Carrying On The Family Tradition
Tuesday, July 8, 2003
Billy Hendrix loves the race track. Loves it so much that, at 49 years old, he just bought his first Legends car. He says he is now fulfilling a dream, racing at Atlanta Motor Speedway in the Thursday Thunder series.
You might wonder how that could be, given that Hendrix lost his father at a race track. Especially given that Hendrix, then 9 years old, was watching the night his father gunned the accelerator down the frontstretch during a warm-up lap and never turned, barreling straight into the wall. Given that the crew guys who had helped extricate his father from the car said it wasn¿t good, that J.C. Hendrix - once an aspiring NASCAR driver - had obviously severe injuries. Given that all of that is a lot for a 9-year-old to comprehend.
Hendrix might wonder that sometimes, too. His mother, Etheleen, certainly does.
¿She liked to have a fit when I told her I was going to race,¿ Hendrix said. ¿It scares the hound out of her. But I¿ve been dreaming of doing this my whole life.¿
Etheleen was there during the glory days of her husband¿s racing career, traveling to dirt tracks all over the Southeast with him as he raced ¿skeeter¿ cars - basically chopped-off sedans with huge motors. She watched as her husband won races on the smaller tracks, then moved up, eventually being offered the chance to go racing at Atlanta International Raceway (now Atlanta Motor Speedway) in a NASCAR race.
J.C. Hendrix, a Chevrolet employee, was asked to drive for the company in the fall 1962 race at AIR. His family was there, his car was there, and he was ready to make his debut when he received the call that his mother had been killed in an automobile accident.
Soon after, J.C. Hendrix was working at the Chevrolet plant in Atlanta when a welder attached to a trolley on the ceiling fell and hit him in the back of the head. He was knocked unconscious, and doctors put a plate in his head. After that, NASCAR wouldn¿t let him drive in the premier series. But the little local tracks didn¿t have such strict regulations, so J.C. went back to driving skeeters.
That¿s what he was doing that night in 1963 in Cleveland, Tenn., when he barreled into Turn 1 at full speed and hit the wall, in front of his 30-year-old wife and three young boys.
¿They don¿t really know what happened, even to this day,¿ Hendrix said. ¿They don¿t know if something happened to him before he ever got to the turn. That¿s what it looked like, because he never turned, he just went straight into the wall.
¿We didn¿t know right off how bad it was. We just knew it was serious. We had to go to the hospital, and by then some of the crew guys who had gotten to him first were telling us how bad it was - that he had obvious serious injuries. Eventually the doctors at the hospital came out and told us he had died. It was really hard on our mom. And of course it was hard for us ¿ we were kids. We went hysterical. What do you do, my Lord? My mom was 30 years old and had 3 boys."
In the four decades since his father¿s death, Billy Hendrix has had a lot of time to think. He grew up without a father, and it would be very easy for him to blame racing for that. But he doesn¿t waste time with blame.
¿I¿ve always been one who thinks if it¿s your time to go, it¿s your time,¿ Hendrix said.
Maybe that¿s why it¿s so easy for Hendrix to focus on all of the good memories. He remembers going to races at the Peach Bowl in Atlanta, and selling programs with his brothers. He remembers the year that the Peach Bowl was giving out a ¿Driver of the Year¿ award. The ballot was on the bottom of the program, so as they sold them, the Hendrix boys would help the undecided fans come up with a favorite driver. Their father ran away with the award.
¿Racing is something I always shared with him,¿ Hendrix said. ¿We were always at the race track with him, and always working on the cars. The rest of my family doesn¿t much like racing anymore, but I love it. I never had a second thought about doing this one day.¿
To honor his father, Hendrix is running the same car number (33) and color (red) as his dad did on that day back in 1963. He is also working out of the garage his father built more than 40 years ago on the lot next to the family¿s home in Griffin, Ga.
¿I miss him, but working there at the shop, being at the race track - it makes me feel closer to him,¿ Hendrix said. ¿I do wish he had left some notes around there. I wish I knew what he knew. Because he could sure drive.¿