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A fast-track education

Brian Vickers really didn’t do anything special by skipping college in order to pursue a career in professional sports. With the number of athletes today taking advantage of the opportunity to go straight into the pros for money, notoriety or any other reason, it’s not surprising to see this 20-year-old Thomasville, North Carolina-native in the professional ranks.

But the difference is that although Vickers didn’t attend a university, he still believes he’s going to school — for an education in professional auto racing.

“I went to the school of hard knocks,” Vickers said. “And I’ve taken plenty of them.”

However, this season Vickers wasn’t the one getting schooled in the NASCAR Busch Series. In fact, Vickers, who drove the No. 5 GMAC car for Hendricks Motor Sports, became the youngest driver ever to win a championship in any of NASCAR’s top three series (Winston, Busch or Craftsman Truck) after an 11th place finish in the Ford 300 at Homestead in the final race of the season on Nov. 15.

“It’s really been a fairy tale,” said team owner Ricky Hendricks, son of Rick Hendricks, the owner of Hendricks Motor Sports. “And to see some of the things Brian has accomplished has been a dream come true. When we were sitting there writing contracts, I was hoping for consecutive top 10s, some top 5s and maybe a win. I never would have thought we would have three wins, almost four wins, and a driver’s championship.

“If you would have told me this would have happened a year ago, I would have told you you were out of your mind. It says a lot about the talent Brian has, and it says a lot about his future.”

Those totals helped Vickers collect nearly $2 million in earnings this season, the largest amount of any Busch Series driver. And now with Vickers’ success this past season, Hendricks decided his driver should make the jump to next year’s Nextel Cup Series, formerly known as the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. His first race, in the team’s No. 25 car, will be the Daytona 500 on Feb. 15.

This success has helped both Vickers and Hendricks remain unconcerned about the opportunities they may have missed had they chose the alternative route, like staying in school and pursuing a college degree. Each believes they have made the right choice, simply because like most young athletes today, the chance to turn pro as early as possible was just too good to pass up.

“I love to learn and college is always something I wanted to do, but I knew if I continued to race and grow at that pace, college just wasn’t possible. It wasn’t feasible,” Vickers said. “Along the way I just prepared to go either way. I kept good grades and I finished school. I wanted to have both, but I didn’t want to give up racing.”

Hendricks, 23, was faced with the same scenario, though he actually gave college a try. He attended UNC-Charlotte for one semester before he realized it was impossible to do both, and he gave up school to pursue a racing career. And that’s one reason why he believes he has an edge over many of the other team owners in the sport.

However, some may disagree because Hendricks isn’t formally educated for the business part of the sport. But he feels he’s making the necessary strides.

“I am in college now, just not in a physical university,” Hendricks said. “I’m learning financial statements (and) accounting every day. (But) I’m doing it in real time; I’m not doing it in class. I’m learning as I go.

“Sometimes you make more mistakes that way and it’s more difficult to learn, but I’m learning it.”

Vickers’ arrival in the Nextel Cup Series coincides with major changes in the most recognized stock car circuit. While a cigarette corporation was the sponsor of years past and the sport focused more on the older generations, NASCAR has shifted to a technology-based company to help promote the sport to a new realm of participants. And both Vickers and Hendricks, who form one of, if not the youngest racer-owner duos in NASCAR, believe it’s the right move.

“I’m very thankful for what Winston did for NASCAR to begin with, and I appreciate everything they did to make the sport what it is. But the great thing is that Nextel is coming on board so now we can go after that younger demographic,” Vickers said. “As a 20-year-old driver I can help NASCAR and help Nextel approach it and charge after that Y-generation; that younger, technology savvy, non-smoking generation. Hopefully, we can bring them into the sport and show them how great it is.”

“More kids are getting into it, more kids are staying focused in it, more parents are spending time and money with their children to prepare them to have this one shot or this one opportunity to be a NASCAR driver,” said Hendricks.

When Vickers contemplates his decision to forego a university education, he finds reassurance in one simple philosophy he learned from another driver when he was still in junior high school.

“He said, ‘I don’t care what you do, just do it and do it 100 percent,'” Vickers said. “And that’s one thing that even before I heard that, it was one thing that I’ve always lived by. It’s always important, especially if you’re not sure what you want to do.

“But this is what I wanted to do. It was my No. 1 priority and I’ve given it 100 percent. I wouldn’t have any regrets as long as I went out there and did the best I could and gave it 100 percent.”