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NASCAR Hall of Fame

Hendrick driven to help

For Rick Hendrick, crayon-scrawled notes of thanks beat a title any day

Monday, Feb. 21, 2011

When the 2011 racing season opens today with the Daytona 500, Rick Hendrick’s motorsports organization will begin competing for its 15th NASCAR championship – and sixth straight with driver Jimmie Johnson.

But Hendrick says all of those trophies mean less than the satisfaction he gets flying relief missions to Haiti.

“I have these letters from kids, orphans. They’re written in crayon saying, ‘You’re an angel. We love you… You saved our life,’” Hendrick says. “That stuff means more to me than any championship we’ve ever won – just knowing that we could have had a part in saving somebody’s life.”

When the devastating 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti last year, killing an estimated 300,000 people, Hendrick was among the first to offer his company’s planes to fly in rescuers and relief supplies as Haitians searched the rubble for survivors.

Hendrick, 61, knows what it’s like to have family trapped and feel powerless to help them. His son, Ricky, died in a 2004 plane crash on a foggy mountainside that rescuers struggled to reach. His family also had visited Haiti and previously been moved by the plight of such impoverished people.

Hendrick’s flight crews, who typically fly mechanics and tire changers to races across the country, converted the team’s three private airplanes into rescue planes. At a cost of about $300,000, they made 30 flights to Haiti, carrying more than 1,800 people in or out of the country. They included teams of doctors, United Nations representatives, missionaries, Haitian evacuees and orphans who had been adopted by American families.

“Thousands of lives were saved by the (relief) teams that Hendrick brought in,” says Dick Snook, president of Missionary Flights International, a Florida charity that helped coordinate relief flights to Haiti.

Hendrick’s planes have delivered nearly 100,000 pounds of supplies, including tents, cots, wheelchairs, medicine and bandages. The 45-seat, SAAB 2000 jets have come to be known as Angel Wings 1, 2 and 3 – names now painted beneath the pilots’ windows.

And while the international outpouring of aid to Haiti has slowed over the year, Hendrick continues regular flights to the island nation, including two in January on the anniversary of the earthquake.

“There is still a need,” he says. “We feel like God has blessed us…We haven’t finished yet. As long as I can, I will.”

Moved to action

Hendrick says his work in Haiti was meant to be. There were so many signs, he says.

In just one example, Hendrick recalls how three weeks before the earthquake he and his wife, Linda, were admiring a decorative, handmade boat Linda bought from a group of poor children during a visit to Port-au-Prince years earlier.

“Linda was saying how tough it was to see those kids,” Hendrick recalls. “And right after that, it happens – the earthquake.”

When they saw those first graphic images from Haiti, a crying mother and child searching rubble for loved ones, the Hendricks decided they had to do something.

Hendrick grew to prominence in Charlotte as he built one of the country’s most successful automotive sales companies, now with more than 90 franchises across the country. He also used his business savvy to create one of racing’s most competitive teams, featuring popular drivers Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

He confronted adversity, too – from the death of his son to his own bout with leukemia, to his 1997 conviction for mail fraud in connection with an alleged bribery scheme to benefit his dealerships. Hendrick, who has consistently denied the government’s bribery allegations, spent 12 months in house confinement and ultimately won a pardon from President Bill Clinton.

Throughout his life, Hendrick says, he has felt drawn to helping those in need, mostly because that’s what he learned growing up in rural Virginia. “No one had a lot,” he says, “and everyone helped everyone.”

As Hendrick considered how he might help the earthquake victims, he thought back to relief efforts his team launched in 2005, when they flew Charlotte doctors to help after Hurricane Katrina.

Dick Snook couldn’t believe it when Hendrick’s aviation director Dave Dudley called to offer the use of a team plane in Missionary Flights’ effort to help Haiti.

Snook later framed Dudley’s written message: “aircraft available…call if interested.”

Struck by tragedy

The Haiti earthquake stirred painful memories for the Hendricks.

On Oct. 24, 2004, several family members, friends and colleagues were on a team plane headed to the NASCAR race in Martinsville, Va., when it crashed in heavy fog in the Virginia mountains.

The plane was lost for hours until a helicopter team spotted the wreckage in a secluded spot on Bull Mountain.

“It was the most horrible thing in the world to know that you’ve got your loved ones in a place that you can’t reach,” says Hendrick. “Whatever you think hell is, it’s worse.”

He knew his loved ones were dead, but he wanted to bring them home.

Rescuers from the Patrick Henry Volunteer Fire Department made a grueling four-hour trek up the rugged mountain in the cold. They used chainsaws to cut a path for their four-wheelers.

Ten people died in the crash. Among the victims were Hendrick’s 24-year-old son, Ricky; his brother, John Hendrick, 53, and his twin nieces Kimberly and Jennifer Hendrick, 22.

Rescuers spent two nights on the mountain, planning the recovery operation and watching over the victims.

“Emotions were high,” fire chief Jerry Adams remembers. “Whether you’re a Rick Hendrick racing fan or not, this ordeal happened to a family…When you see something like that, it’s just like ‘Gosh, how sad.’”

Hendrick feels indebted to the rescue teams.

“They camped out on top of that mountain,” he says. “They stayed there until they got them out…I just know that when we found out that they had gone up there and stayed, and they were volunteers, and some of them had other jobs…that’s a sacrifice to do that for people you don’t even know.”

Providing a haven

Those who know Hendrick say his devotion to Haiti is not surprising.

“He lost his son…He lost best friends. He’s had cancer. You get to a point in your life that you feel that the good Lord put you here for some reason,” says Felix Sabates, a NASCAR team owner and both friend and competitor of Hendrick.

“When you go through the tragedies that he’s gone through, you ask, ‘Why am I still here?’ The purpose is not to make money.”

Sabates cites Hendrick’s $1 million donation to help build an auto technology center at Central Piedmont Community College. The Hendricks also gave $3 million to the Levine Children’s Hospital, which named its pediatric intensive care facilities for their son.

Other racing teams, including those fielded by Joe Gibbs and Michael Waltrip, have sent planes on Haiti relief missions. The NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball each gave at least $1 million. And individual teams and players also have donated to the effort.

Dudley, the aviation director, says Hendrick’s planes not only ferry medical supplies and volunteers to help Haitians, they have become a haven for the relief workers.

They sometimes weep as they board the plane home, he says, after weeks of intense work in desperate conditions.

Sitting in the air-conditioned jet with a cold drink, volunteers often feel safe for the first time to let their guard down. Flight crew members have found themselves listening to relief workers as they process what they’ve experienced.

“We want to be a refuge when they get on the airplane,” Dudley says. “Those are some small things we could do to help people doing the heavy lifting.”

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