As Reviewed By Michael Daly
In June 1999 Pocono Raceway awarded Rick Hendrick its prestigious Bill France Sr. Award of Excellence. Wrote Speedway Scene when the award was announced, "Rick Hendrick exemplifies the drive, dedication, and ideals long associated with Bill France Sr."
The talk about ideals reeks of irony.
Steve Lynch spent thirteen years with the American branch of Honda Motor Company, and he loves Honda automobiles. This passion helps animate and drive his eyewitness account of the long-running bribery scandal that rocked American Honda and involved one of NASCAR's most powerful team owners. The scandal not only involved Rick Hendrick, it swept others in NASCAR racing as well, through no fault of their own.
Lynch's love of Honda shows in his early account of the dismal state of the American automobile scene circa 1981. There is a certain glee with which Lynch contrasts the high quality of Honda's product with the lesser quality of American marques of the time. Such contrasts in quality were vital, for Honda automobles were selling themselves, unsupported by the kind of extensive marketing campaigns common to auto manufacturers.
But as Honda grew more successful, greed and graft within the American division grew bigger and more audacious, as a gang of car cowboys dipped into the till of corruption and made themselves multimillionaires as a result. Lynch notes how Honda's tightwad employment policies contributed to the atmosphere of thievery.
The prince of payola at American Honda was "the blacksheep son of a well-to-do North Carolina family," John W. "Jack" Billmyer. Billmyer first made himself known as corrupt when he first joined Honda in the mid-1970s. He tried to extort from a Honda motorcycle dealer. When the dealer complained to higher-ups, he was ignored - a trait that would permeate American Honda's approach to the scandal for nearly 20 years.
Billmyer "wallowed in the kickbacks of dealers" throughout the country, and following in his footsteps was his successor as chief of national sales, Stanley James "Jim" Cardiges. Cardiges' own lack of moral scruples first displayed itself in very Clinton-esque fashion around 1977; running a dealership with his uncle, Peter Cardiges, Jim hit on - and ultimately stole - Peter's wife, his own aunt-in-law, Effie.
Such men were natural candidates for criminality.
Rick Hendrick was the biggest dealer influence-peddler to play ball with Billmyer and Cardiges. His relationship with Billmyer went back to Rick's youth as a hot rodder. Billmyer helped Hendrick establish himself in the car sales business and was instrumental in getting him a dealership. Lynch shows how Hendrick wielded undue influence with American Honda and was thus able to acquire more car stores than anyone else. "All it took," Lynch writes, "were a few gifts."
Most car companies limit dealers to about six store. Rick Hendrick, though, didn't believe such a rule should apply to him, and in Honda he found a company that officially did not have such a limit. He nonetheless took no chances; Lynch notes that Hendrick store holdings were frequently in the name of others, notably his brother John Hendrick, and less than $1 million of the bribes Rick paid have ever been recovered.
Lynch shows how Hendrick used bribes and influence-peddling to bankrupt rival Honda dealers and poach their stores. William Van Dalsam of Corono, CA, was one. Dick Young of South Carolina was another. These two cases were directly witnessed by Lynch; there were many other such cases not mentioned in the book because they were not directly witnessed by him. According to Rodger Knupp of Asheville, NC, one such involved former NASCAR driver Dick Brooks; after rebuffing a Hendrick offer to buy his stores, he found cars slated for his stores winding up at Hendrick stores.
This tactic of bankrupting rivals also drives Hendrick's racing, as evidenced by the enormous disparity of Hendrick Motorsports' budgets and engineering compared to those of most other teams.
Lynch also reveals how team owner Junie Donlavey and crew chief Doug Richert wound up getting caught up, through no fault of their own, in Billmyer's corruption. Seeing that Donlavey, a Richmond, VA Honda dealer, needed a crew chief for his team for 1987, Billmyer put the squeeze on a dealer from CT, John Orsini, to put Doug Richert on Executive Honda's payroll. This done, Donlavey had his crew chief. But the deal reeked of quid pro quo, and left a paper trail that would help unearth the massive bribery within American Honda.
Lynch carries the story through the trial and conviction of over 22 defendants, including Hendrick. There is a sense of disappointment in Lynch as he notes that, with Hendrick's guilty plea to one count of mail fraud (pertaining to perhaps the biggest individual bribe he paid Cardiges, a bribe that helped Cardiges buy an obscenely expensive California house), the probe of the Honda scandal seemed to close.
Lynch also notes a lesser-reported angle to the story -- how Hendrick reportedly also bribed Lexus. A cynic might thus question Hendrick's relationship with General Motors as well, given Hendrick's Chevrolet dealerships and the near-monopolistic clout and technical assistance GM provides Hendrick's racing empire.
One might also ask, if Hendrick is such a crook, why so many people so love him. Lynch answers that when he notes that, unlike the lesser dealers who bribed Honda, Hendrick was actually a good dealer, and his dealerships reflect him. Lynch notes Hendrick's generosity, his habit of providing whatever his employees need or want - most notably how he paid for operations on employee family members.
"Rick Hendrick has been a driving force in NASCAR Winston Cup racing," Joseph Mattioli of Pocono stated in announcing the France Sr. award, "and has displayed all the attributes that this award stands for."
Steve Lynch shows us just what attributes Rick Hendrick has displayed. NASCAR fans should be required to read this book.