Friday, December 11, 2009

Richard Childress

Richard Childress is probably the most exciting and exhilarating man in NASCAR. Just in his den alone there's a 15-foot crocodile on the floor, a stuffed South African rhinoceros standing watch and an elephant from Zimbabwe, whose fully tusked head looms over the room.

Richard Childress was born on September 21, 1945 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and at only 17 the former Cup driver and successful owner of Richard Childress Racing (RCR) bought his first race car for only $20. Childress never finished high school, but that never stopped him on his mission for success. He began dating his wife, Judy, in the ninth grade, and they’ve been married since, for more than 40 years. Their daughter, Tina, is married to ex-driver Mike Dillon, director of team operations at RCR.

Childress' career in NASCAR's top levels started auspiciously as a drivers’ strike against tire safety issues at Talladega Superspeedway, which left NASCAR President William France Sr. looking for replacement drivers. Childress was such a driver, and started his first race as a replacement in a Chevrolet Camaro.

By 1971, Childress began racing on the top level as an independent driver, using the number 3 as a tribute to Junior Johnson's historic career in that number. Although he never won as a driver, he proved to be excellent behind the wheel registering, six top-5s, and seventy-six top-10 finishes, with a career-best of third in 1978. "I was an independent driver. I drove the truck, built my engines," Childress says. "You'd pick certain races you'd buy extra tires for or you'd put the new parts in the engine to try to win a race. Those days I was more interested in finishing
and making sure I didn't tear my car up so I'd have money to keep racing."

Richard started RCR in 1972.

Richard finished fifth in the Winston (Sprint) Cup Series point standings in 1975, the highest in his career.

He retired from driving in 1981 after Rod Osterlund sold his NASCAR team to J.D. Stacy, and Osterlund's driver, Dale Earnhardt, did not want to drive for Stacy.

Childress, with recommendations from R. J. Reynolds Tobacco, chose to retire and put his money behind the wheel of his #3 car, complete with Wrangler Jeans sponsorship.

That first alliance lasted for the season. Ricky Rudd was hired in 1982 and drove for two years, giving Childress his first career victory in June 1983 at Riverside.

Earnhardt returned for the 1984 season, and together with Childress formed one of the most potent combinations in NASCAR history. They won championships in 1986, 1987, 1990, 1991, 1993, and 1994, which is all but one of the championships Dale collected.

In the mid-1990s, Childress began expanding his racing empire, fielding entries in the Busch (Nationwide) Series and Craftsman (Camping world) Truck Series.

Richard was awarded the Order of the Longleaf Pine by North Carolina governor Jim Hunt in 1994, the highest honor the state can bestow upon a citizen.

RCR won the 1995 Craftsman Truck Series championship with driver Mike Skinner in the series' first season.

A big decision was made for 1997, Childress followed a few other owners in cutting costs and increasing test dates by adding another team. Childress added Mike Skinner, creating one of the sports' most exciting teams. It didn't take long before his move proved to be an incisive one; Skinner was the fastest qualifier for the 1997 Daytona 500.

Childress thought about leaving the racing business after Dale Earnhardt was killed in a last-lap crash at the 2001 Daytona 500. "Not a day passes that somewhere I don't think about him or talk about him or a race fan doesn't come up and say, 'We miss Dale.' And I'm the first one to tell him, 'We all do,' “Childress says.”I was ready to quit and get out of it that Sunday night in Daytona. Just the thought of having to go back to a racetrack was the furthest thing from my mind. Then, as I talked to my people and my friends, I knew we had to go on. I knew Dale wanted us to go on."

Childress promoted Busch (Nationwide) driver Kevin Harvick to drive the renumbered #29. Harvick would win in only his third start, at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. His win was arguably the most emotional win in NASCAR history. Harvick went on to win the rookie of the year title for Richard. NASCAR and Richard Childress Racing retired the number three, so out of respect it cannot be raced in a NASCAR sanctioned event without prior permission.

Things bottomed out in 2004 when Harvick went winless and Robby Gordon left to start his own team. At that point, Childress, perhaps sipping cabernet along the riverbank, decided to recommit to winning in a big way. One pivotal decision was to hire veteran driver Jeff Burton. Another was to spend the money necessary on research and development.

His current roster of drivers in the Sprint cup series include, #07 Casey Mears, #29 Kevin Harvick, #31 Jeff Burton, and #33 Clint Bowyer. His current Nationwide series roster includes, Jeff Burton, Stephen Leicht, Clint Bowyer, and his grandson Austin Dillon.

With Harvick having won the Busch (Nationwide) Series championship in 2001 and 2006, RCR became the first team in NASCAR history to win all three of NASCAR's national championship series. RCR also won the Busch (Nationwide) Series owners championships in 2003 with Kevin Harvick and Johnny Sauter and in 2007 with Scott Wimmer and Jeff Burton.

His total of 11 national series owner championships is only second to Rick Hendrick in the all-time list.

Richard Childress currently resides in one of the largest mansions in northwestern Davidson County, North Carolina. The Richard Childress Racing Museum is located in nearby Welcome, along with numerous racing maintenance shops. The Childress Vineyards winery is located a few miles south of the museum in Lexington at the US 52/US 64 interchange. Childress remains active in his current county of residence, attending fundraisers and supporting local candidates for office.

Childress, 60, also owns a 700-acre ranch in Montana and a home in Florida. He maintains four aircraft to fly his NASCAR teams from track to track and has amassed collections of classic cars, antique weapons and artwork that would give Smithsonian curators goose bumps.

Childress has become one of the wealthiest men in North Carolina. A recent successful business venture was the 2003/2004 opening of a vineyard in the Yadkin Valley AVA; an American Viticultural Area located in North Carolina, the winery has now won numerous awards, and is famous for its unique wine taste.

Fans gravitate to him, whether in the pits on race day or in the gift shop at his winery, where he gladly obliges autograph seekers, even those who arrive in the parking lot with flags bearing the numbers of rival drivers such as Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson.