Richard Childress will go into the NASCAR Hall of Fame Friday night with perhaps a bit more of an appreciation than most, having spent the better part of his life tied snugly to the sport of stock car racing.
It’s been his livelihood and his lifeblood. From selling snacks as a youngster in the grandstands at a local track to overseeing a racing organization today that boasts more than 500 employees, Childress is one of the few still around that has seen and done it all.
Childress, 71, will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame Friday along with fellow team owners Rick Hendrick and Raymond Parks and former drivers Mark Martin and Benny Parsons (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN).
Incredible stories shadow each of this year’s inductees. The story of Childress’ rise from dropout to multi-millionaire is no less so.
Today, his Richard Childress Racing organization fields three full-time teams in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and three in the NASCAR XFINITY Series. His teams have won 12 championships and 214 races across NASCAR’s three national series (Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, XFINITY and Camping World Truck).
Six of his championships came with driver Dale Earnhardt, an inaugural member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame and regarded by many as one of the sport’s most talented and influential drivers.
“I’m sure every one of the inductees are very proud,” Childress said last week during a round of media availabilities for this year’s Hall of Fame Class. “My feeling is, I started out selling peanuts and popcorn at Bowman-Gray Stadium watching my heroes, Billy and Bobby Myers, Curtis Turner and Glen Wood, these guys race and that’s all I ever wanted to do was become a race driver.”
He worked full time to live his dream part-time until the pull of the racing won out and for the longest time it looked like a fool’s errand.
Money didn’t flow and bills piled up but like everyone else chasing a dream, Childress was undeterred.
At 24, he got his first big break, competing at Talladega Superspeedway after many of NASCAR’s top stars, citing tire concerns, boycotted the race.
He returned home to purchase a small parcel of land with the money he earned from that weekend’s races, and started his own auto repair business.
“I left there with more money than I’d ever seen at one time,” he said. Being his own boss also kept his NASCAR dream alive.
He jumped in full time in 1976 as an owner/driver at a time when only a handful of teams had the support and the finances to contend for wins on a consistent basis.
“I can remember the days when we had to syphon the fuel out of the race car to get home, put it in the tow car,” Childress said. “A lot of people don’t understand how it was back in the early ’70s … what not just me but everyone was going through. You had the Pettys, Junior Johnson, Bud Moore, there were about four big teams … those were the guys you were racing against.”
His second big break came in the early ’80s when he made the decision to focus on ownership and leave the driving to someone else.
Earnhardt came and went, driving a handful of races at the end of the ’81 season. A two-year stint with Ricky Rudd helped the team turn the corner and build the consistency necessary to compete for wins on a regular basis.
By ’84, Earnhardt had returned and RCR had improved its product tremendously.
“Ricky was a young, up and coming driver and I think we both helped each other a lot,” Childress said. “He helped me as a car owner and I think we helped him as a driver, with the past driving experience I had and as an owner being able to work with a driver was totally different. I think it was a learning experience for all of us.
“When Dale came back in ’84 I was much more comfortable as an owner at that point.”
It’s been three years since a driver for RCR won in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series although all three of its current drivers — Austin Dillon, Paul Menard and Ryan Newman — have qualified for the Chase on one or more occasions.
Childress, winless as a driver in 285 career starts, remains positive and focused. No different than when he was just starting out with little more than a dream and a desire.
“You had to have a passion,” he said. “Even when I was driving and wasn’t winning … I never started a race that I didn’t think this was going to be the day that the big boys had a problem and I was going to be able to come in there and win.
“Just the sheer drive of wanting to succeed, that’s what kept me going.”
And it’s led him right into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.