Ricky Hendrick was just starting his NASCAR success before his death.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- It was hard to take Ricky Hendrick seriously. With his bleach blond hair and trademark flip-flops, he looked more like a beach bum than a NASCAR team owner.
But at just 23-years old he was making it, and this year was supposed to be his crowning season. Both his prot & eacute;g & eacute;s would be in the Nextel Cup series and operating out of a brand new race shop he helped create.
Only he didn't live to see any of it happen.
Hendrick was one of 10 people killed last October when the company plane they were on crashed en route to a race in Virginia. The accident devastated the front office of one of NASCAR's most powerful teams and took Rick Hendrick's only son -- the heir who needed just two years to convince the world that he was capable of someday taking over the entire empire.
"He had every opportunity in life to turn out to be a stuck-up brat, but instead he turned out to be a phenomenal person," Brian Vickers told The Associated Press on Friday, in the first interview he has given since the Oct. 24 accident.
"He always treated people equal even though he had every toy imaginable. He lived life to the fullest and worked hard to be a car owner and had fun doing it."
Vickers and Kyle Busch will both start Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500 with heavy hearts and Ricky clearly in their thoughts. Both are in their positions with Hendrick Motorsports, teammates to Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, because of Ricky.
It was Ricky who fought to the end for the right to hire Vickers when his father gave him a Busch team to run. Hendrick had other ideas who should drive the car, but Ricky wanted Vickers.
"He told his dad that if this was really going to be his team to run, then he had to be allowed to pick the driver," Vickers said. "But if Rick was going to make the decisions and not let Ricky have all the control, then Ricky didn't want anything to do with it.
"He had to fight for me and for that, and I think he earned his dad's respect because he was so passionate about it."
That battle over, Ricky and Vickers teamed to win the 2003 Busch championship -- the first for Hendrick Motorsports. Along the way Vickers moved into Ricky's North Carolina home, where Gordon was also shacking as he finalized his divorce.
There were five roommates in all, and Hendrick often laughed about the "frat house" his son was running. They went fishing together and to the beach, lounged around in sweat pants and T-shirts and helped one another through difficult times.
When Ricky's grandfather died last spring, he urged his friends not to mourn him with a traditional funeral: Ricky wanted them to wear neon suits and, of course, flip-flops.
"He said, 'Man, funerals suck. I want mine to be entertaining,' " Vickers said. "He was talking like it was going to be 80 years from now. Not months."
Ricky died on Vickers' 21st birthday. All his friends wore flip-flops to the funeral.
Ricky won a Busch title and smoothly moved Vickers up to the Nextel Cup level last season. He convinced his father to build a single shop that would house Vickers and Busch's teams, and oversaw the design and construction, carefully planning an office separated from his father's by a conference room. He also owned a motorcycle dealership.
All the while he never changed, even as his business skills got better and better. Two of Busch's favorite memories of Ricky center on Ricky's pet monkey "Rascal" and the time he surprised Busch in the garage one day.
"He came in wearing flip-flops," Busch said. "No one can get away with a pair of flip-flops in the garage except Ricky."