News & Media


RCR museum evokes plenty of memories for owner, fans

January 06, 2012, Rick Houston, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Richard Childress stands next to the car that Dale Earnhardt drove to victory in the 1998 Daytona 500 at the Richard Childress Racing museum.

WELCOME, N.C. -- Richard Childress isn't at a dead run when he enters the room, but he might as well be.

He's running a little bit behind. Not much, but some. There have been issues to deal with elsewhere in this sprawling complex, and Childress has evidently had his hands full attempting to deal with them all. He quickly greets a visitor, and without much further ado, they're off for a tour of the Richard Childress Racing museum.

The mood he seems to be in when he gets there, it's going to be a quick one.

"I used to walk through here after everything had closed, with a bottle of wine, and just think."

--RICHARD CHILDRESS

Yet a wonderful thing happens as they go through the first showroom, which at one time served as the team's shop. Once Childress is able to collect his thoughts a little bit, the clock is somehow turned back more than a decade. The headaches of running a monstrous multi-car operation are still there, of course, but as the team owner slowly catches his breath, his frenetic pace slows noticeably.

It's a slow day at the museum, so no one else is around. There are no interruptions, and in no time, Childress is back in the day. RCR is still one of the sport's most prominent teams, but once upon a time, this very building housed a cast of characters so dominant it was almost as if they could win races before anybody actually showed up at the track.

Over there, that's where Chocolate Myers tore down cars after races. This room here, this was the engine shop where Lou LaRosa and then Spenny Clendenen worked their magic. It's maybe 5,000 square feet -- Childress' current engine facility takes up two buildings in which 12 rooms this size would fit comfortably. The crew chiefs, Kirk Shelmerdine, Andy Petree and Larry McReynolds, were in this office.

And all throughout this place, car after car is lined up, 54 in all.

Thirty-four of them feature the No. 3. A handful were driven by Childress himself or Ricky Rudd back in the early days.

Twenty-two of the No. 3 cars are black.

Those were Dale's cars.

Dale Earnhardt has been gone for more than a decade now, but his presence is still felt very deeply here. As he relaxes, it's plain to see that no one feels it more strongly than Childress. They were something far more than car owner and driver, and business associates. They were the best of friends, hunting buddies and close and trusted confidants. Both came up the hard way, and together, they achieved some of the greatest successes NASCAR has ever known.

"I used to come here more, but I don't have the time," Childress begins, talking about the museum. Contemplating the moment, he adds, "I used to walk through here after everything had closed, with a bottle of wine, and just think."

As he takes a glance around at all these No. 3 Chevrolets -- the one in which Earnhardt won the 1998 Daytona 500, for instance -- it's not necessary to ask this one-time journeyman independent what he thought about.

It was in this car that Kevin Harvick slipped past Mark Martin on a wild and wooly final lap to win the 2007 Daytona 500.

Memories galore

"Watch this," Childress says.

Videos play throughout the museum, and this particular one features Earnhardt's thrilling door-to-door victory over Bobby Labonte at Atlanta on March 12, 2000. The monitor hangs just over that very car, and over in another part of the museum is the machine Kevin Harvick steered to an eerily similar win almost exactly a year later at the very same track.

"It's scary how those two finishes were so close," Childress wonders out loud and then moves on. There are memories like that everywhere at the RCR museum, around every corner.

Here's the car Earnhardt drove in the 2001 Budweiser Shootout, a week to the day before the nightmare of a last lap in the Daytona 500. "We finished second ... who was it that got around Dale?" Childress asks himself. "I don't remember." For the record, it was Tony Stewart.

Right next to it is the car The Intimidator steered to his last victory at Talladega in the fall of 2000. That race has become the stuff of legend, Earnhardt starting so far back on the last restart only to come barreling through the field to win. He had pulled off many a miracle in a race car, but that swan-song Talladega romp had truly been something to behold.

"I was never surprised by anything he did in a race car," Childress says with a smile.

The infamous car designed by artist Peter Max. Earnhardt was not a fan at first glance.

"That was my toughest sell. We met with him and told him what all we were going to do. I can just see him walking around that room and saying, 'I'm not doing it.'"

--RICHARD CHILDRESS

Some cars bring Childress to laughter. One room of the museum is dedicated to cars Earnhardt drove in special events, commemorated by one-off paint schemes and die-cast replicas to boot. Included is the most infamous of them all, a gaudily splashed conglomeration designed by artist Peter Max and used in the 2000 all-star race.

To many, the bright and decidedly un-Intimidator-like design was dog ugly, like an acid trip gone bad. Earnhardt himself was apparently one of them.

"That was my toughest sell," Childress admits as he points out Max's splatterings. "We met with him and told him what all we were going to do. I can just see him walking around that room and saying, 'I'm not doing it.' When he'd get like that, he'd walk around with a knife, flipping it in and out ... 'I'm not doing it.' "

With that, Childress takes out his own knife and takes a few paces, flicking the blade open and shut to demonstrate. If Earnhardt's knife was anything like Childress' -- and surely it was -- it would have been the end of the discussion right then and there in most cases. This time, Earnhardt relented on one condition.

"I ain't wearin' no pink uniform," he told Childress.

Childress once had two International Race of Champions cars that Earnhardt had steered at one time or another, but only one remains in the museum.

"Dale really wanted one of those cars, but I never would give in," Childress remembers. "He kept after me, and finally, we agreed that if he won some race -- I don't even remember which one it was -- he'd get one of the IROC cars. Sure enough, he won whatever race it was and he shows up here with his truck and a trailer.

"I had forgotten all about it. I asked him, 'Are we working on Dale Jr.'s Busch car?' He said, 'Naw, I'm here for my IROC car.' I was like, 'Oh, s***. I remember, now.'"

One of his favorite pieces housed here is a car that won four of the six races it entered in 1987, as well as a race at North Wilkesboro a couple of years later that was the first to be run on Goodyear radial tires. Up and down the driver's side are scuff marks aplenty, evidence of a hot and heated day at the track.

"That's vintage Dale Earnhardt," Childress says, stating the obvious. Actually, for one of Earnhardt's cars, it's actually rather tame.

Finally, near the end of the tour is a car used by Earnhardt in 1994, the season of his record-tying seventh championship. Again, it brings a grin to Childress' face.

"We won the championship that day, but man, Dale was pissed," Childress says. "You could hear it in his voice on the radio. The engine wasn't good enough, and he was bitching about it."

Another video shows Earnhardt following the race, and yes, while he has clinched the series crown, the look in his eyes is not pleased. Childress pauses to watch the clip and then laughs again. "Look at him ... wait ... yep. He's bitching about the engine."

Of course, Earnhardt is not the only driver whose cars are enshrined here. The car Harvick used to sneak around Mark Martin coming off the final turn on the last lap in the 2007 Daytona 500 sits just as it was in victory, pock-marked, dirty and covered in confetti. All heck was breaking loose behind Harvick and Martin, with another RCR machine driven by Clint Bowyer crossing the finish line upside down and in flames.

"Austin was in the pits and he was yelling, 'Pop! We won! We won!'" Childress says. "I was almost in shock. I didn't really know what was going on ... but we did. We won. It would have been Mark's first Daytona 500 win, but Kevin passed him."

Dale Earnhardt - 3 - A Look Back

Reminders

Here, too, are more than a few sobering reminders of those sad and haunting days in February 2001.

A car sits on jack stands and another in primer, cars that were being prepared for Earnhardt to drive -- one the following week at Rockingham and another still in primer. Perhaps the most stunning memorial is the team's transporter that sat in the Daytona garage that day. It's open for visitors to freely wander in and around.

"This is the actual hauler," Childress says as he takes a couple of steps up into the trailer's walkway. He proceeds to the back, and the door is locked to the lounge. "Dale and I were up here that morning," Childress concludes, and leaves it at that.

The Richard Childress Racing Museum is open Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET; Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and closed on Sunday. Adult tickets are $12; senior citizens age 55 and up are $8; Students are $5; and admission for children under age 6 is free. An audio tour hosted by Myers is available for $15.

It's a tour that's not to be missed.