It's a beautiful afternoon in the Fall of 2007. Multicolored leaves paint the skyline. Me and a handful of friends meet at Lowe's Motor Speedway early in the afternoon. Today we are here to do more than just watch a race. Today, as we are yet to realize, is going to be one of the greatest moments NASCAR fans could ever share.
My buddy Bill had just purchased a new truck from one of Hendrick's car dealerships and they were running a promotion where if you bought a certain truck, you got a tour of Hendrick Motorsports, arguably the flagship owner in the Sprint Cup garage.
Our expectations were low going in. It was race-day after all and fans would be crawling through the Hendrick Motorsports Museum and Gift Shop. We figured we would be in a group of 50 to 100 people and we would be shown around the campus and shown on our way. We were instructed to meet in front of the gift shop at 1:00 PM.
We arrive and there is not a soul around. There are people coming and going but no one waiting on any tours. We begin to wonder if we might have missed it. Maybe they started early. Then out of nowhere we hear someone shouting my friend's last name. He is here to give us a tour. Just...the...six..of...us!
We start in the museum. T-Rex is there, so are the Daytona 500 winning cars, a crumpled mess that Ken Schrader wrecked, the Amp Energy and National Guard cars are on display as the announcement is fresh that Junior is on his way to the promise land. The tour guide explains the various car parts, we look at trophies, and take pictures. We expect the tour is about over when we are informed that if we all want to take a break, we will then begin the behind-the-scenes tour.
It is about this time we all look at each other and begin to think real hard about how we are ever going to repay Bill. We start to think making his truck payment might be in order. Then, we finally reside to the fact that nothing we could ever do will repay him for this day.
We begin in the Fab Shop. Signs hang on the doors, "Authorized Personnel Only" and "No Cameras or Video Equipment Beyond This Point". It smells like welding equipment, burnt medal, grinding disks, and long hours bending metal and mashing fingers. English wheels line the entrance wall. Tubing in neat stacks. Templates hang from above. Hendrick banners fly proud.
Respect, Confidence, Teamwork, Determination, and countless other motivators hang from the rafters. I stand there with my mouth on the floor. We hear stories of Mechancial Engineers from Purdue University coming here and sweeping the floors for years just to get a shot to work here. I begin to understand why.
We move into the Engine Shop. It smells of exhaust, oil, and engine fluids. More signs behind the reception area. We are reminded to put our cameras away. We enter and are greeted by over a dozen engines ready for deployment. Built, tested, and certified. Their tags show who is responsible for not only making this pony, but who is going to take ownership of how it rides.
We walk up the ramp into the Machine Shop passing the Engine R&D Center which is under wraps. It appears that no amount of truck buying can get you through those doors. Haas CNC fabrication machines fill the room as far as eyes can see. Numerous car parts in various stages of development line racks next to each machine. Pistons on one. Raw metal in another. Despite this, there isn't a metal shaving on the floor any where. Matter of fact, you could eat off of anything we have seen so far.
We finish in the 24/48 shop. It is the weekend after Talladega. Jeff Gordon passed Jimmie Johnson on the final lap for the win. Jeff's race winning Pepsi car sits in a line. The nose is busted from all the bump drafting. It is covered in confetti. We walk passed other cars: 24, 48, 48, 24. Some just raced, some ready for testing. The cars that are going to be raced the following weekend at Martinsville are sitting on scales, waiting for their time to be loaded into the hauler.
It's close to 3:00 PM on Saturday, the day of the race and the Shop Manager is at work. He says he is "finishing a few things" before the race begins. He is happy and it is easy to see why. They are a team. They work together, win together, and lose together. A family. He tells us all of these things and we believe him.
A door opens and Jimmie Johnson and Rick Hendrick walk in. We are standing in THE 24/48 shop with THE Rick Hendrick and THE Jimmie Johnson. We talk, like old friends. Rick smiles, shakes our hands, and thanks Bill for buying that vehicle. He makes a few jokes. We take pictures. Mr. Hendrick has built an empire in this room and for those ten minutes, I could not tell the difference between him and I.
I ask Jimmie if he was worried about the last lap pass at Talladega, as previously Vickers had wrecked him coming to the white flag, and he laughs and tells us that it did cross his mind. He signs autographs. I have everything but my underwear signed and he just laughs each time I pull something out of my pocket and signs away. He is polite, well spoken, and he laughs even when he may not really need to. You can tell he is busy but he does not rush. He lets us take our time and he gives us our fifteen minutes, then he runs out of the room so he can go do his job.
We finish and I am emotionally spent. Like an action movie or a great drama I am almost glad it is over. The tour guide asks us if there is anything else we would like to see. I cannot imagine anything else in that moment worth seeing. Rick thanks us again, as if we are the ones who are doing him a favor. Almost like he is visiting our home. We leave and drive across the street to watch this team in action.
Jeff Gordon goes on to win that night and Jimmie Johnson finishes 14th after leading the most laps. The 24/48 Shop accounts for 8 of the final 12 wins of the 2007 season and at one point wins 6 in a row. Jimmie Johnson is the 2007 Sprint Cup Series Champion on his way to a unprecedented four-peat at the top of the standings.
Every time I see Rick Hendrick or I witness the 24 or 48 hoist another trophy, I think back to that tour. The cleanliness of the shops, the smells, the motivational posters hanging from the ceiling, and the shine of the floors. Every single aspect of every piece of that operation in it's place. The smiles on the employee's faces. The humbleness of a great man who almost does not realize how great he is and how much he has changed this sport. The politeness and down to Earth attitude of a champion. I think back to all of these things and I remember, they have earned it.
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