Being involved in auto racing for over 20 years gave me opportunities and experiences that I could have never imagined possible.
One of the most incredible experiences happened in the fall of 2004 – courtesy of Hendrick Motorsports.
In early 2004, I had joined Formula BMW USA and had taken on overall series responsibility. Soon after the series was announced, Tom Purves, who at the time was Chairman & CEO of BMW North America, called his friend – one of the most successful BMW dealers in the USA – Rick Hendrick and asked him to participate in this new series. I am not privy to the conversation(s), but when the series debuted at Lime Rock Park in the spring of ’04, there was one open-wheel Formula BMW race car on the grid owned by NASCAR icon – Rick Hendrick. Mr. Hendrick didn’t own the team that operated the car, he just owned the car and was listed as the car owner. The driver of the car was Brian Frisselle (who now competes in Grand-Am in a Daytona Prototype), the sponsor on the side of the car was Lowe’s, and the car number was 48.
My contact at the Hendrick Motorsports was Christian Smith who is Mr. Hendrick’s right hand man.
As the season went on, I would send results, pictures, media coverage and other info to Christian and we would talk from time to time about how the series was doing. Through Christian, we arranged to have representatives from Lowe’s at the Elkhart Lake event, where we showed them the marketing assets available through our series, and the series that we supported.
Sometime in the summer of 2004, Christian contacted me and invited me to be the team’s guest at any NASCAR Sprint Cup race on the schedule that I wanted to attend, as a ‘thank you’ of sorts for their experience with our series. I selected the October Charlotte race.
I flew into Charlotte on Thursday night of the race week. The Busch race was Friday night, and the Cup race was Saturday night. Christian was to pick me up at my hotel on Friday morning, which he did, and we headed for the race shop.
Christian took me on an extensive tour of the Hendrick Motorsports compound which included the engine and fab shops, the shops for the Cup teams and the Hendrick Museum. At the time, the 24 & 48 teams were in the same shop and we did get the chance to chat with Jeff Gordon as we went through. Chad Knaus also took time to say hello and express his delight with his brand new BMW.
As we went through the Museum, there was an area that was completely blocked off. Brian Vickers was doing a television commercial and promos for GMAC – one of his sponsors at the time.
This tour took the better part of the day and we ended up back at the administration offices. Our schedule now was that we were going to meet with Mr. Hendrick and then go with him over to the track to watch the Busch race.
After a nice conversation with Mr. Hendrick in his office, he said “Alright… let’s go”, and those three words set off a choreographed series of events worthy of induction into the “Time Management & Schedulers Hall of Fame.”
First, we left the office through a rear door and entered a garage with a black BMW X5. With Mr. Hendrick at the wheel, we left the garage and I assumed we were driving to the track – which is maybe one mile away. I was mis-guided. We actually drove about 100 yards and stopped in front of a helicopter that has obviously just landed. Whenever the conversation of helicopters had come up, anytime in my life, I was adamant that I would never, ever get on a helicopter. Before I knew what had happened, I was strapping into a helicopter! There was the pilot – an ex-military pilot (of course) – and there was one other gentleman – the Chairman of Lowe’s. The flight lasted 45 seconds. I was petrified. That was my first, and last, ride in a helicopter… or was it?
When we landed, there were two black Chevy SUV’s at the ready. Mr. Hendrick, Christian and I got into one, and the Chairman of Lowe’s – the other. The paddock gates opened, the seas parted and we were wisked to Mr. Hendrick’s motorcoach.
When we went into the coach, we immediately sat at the kitchen table and a perfectly prepared dinner was placed in front of us. Steak and roasted potatoes. Spectacular. As soon as we were done, the coach door opened and two gentlemen entered. They were well-dressed, in their early 40s, and clearly friends of Mr. Hendrick. I figured out that one of the men was Mr. Hendrick’s doctor who had recently performed surgery on one of his knees. The other – who was quite chatty – I couldn’t figure out. I wish I could have recorded the conversation though. They talked about a recent charity event that they had attended and how they had tricked Jeff Gordon into all kinds of things that he had not agreed to for the auction. If I recall, the auction item was dinner with Jeff. Mr. Hendrick, in an effort to drive up the bids, told the audience that in addition to dinner, Jeff would pick the winning bidder up in his car and drive them to dinner. When that bump in bidding was over with, Mr. Hendrick then announced that Jeff would also pick them up “anywhere in the USA” in his private jet as well. These guys thought that was real funny. Not sure how Jeff felt about it. After they were gone, I leaned over to Christian and asked who that was. He casually answered… “That was the Mayor of Charlotte”.
We then dispersed to the track for the Busch race. We spent some time on pit lane, and then visited Mr. Hendrick’s suite, and then back to the pits… and then checkered flag…. and then back to the helicopter… what???
I grudgingly got on the helicopter for the return trip and we were joined by Mr. Hendrick’s son Ricky, his girlfriend and their pet monkey. The monkey did not appear to mind the helicopter ride and I am positive it sensed my overwhelming fear.
For Saturday, we drove to the track and Christian had lots to take care of. I told him that I knew my way around and we agreed to meet at the 48 team’s pit box one hour before the green flag – which we did. Christian then gave me some instructions. He told me to try to be in the 48 pit box area for the first pit stop – and then he said to make sure I was back in the pit box with 10 laps to go.
For the first pit stop, he escorted me so close to the action that I could have reached out and tapped the gas man on the back.
Great stuff… and then the rear tire changer scooped up some wheels nuts and set them on the wall in front of me. He told me “these are for you – but they’re hot – don’t touch them yet”. This was all part of the choreography I mentioned early and these guys had done this many times before. Christian told me I could stay there or go wherever I wanted to, but reminded me to be back – at the latest – with 10 laps to go…. which I was.
When I got back, I let Christian know I was there. Jimmie Johnson was leading the race by the way. Christian then said “No matter what – make sure you stay with me after the checker flag…. “.
Jimmie won the race…. Christian and I jumped over pit wall and we sprinted down pit lane towards Victory Circle. He ushered me in and told me to “stay put” and that he would be coming back to get me. I was there for the champagne and confetti, the interviews and the hat dance.
After about 30 minutes, Jimmie went to the media center, the crew pushed the car out… and everyone, including Christian left. This was midnight… by the way.
So… there I was… staying put. There were a few people lingering about, but it looked to me like it was all over. What should I do? Well… I waited, and sure enough, shortly thereafter… here comes Christian, Mr. Hendrick, Jimmie and Chad. Christian grabs me and tells me to come up for a picture with the guys and the trophy… which I did.
What a weekend. First class at every step of the way.
Sincere thanks to Christian, Mr. Hendrick and the rest of the choreographers for the great memories!
And of course now… if anyone ever asks if I have been on a helicopter, my answer is… “Yes…. twice…. it was Rick Hendrick’s helicopter and my second ride was with a pet monkey.”