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Son Living Father's Dream

June 20, 2004|From Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In the 1960s, Joe Henderson III's father was a dirt-track driver and a crew member for Wendell Scott, the only black man ever to win a race on NASCAR's top circuit.

But the elder Henderson quit racing after only a few years, in part because of the discrimination he faced as a black man in a white-male dominated sport.

Now the 19-year-old Henderson is living out his father's dream, teaming up with veteran driver and truck owner Bobby Hamilton as part of NASCAR's new diversity program.

And Dad couldn't be happier about the yellow No. 77 with the name "Henderson" splashed across it.

"He just has a dream he can follow, and as you can see, I'm here with him today to help him follow it," the elder Henderson said.

"I came along in a different generation. Those days are over with," he added. "No longer is there a sign over the water fountain that says, 'Whites only.' "

Diversity programs trying to expand NASCAR's audience beyond its white, Southern roots haven't been very successful in recent years. Bill Lester, who races in the Craftsman Trucks Series, is NASCAR's only black driver this season.

"In order to move up and move farther in life, you have to look past things," the younger Henderson said. "This is a good opportunity."

Race certainly wasn't on Henderson's mind as a young boy when he watched NASCAR races with his father and idolized Dale Earnhardt.

His father realized how badly his son had the racing bug when the 7-year-old cried because he thought he wasn't getting a go-kart for Christmas. (It was hidden in the garage.)

A couple years later, Henderson took apart the go-kart's engine, trying to make it faster for neighborhood races.

"An hour later, I heard the go-kart running. I went back downstairs, and then I knew he had a mechanical attitude," the father said.

The son was 12 when he switched to mini-cars at dirt tracks and tried to lead the first lap of his first race.

"I almost did," he recalled. "Made it three-quarters of the way."

By the next year, he was winning and running as far away as Huntsville, Ala. He moved up to the Legends cars and was 14 when Hamilton started paying attention.

In 2003, Hamilton gave Henderson a car for two races at the Music City Motorplex -- he finished in the top 15 twice.

Then came his big chance.

Businessman Greg Calhoun, who grew up in Alabama watching NASCAR races at Talladega, teamed with Gary Reynolds of The Radiate Group last year to form Access Marketing & Communications, which runs the "Drive for Diversity" program.

The new company advertised for would-be drivers and crew members, and Henderson quickly sent in his application and received an invitation to a January test at Hickory Motor Speedway in North Carolina.

More than 100 people were invited, and Henderson was very smooth driving a Busch car heavier with more horsepower than he was used to.

Hamilton found himself bidding against Joe Gibbs for the teenager. He wanted someone with real talent, and threatened to pull out of the program if he didn't get Henderson -- the driver he has monitored for years.

"At that age, you need somebody to tell you how to use your tools. People that have the talent are very capable," Hamilton said. "I went through it with Bobby (Hamilton) Jr. and Casey Atwood ... Joe's that way. He'll listen."

Kodak, one of the sponsors corralled by Access, chose Henderson almost as quickly, and he was the first of five drivers announced for the program in NASCAR's Dodge Weekly Series.

Through six Late Model races, Henderson ranked fourth in the points race with two top-10 finishes.

He races against fields of 30 cars at a 5/8-mile track known as a great training facility with its 18-degree banked walls and features mimicking NASCAR tracks like a bump in turn 2 that mirrors Rockingham.

Hamilton has a three-year plan for his young protege: Let him learn this year, then give him the best equipment possible to contend in 2005 while possibly testing trucks and a one-mile track.

"Three years from now, there's no reason he can't be running for a Busch or truck program," Hamilton said.

Henderson has spent most of his free time at Hamilton's race shop since graduating high school in May, studying car setups and picking up racing tips from Hamilton.

He's thought about how he'll celebrate his first big victory, and he has his plans for what comes next.

"Move on to more goals," Henderson said.

And that includes plenty of trips to Victory Lane.

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