICK HENDRICK: Both of those guys are a alike. I'm extremely close to both of them. They're great individuals, great role models. You see a lot of similarities with when Jeff and Ray were kind of, you know winning 13 races in a season, and three out of four years winning a championship. You see a lot of similarities between Jeff and Jimmie there.
To try to say which one is better, you know, history will tell us that as time goes on. But I'm just thankful I had both of them and have both of them now. You don't have to race against them. You know, it's mazing how close they are.
I think about Mark Martin, and I think, well, I've got an audience here. If you could do a graph and you could say just look at Mark Martin when he was in his prime. Jeff Gordon when he was on his hot streak. Jimmie Johnson when he's four championships, and Mark Martin has got enough talent to be over that span among those top guys at their prime to finish second just by just a few points. He's got to be looked at as one of the all time best that's ever done this.
You know I would love to have had him in a car 10 or 15 years ago to see where we would be today, where he would be, as talented as he is.

Q. Enjoyed the great run that Jeff had. Did you ever think you'd get to live through another situation like you're getting to do now with Jimmie? That a lot of people don't get to do that one time?
RICK HENDRICK: You're exactly right. I thought that you'd just be fortunate enough to come and have one of those guys come across your lap here in your lifetime. If you had one Jeff Gordon or one Richard Petty type or David Pearson type guy, you'd be very thankful to have one.
Then to have another one almost duplicate, you know, the same thing. But the one thing I did learn back when we ran and we won four championships back together from '95, '96, '97, '98, don't think because you won four in a row that you can win another one. It might be a dry spell.
So you've got to work awful hard to win one of he these things. There are people that are motivated big time. I can see it in Denny's eyes Sunday night. I could see it before Sunday night. I know Tony Stewart is capable, and he led the points all the way there to the end.
So you just look at all the guys that you know are going to come out swinging next year. But I'm so thankful, and I do not take for granted that I've had some of the best talent in the cars, in my career. You know, Tim Richmond, Jeff Bodine, Darrell Waltrip. I mean, when it's all said and done, I can put a picture of all these guys up and look at it and say, man, I've been pretty darn lucky to have this kind of talent through here.

Q. Wanted to find out -- we found out that Jimmie Johnson is locked up in a long-term contract. He's got Lowe's on board for a few more years. What is the status of Chad Knauss. How many more years on are on his contract and are you looking to lock him up?
RICK HENDRICK: Oh, yeah. We are actually -- you know, Chad is -- we've talked about it. And are working on it. You know Chad and I are looking at other things to secure his future and investments. It's kind of a foregone conclusion between us that he's going to be here.
You know, we've got to get the paperwork done, but we still have a year and a half left. So it's something we're doing. We try to get all our guys in place well ahead of when the contracts are up. So that's underway. I plan for him to retire here. I think that's what he tells me he wants to do.

Q. I'm going to follow up on Chad a little bit. Can you talk about what on do you see for him in the future? Do you see him as a crew chief for the duration? When you talk about some other things to secure his future, are you looking at other things for him to do?
RICK HENDRICK: Yeah, Chad and I have talked about where he would like to be down the road. We've talked about it many, many times. But he is happy. He likes his role as a crew chief right now. You'd have to look at the success he and Jimmie have. He's happy doing that.
But down the road when he's tired of being a crew chief, he can make a big impact on the whole company. He's already doing that. But for the foreseeable future, I'd say for the next five years, and if he gets tired in three, we'll do something else. But he tells me that he wants to do this, and the number he gave me was another five years.

Q. Why is he able to sustain that intensity level the way he is where like Ray Evernham felt like he needed another challenge and had to move on?
RICK HENDRICK: You know, different people respond different ways. Chad has -- you know, you might have to ask him that, but he loves what he does. He enjoys being in the middle of the team. Now the way we work together, he's got input into four teams not just one team.
It really wasn't quite that way when Ray was here. It was more individualized than it is today. So he enjoys the box. He enjoys being the field general. He likes working with Jimmie. They are writing the record books. And he's always looking at what is the next rung on the ladder that we have to accomplish to be, you know, one of the best of all time.
So I think Chad really would be bored doing anything else, and he spends about 20 hours a day, seven days a week planning for the future. He was talking to me by text Sunday night, because I was in the hospital. He was already talking about 2010 and some things he wanted to do. Which I thought, man, you ought to go celebrate this one. But it amazed me how the guys are right back in here Monday morning, digging again. Getting ready for next year.

Q. Is there any update on the talks with Danica at all?
RICK HENDRICK: No, right where I was Friday. I've been, you know -- I know no new news for me.
DENISE MALOOF: Thanks. Rick, thank you so much for your time today. We appreciate it. Congratulations, and good to hear that your niece is doing well.
RICK HENDRICK: Thank you. And Happy Thanksgiving to everyone.

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