NASCAR owner Richard Childress talks about his second-favorite sport, hunting
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The following feature was originally published in the 2004 Athlon Sports Racing annual:
Fans who visit the museum at the complex housing his racing operations don’t need to be told how important the outdoors are to Richard Childress.
Visitors to the museum, which opened last year in Welcome, N.C., just south of Greensboro, see some of the No. 3 Chevrolets in which the late Dale Earnhardt helped Childress win six championships and enjoy some of the most significant moments in NASCAR history.
They also can walk through an impressive display of animals that any nature museum would love to have. These animals are all trophies from the various hunting trips Childress took with Earnhardt, members of his family and friends over the years.
“I look at it as a challenge,” Childress says. “I think that when I gave up driving a race car, I sort of started looking for something that had some adventure in it. When you’re standing out somewhere in Africa with lions or sleeping in a tent on the Arctic Ocean, that’s what you’re getting.”
Childress fields three teams in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series. One of his two Busch Series teams also won the car owner’s championship last season. Childress is joined by Jack Roush and Rick Hendrick as the only three car owners to have won championships in the Cup, Busch and Truck series in their careers.
Out in the woods and up in the mountains, Childress is a champion, too. He’s accomplished many goals that most hunters could only dream of, and it all began in the most simple and traditional manner. “I started out with my stepfather and his father, just going out as a kid hunting rabbits and squirrels and birds,” Childress says. “I got started hunting deer in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and then Dale and I started really going out together a lot.”
Earnhardt and Childress cemented the relationship that became so central to their racing success on dozens of trips into the remote areas of North America and other parts of the world.
It was a memory from one of those trips, in fact, from which Childress drew strength as he tried to keep going in NASCAR after Earnhardt’s death in February 2001.
Childress and Earnhardt had been in New Mexico on a hunting and camping trip on their way to a race in Phoenix.
“I fell off a horse and it just about killed me,” Childress says of an incident he and Earnhardt always called The Big Horse Wreck. “I busted my ribs and cut my head.
“That night in camp, I told Dale, ‘You know, if I had been killed today on that mountain you’d have had to go to Phoenix and raced.’ He said, ‘I couldn’t have.’
And I said, ‘You would have had to. That’s our deal.’
“We made that deal on the mountain that day. So that’s what I had to do after he got killed, too.”
It was with Earnhardt that Childress began to raise his hunting ambitions. After they’d done just about every kind of deer hunting possible, they both decided to start hunting elk.
“I’ve always had a passion for the mountains and the country,” Childress says. “We started with elk, then we hunted for muledeer and bear in North America. We went to Alaska, and then I wanted to go to Africa. I did that every year for about seven years. Then I came back to North America and started hunting sheep.”
Childress has completed what’s called “the grand slam” by bagging all of the major types of sheep in North America. His registered number among all hunters who’ve accomplished that is 910.
On his trips to Africa, Childress also completed the “big five” — bagging a lion, leopard, cape buffalo, rhinoceros and elephant. He also added a crocodile and a hippopotamus, the two additional animals needed for what’s called “the dangerous seven.”
There have been plenty of adventures along the way toward collecting those trophies.
“I have seen some tremendously angry animals,” Childress says. “It’s amazing to see an angry elephant.
“The closest call I ever had was with a cape buffalo. It was real late at night and there was a herd there. I was hunting this bigger one and a slightly smaller one — but still pretty darn big — went off into the woods. I took a shot and it went through one and dropped the other one. About the time I was getting ready to give somebody a high five for the one I had taken, the other one charged us. I was able to shoot him when he was only about 30 or 40 yards away.”
Last December, Childress left the NASCAR awards banquet in New York City and went directly to a polar bear hunt.
“You stay in a tent and sleep on (the) Arctic Ocean,” Childress says. “It’s 50 degrees below zero and all you have is a little kerosene heater. Everywhere you go, it’s serious. You have to be on your toes. It’s not only dangerous because you’re dealing with polar bears but because of the elements around it.
“We were down in Mexico hanging off the edge of a cliff, and if you fall, that’s it. We had to shimmy up the rock to get to where sheep were. You say, ‘Did I actually pay money to come do this?’ I’ve asked myself that several times.”
The hunt is only part of the appeal, Childress says. He’s been places few people have ever been, places accessible only on horseback or at the end of a long day’s hike. He’s shared those memories with friends like Earnhardt, and now he’s passing them along to his grandsons, 13-year-old Austin Dillon and his 12-year-old brother Ty. “Hunting is a part of the heritage of our country,” Childress says. “That how we all used to live, that’s how we survived. That heritage needs to be preserved.
“I was fortunate enough to be involved in helping with conservation efforts that brought elk back to the mountains of North Carolina, where they hadn’t been since the 1700s. Now, maybe my grandsons and generations after them will be able to see them in those mountains.”