The 2019 season marked Richard Childress’s 50th in NASCAR.
He debuted as a driver in 1969 and raced for parts of 12 seasons before stepping out of the car after the 1981 season to focus on team ownership. As difficult as that was to do, it has worked out well. He teamed up full-time with Dale Earnhardt before the 1984 season, and life hasn’t been the same since, for Childress or for NASCAR.
All told, Richard Childress Racing has fielded cars that have run 2,994 Cup races, with 108 wins, 489 top 5s, and 1,076 top 10s. Through 2015, his teams had won $247 million in prize money. (NASCAR stopped releasing such numbers after that season.)
Childress has soared to the highest of highs, as his teams have won six championships (all by Earnhardt) and three Daytona 500s (one each by Earnhardt, Kevin Harvick and Austin Dillon, Childress’s grandson). He also has weathered the lowest of lows, with Earnhardt’s death in 2001.
As Childress, 74, enters his second half-century in NASCAR, he talked with Athlon Sports about his career so far.
You famously got your start by selling peanuts and popcorn at Bowman Gray Stadium, the famed short track in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. How old were you?
8 or 9 years old, something like that.
Can you imagine your own kids or grandkids doing that?
In today’s world, a kid couldn’t do what we did because of the danger. We walked to the racetrack. It would be two or three of us. In today’s world, kids can’t get out and walk like we did.
What was the secret to selling a ton of peanuts and popcorn?
Try to beat everybody to the good places.
Is that when you fell in love with the sport? What captivated you about racing?
Going down there and hanging out with the drivers as a kid. Just watching them, the lifestyle, wild and free, the way they lived. I thought, that’s what I want to do some day is be a racecar driver.
Did you have a hero?
Curtis Turner. He was pretty wild.
What happened in your driving career that you never became a star?
I never had the money. I’ll never know if I had the talent. I was always an independent driver. I worked on the cars. I drove the trucks, cleaned the bathrooms, drove the cars, built the engines. I did it all.
You couldn’t do that now.
You don’t have real independents today that do that. Alan Kulwicki [the 1992 champion who died in a plane crash in 1993]would have been one of the last ones. Back in those days, it was four or five, six teams that really had the backing and the money. The rest of us were independents. If you had a good day, you’d finish in the top 10. I had 70-something top 10s out of 200-some starts. That’s not too bad. (Editor’s note: 76 out of 285)
How many owner wins would you trade for one driver win?
Back then? None. I enjoy what we’re doing today.
What was your first big break?
1969 in Talladega. Everybody boycotted [as star drivers refused to race over safety concerns]. We stayed over and raced. Back then, the Frances [NASCAR’s founders] would give you $500 in deal money to come and run the Grand American cars. You’d win maybe $1,000, $1,200, $1,500. When they boycotted, I left there with $3,000 or $4,000. It was more money than I had ever seen. I came back home, bought a corner lot and built a race shop.
When did you first meet Dale Earnhardt?
I met him in, I guess, 1976. That’s the first time I can remember racing against him. We ran a race in Charlotte at Metrolina. I sat on the pole and won the race. Dale finished second. He come up to me and grabbed me — you know how Dale was — and said, “Next time I race you, I’ll beat you.” Who ever knew that day when he walked over that our history would become what it was.
What made you hire him?
I could see the sport changing. It was changing fast. I had let some people know, if the right opportunity came along, I would get out of the car.
Was that a tough decision, to quit driving?
It was, but I knew I had to.
Earnhardt’s black 3 became one of the top two or three iconic cars in NASCAR history. Walk us through how it went from the blue and yellow Wrangler car to the black car.
When GM Goodwrench got into it, they sent us a paint scheme that looked like a brake box. It was blue and white. It was GM Goodwrench parts, and they wanted the car to look like a brake box. It didn’t do anything at all for me. The word Goodwrench faded away. So we took some duct tape, taped half the car with black duct tape and left the other side blue. We put Goodwrench real white on it. I told Archie Long, the head guy at GM Goodwrench then, “All you’ll see is Goodwrench.” They picked the black Goodwrench over the blue and white.
Do you have a favorite car from over the years?
Whichever won the last race. I’ve got 44 original Earnhardt cars. We have some at the NASCAR Hall of Fame; I’ve got some at Darlington, Talladega. I’ve got a few of them scattered around. We’ve probably got 30-some at the Richard Childress Racing Museum.
Let’s imagine the museum is on fire. You can only save one of them. Which one?
That’s a tough one. Don’t talk about fires.
All right. Same question about trophies. Your wife says, “Get rid of all that racing stuff — you can only have one trophy in the house.” Which one would you keep?
It would probably be the two Daytona 500 trophies, Austin and Dale.
One’s blood, and the other was first. I’ll always remember Dale’s win.
That first Daytona 500 win with Earnhardt in 1998, what’s your strongest memory?
Probably seeing the look on Dale’s face when he got out of the car in the winner’s circle. He looked happy. We finally done it.
What was the last lap like of the Daytona 500 that Austin won?
The biggest thing I remember about that is him coming by in second or third to take the white flag. Down the backstretch, I kind of lost him. I heard the crowd jump up and down. I told someone next to me, “There’s either going to be a hell of a wreck or we’re going to win the race.” We won the race. It was one of the best wins we’ve ever had. Nothing’s thicker than blood.
Are you the type who looks back and says, “I won three Daytona 500s,” or do you say, “Man, it should have been six or seven or eight?”
Yeah, we won the Daytona 499 several times with Dale. We were very fortunate to win. Winning the Daytona 500 is tough.
Earnhardt made a lot of people mad over the years. Did you ever have to tell him to cool it, or did sponsors ever tell him to cool it?
Nah. If anything I egged him on. I’d say, “Don’t take that sh**.” He knew I had his back wherever we were at. I never seen him do nothing wrong on the racetrack.
Do you think he’d be able to get away with his style today, or have sponsors gotten too powerful?
It isn’t so much sponsors. It’s NASCAR. Sponsors want to win. Dale never just wrecked anybody to win.
Out of the six championships you have, is there one that stands out?
Probably the first, I’d say. Just because it was the first, it was special. I remember going to New York and celebrating, sitting up there at the banquet, looking at everybody looking up at you at the head table. That’s what you wanted.
What still brings you to the track?
I want to win. I enjoy it. I’ve questioned myself sometimes why I do it. But I know why I do it. I have a passion about racing. I have a passion for wanting to win, surviving through tough times and good times. You go through peaks and valleys in life. You do in racing as well.
How did you keep coming back after Dale’s death in 2001?
Just thinking about conversations Dale and I had, that if something happened to one of us [the other would keep going]. I took him up on it. I come back, and I’ve been here ever since. I was fortunate to have Kevin Harvick at the time. In my opinion, there won’t be another Dale Earnhardt, with the charisma and how he handled himself and related to fans, all that.
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(Top photo courtesy of rcrracing.com)