Written by: Tom Jensen
Date: 07/15/2012 – 10:10 PM
NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick has been a serious car guy from the time he was a kid, growing up in South Hill, Va., where he and his late father “Papa Joe” Hendrick built a hot-rodded 1931 Chevrolet that Rick drag raced and still has today.
In high school, Rick won the Plymouth Troubleshooting Contest for the state of Virginia back in the mid-1960s, then began buying cars on 90-day notes, fixing them up and selling them. In 1976, Hendrick became the youngest Chevrolet franchise owner in the country, taking over a struggling store in Bennettsville, S.C., and turning it around. It would be the first of many successes at the dealer level.
Today, Hendrick has 80 dealerships and 115 franchises selling 20 different brands of cars in 13 states. Last year, his Hendrick Automotive Group sold more than 120,000 vehicles, with revenue of $4.9 billion. That made his operation the seventh-largest dealer group in the company.
Aside from his racing and dealer interests, Hendrick’s hobby is collecting vintage and muscle cars. He currently has more than 300, better than half of them Corvettes. The Hendrick Heritage Center, which is private and not open to the public, houses a rotating collection of more than 100 cars in 58,000 square feet on the Hendrick Motorsports campus outside Charlotte, N.C.
These days, Hendrick and his associates are regulars at Barrett-Jackson Collector-Car Events, National Corvette Restorers Society shows and other major car events from coast to coast.
And his Hendrick Performance Group is like a cadre of mad scientists, cooking up all manner of exotic performance cars. One of Hendrick’s personal favorites is a jet-black 1970 Chevelle SS convertible with a 638-horsepower Corvette ZR1 motor, a four-speed automatic transmission, four-wheel disc brakes and host of other improvements. It is said to run the quarter-mile in 12 seconds flat.
Among the projects HPG is working on is a 200-mile-per-hour police interceptor, based on the Chevrolet Caprice.
“What we want to do is build a car, build all the components for it — the push bar, the lights and all that — and then have some engine packages,” said Hendrick, adding the car will carry a 650-horsepower Chevrolet LS7 crate motor. “If a state trooper in North Carolina wanted a high-speed pursuit car, that’s really set up aerodynamically — springs, shocks, the whole deal — that’s a pretty cool deal.”
In an exclusive interview with SPEED.com, Hendrick talked about his passion for buying and selling collector cars.
Asked what his advice would be to new collectors, Hendrick chuckled at some of the mistakes he’s made in the process.
“I’ve paid my tuition,” Hendrick said. “Anybody who’s bought a lot of ‘em, you’ve made mistakes and you overlook something and that just happens.”
Hendrick is a firm believer in collecting cars that are original and fully documented.
“If you want to be safe, you buy a car that’s been judged, with paperwork,” Hendrick said. “No matter what it is — if it’s a W-30 Oldsmobile that’s been certified by someone who’s very reputable, and it has all the paperwork, build sheets. And you can look at the trim tag and know it hasn’t been changed.”
In the case of his beloved vintage Corvettes, Hendrick likes those certified by the National Corvette Restorers Society as winners of both the Top Flight Award — presented only for cars that have been meticulously preserved or painstakingly and accurately restored to original standards — and the Duntov Mark of Excellence Award. The Duntov designation is given only to Top Flight winners that also pass a rigorous on-road performance evaluation.
“If you buy a ’67 Corvette that’s been judged Top Flight, you know pretty much that in that car, the motor’s right, the trim tag’s right and all that’s right,” Hendrick said. “If you get a Duntov car, which I like to buy — those are the ones I really go after — that means it’s been through a performance evaluation and a Top Flight (status). That’s money in the bank. That’s gold. That’s like buying gold and going and putting it in a safe. You’re not going to get hurt there.”
Of course, Duntov-level cars are more museum pieces than cars suitable for daily use. For that, Hendrick prefers “resto-mods” like his 1970 Chevelle SS that have been updated with state-of-the-art technology to enhance real-world driving fun.
“The cars I really enjoy driving are the resto-mods,” said Hendrick. “Say, a ’62 Corvette with an LS7 motor and a new drivetrain. But what you have to be careful with there is technology is changing every year. Three or four years ago, you’d use one of the ZZ4 crate motors and that would be the hot ticket for a resto-mod.
“Today, (it’s) LS7s, electronic fuel injection and all that. And if you open the hood and you saw that ZZ4 and saw the same car with an LS7, I’d pay $40,000 more for this car today. So you’ve got to be careful that you don’t get outdated if you buy a resto-mod.”
Hendrick’s team is always busy with restorations, be they Duntov-level Corvettes, resto-mods or both.
“The car builds, we have several of those going on right now, I think it’s four of those,” Hendrick said. “But it just takes so much time the way I want it done: You blast the body, you put it on a rotisserie, everything, all the sheet metal, go back through the drivetrain. If I’m going to go that far, I want to go through the motor.
“I just finished an L-88, (1968 Corvette), which is probably one of the nicest ones in the country. It’s a red/red convertible. … I’ve spent three years on that car. I mean if I added up all the hours I’ve got in it, it just doesn’t make sense. But it’s something I’ve been wanting to do.”
And if you’re Rick Hendrick, if you can dream it, you can pretty much do it.