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HOF: From Rams to Riverside, Richter's fame came in two sports

January 03, 2012, Mark Aumann,

From Rams to Riverside, HOF nominee Richter found success in two sports

Most athletes can only dream of having the talent to claim membership in a sports hall of fame. Les Richter not only had a career worthy of admittance into two football halls of fame, but after hanging up his helmet and turning his attention to auto racing, went on to greater acclaim as one of the sport's greatest ambassadors.

As a long-time NASCAR executive, including stints as executive vice president of competition and senior vice president of operations, Richter was one of five persons nominated this year for possible induction into NASCAR's Hall of Fame.

A part of history

A 21-person nominating committee made up of representatives of NASCAR, the Hall of Fame and track owners voted to add H. Clay Earles, Bobby Isaac, Cotton Owens, Les Richter and Leonard Wood to the list of candidates. The Class of 2012 -- which will be inducted into the Hall in January -- includes Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Richie Evans, Dale Inman and Glen Wood.

Richter's life had more twists and turns than Riverside International Raceway, where he served as president and general manager for more than two decades.

A native of Fresno, Richter was a star fullback in high school. That earned him a football scholarship at California, where as a center, linebacker and place kicker, he was named as an All American twice and led the Bears to two Rose Bowls. Not only was Richter captain of the team, but also student body president and class valedictorian.

The New York Yanks selected Richter with their first-round pick in the 1952 NFL Draft, but the team folded two days later. Richter's signing rights then went to the expansion Dallas Texans. However, before he reported for training camp, the Los Angeles Rams offered the Texans 11 players in exchange for Richter.

Unfortunately for the Rams, Uncle Sam held its own draft and Richter wound up stationed in Korea for the next two years as a member of the U.S. Army's 44th Infantry Division.

When he returned to Los Angeles, he showed the rest of the NFL why the Rams had thought so highly of him, making eight consecutive Pro Bowls and earning first- or second-team All-NFL honors six times. In addition to being the prototypical middle linebacker -- as most teams still used five down linemen and two outside linebackers at that time -- Richter's ability to kick helped the Rams make the 1955 NFL championship game.

Richter was considered one of the toughest players in the league, earning the nickname "Dirty Les." He played in 112 consecutive games despite suffering several major injuries. He required stitches for a large gash in his heel in 1955, yet made the game-winning field goal the following week. In 1958, he played the entire season with torn cartilage in his knee. And in 1961, he suffered two broken cheekbones but had a special protective pad added to his helmet.

During that era, the Rams trained in Redlands, about 70 miles to the west. One day, Rams co-owner Ed Pauley asked Richter to check out a road course racing facility in nearby Riverside that he was interested in buying.

"It had a fence around it, no grandstands, no towers, nothing there to speak of except a piece of asphalt with a fence around it," Richter was quoted as saying in his L.A. Times obituary.

In 1959, Pauley -- along with actor Bob Hope and fellow Rams owner Fred Levy -- went ahead and bought a majority interest in what would become Riverside International Raceway, hiring Richter as executive director. When Richter retired from pro football in 1962, he took over as the track's general manager.

Riverside had NASCAR events in 1958 and 1961 without much success, but Richter -- who could be as charming and charismatic off the playing field as he was tough on it -- convinced Bill France to give it one more try, as he felt he was the man who could make it profitable.

And more than 52,000 fans turned out to see the 1963 Riverside 500, won by local legend Dan Gurney. From that point on, Riverside was a fixture on the Cup schedule until it closed in 1988.

In 1983, one year after he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, Richter landed a job with NASCAR as a lobbyist for the sport in Washington. Three years later, Richter was put in charge of competition as an executive vice president. He retired from NASCAR in 1994 after serving as senior vice president of operations.

But Richter couldn't stay away from the sport for long. When Roger Penske decided to build a new two-mile oval on the location of the old Kaiser Steel Mill in Fontana -- just a few miles up Interstate 15 from Riverside -- he hired Richter to oversee the project. And Richter served as the track's first grand marshal in 1997.

Richter died in June of 2010 at the age of 79. Thirteen months later, he gained induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, nearly five decades after playing in his last game.

Fourth in a weekly series on the most recent nominees to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.