Doug Richert will forever go down in NASCAR Cup Series history as the first crew chief to win a championship in his debut season in stock-car racing’s premier series.
But there’s more to the story.
Richert did so:
* at 20 years old, the youngest championship-winning crew chief in Cup annals, and at an age when he wasn’t even able to legally buy a drink.
* with Dale Earnhardt behind the wheel, winning the first of what would become a record-tying seven Cup championships.
* having taken over for Jake Elder, who quit as Earnhardt’s crew chief after 13 races into the 31-race season in 1980. Richert then kept Earnhardt in first place in the standings for the remaining 18 races, including guiding “The Intimidator” to three of his five wins and 12 of his 19 top-five finishes that season.
On Nov. 15, it will be 41 years since Earnhardt and Richert combined to win the 1980 Cup championship for former owner Rod Osterlund.
While it has been more than four decades, it seems like just yesterday for the now 61-year-old Richert.
“That topic comes up a lot, because it’s one of the big highlights in my career, and especially being with the late Dale Earnhardt Sr.,” Richert told NASCAR.com. “Something made Jake (Elder) mad during the middle of the season, and he just left the team.
“So, I was just kind of like the next guy in line, they asked me if I’d do it and I was like, ‘Yeah, OK, sure.’ Now, I’m the guy that pushes the button and talks during the race, not him (Elder). I didn’t really think much about it, we just did it.
“It wasn’t like I was worried. It happened and it worked out. Dale and I would call each other to discuss setups, talk about what we’re going to do, what we’re going to show up with. Dale had a lot of input in it. We got along, got together, the thing just fell together and we ended up winning the championship, which was awesome. So yeah, a big, big highlight in my career.”
While it was a great pairing, it was also the start of a long and close friendship that continued for more than 20 years before Earnhardt was tragically killed in a crash in the 2001 Daytona 500.
In a sense, Richert and Earnhardt became almost like brothers. The pair literally came out of nowhere to beat the best in NASCAR in the 1980 campaign, including Cale Yarborough (who Earnhardt beat by a mere 19 points), Richard Petty, Benny Parsons, Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison, Terry Labonte, Harry Gant, Neil Bonnett and Richard Childress.
“We all raced, we all wanted to win, we all wanted to do good – and the championship was the bonus,” Richert said. “That’s what we all worked for.”
Even though it has been more than 40 years, Richert still keeps in contact with several members of that championship-winning team.
When Osterlund sold the team near mid-season in 1981 due to financial difficulties, Earnhardt drove the final 11 races of the season for Richard Childress Racing (taking Richert with him, as well) before moving to drive for Bud Moore from 1982-83.
When Earnhardt moved to Moore’s team, Richert moved to Junior Johnson’s squad, and while he wasn’t crew chief, he worked in a variety of capacities as Waltrip would go on to win the Cup championship in 1982 and finished runner up in 1983.
When Earnhardt left Moore after the 1983 season to return to RCR, Richert remained with Johnson’s team, taking over as crew chief for Bonnett for the 1984 season, and then remained in other roles until the mid-point of the 1986 season before taking over as crew chief for Buddy Baker’s team midway in 1986 as well as the bulk of the 1987 season.
In addition to being locked forever to Earnhardt with their championship win together, Richert and “The Intimidator” were locked together in a different way: Earnhardt was Richert’s best man in his 1985 marriage to wife Robin.
“I mentioned to him we were going to get married and Dale said, ‘I’m going to be your best man,'” Richert said. “We waited until the season was over and got married on Dec. 21. It was an honor to have him and (Dale’s wife) Teresa there with us.”
Richert then recalled a humorous sidelight to his nuptials.
“The funny thing is I didn’t really have like a full-size car at the time,” he said. “So I actually borrowed Junior’s and Flossie’s (Junior Johnson and then-wife Flossie) car because I was working for Junior at the time. That’s what I used to drive away.”
Then, in 2010, when Robin and Doug renewed their vows on their 25th anniversary, they both broke into tears when, as both were standing at the altar, Doug suddenly felt a hand on his right shoulder.
“While we’re standing there and the preacher was talking to us, all of a sudden I felt a hand on my shoulder,” Richert said with a smile. “And there he was, Dale Jr.
“It was emotional. When you put all the thoughts together, Dale Sr. being my best man, tragically gets hurt in a race car, then we have this ceremony and Dale Jr. standing there in his place, and Kelley (Earnhardt Miller) was up there with us, too, it was awesome, really something. Just a total surprise, but it was a very good surprise.”
In 45 years in the sport, Richert has literally worked for or with a Who’s Who of NASCAR drivers and team owners, including Earnhardt, Childress, Johnson, Bonnett, Junie Donlavey, Waltrip, Carl Edwards, Ron Hornaday Jr., Jack Roush, Buddy Baker, Benny and Phil Parsons, Greg Biffle, Hut Stricklin, Joe Nemechek, Brian Vickers, Kenny Irwin Jr., Landon Cassill, Andy Lally, David Reutimann and Matt DiBenedetto.
Richert joined Osterlund in early 1976 at the young age of 16, basically doing whatever job needed to be done. Several months later, Richert moved east to Charlotte to work for a new Cup team started by Roland Wlodyka. Osterlund purchased the team in late 1977.
Earnhardt would win NASCAR Cup Rookie of the Year in 1979 and, even though expectations were high for 1980, the team had no inkling it would win the championship, especially after Elder left.
But despite his young age, Richert was promoted to fill Elder’s role just a month shy of his 20th birthday. And the rest is history.
Richert almost led another driver to a Cup championship. In an ironic twist, in the 25th year after Earnhardt’s first title, Richert and Biffle just barely missed taking the 2005 championship, losing out by a mere 35 points to Tony Stewart.
“My stint with Roush (Roush Fenway Racing) was some good years,” Richert said. “First I was with Carl Edwards (in the Truck Series in 2003) and then Greg Biffle in Cup (2003-06). Between Carl and Greg, we won 14 (national series) races between the two guys. Those wound up being some of the best times of my life, being involved with Carl and Greg, with Jack (Roush), Ford Motor Company, all the people there, winning six races in one year (2005), winning Homestead three years in a row, coming so close to winning that championship.”
Had it not been for a wheel coming loose late in the fall playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway in 2005, Biffle and Richert may well have pulled off the upset over Stewart and won the championship. It’s something they still talk about today.
“The last time I went over to Greg’s house, that came up,” Richert said. “I was like, ‘Can you believe, we were that close?’ We always talk about Texas, that we had such a good car, we had a wheel come loose and couldn’t overcome it. That’ll always be the one that got away, the big fish!”
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While he has enjoyed a lot of good times in the sport, life hasn’t been easy for Richert the last few years, most notably for wife Robin, who has battled a rare cancer – mucinous carcinoma – for nearly three years.
“I wish I could sit here and say we do have a good handle on it, but it’s very up and down right now,” Richert said of his wife’s condition.”Each day is a question.”
Richert then falls back on verbiage he normally uses as a crew chief to further explain how he and his wife are handling her disease.
“We have to come up with the proper setup that we can make a long run functioning body out of her now,” Richert said. “Just like we get cars that have short run speed and long run speed, now I’ve got to get a process together for her so she has long, long life and quality of life ahead of her.
“Because it’s a different type cancer, it’s a little bit of a juggling act to maintain the growth, don’t let it get any bigger, manage it and keep an eye on it. She’s been through two major surgeries, already. She don’t have any large intestines left, part of her stomach, her spleen. I mean, she’s running out of parts and pieces to take out. We get a CAT scan every three months. We try to monitor it, we look at is it growing? Is it maintaining? Is it shrinking? And then we just go from there.”
The couple will celebrate their 36th anniversary on Dec. 21.
Somehow, someway, Richert still tries to go through life each day with what he has long been known for – an ever-present smile on his face – but he admits it’s very difficult to watch the person he loves so much, suffer so much.
“It’s hard, it’s just hard to watch,” Richert said. “I know the person there. I know what that person was capable of doing prior to cancer and it’s a shame. She wants to but don’t feel good enough to do it. And it’s really, really beaten her down.
“But she’s a fighter. I mean, she feels awful quite a bit of the time, but she keeps trying. She wants to live. We’ve got a bunch of people praying for her, a bunch of people behind her, the doctors, everything, everybody’s there to help. It’s just we’ve got to figure out the right process to help her the best way.”
Richert had already turned in his resignation with MBM Motorsports and agreed to become a crew chief for a team next season, only to see the deal fall through. Still, Richert isn’t letting himself get down, which is one of the biggest attributes he has displayed throughout his career. When one door closes, Richert has had a knack of finding another door open soon thereafter. He’s weighing two other opportunities he has been presented with recently, both which would see him shift from a crew chief to a team manager/administrator role for next season.
“My wife with the cancer now, it’s hard to leave town and go away when she’s dealing with all that,” he said. “So something to stay at home, something to be like a team manager or something, that would pique my interest.
“If that doesn’t come along. I might change professions and maybe do some woodworking and some handyman, woodworking, slab tables, whatever. My dad and my brother were both carpenters in their careers and I’ve got some of their tools. That might be the line I go down next.
“But most important, my light will definitely brighten up if I can get my wife back on-track.”
The Doug Richert File:
* Age: 61
* Hometown: San Jose, California
Career highlights as a crew chief:
* NASCAR Cup Series career: 588 races, 13 wins, 66 top-five and 120 top-10 finishes. Also 5 poles. Best season finish: first with Dale Earnhardt (1980) and second with Greg Biffle (2005).
* NASCAR Xfinity Series career: 91 races, 1 win, 6 top-five and 17 top-10 finishes. Also 1 pole. Best season finish: 11th with Jeff Purvis (2000).
* NASCAR Truck Series career: 64 races, 12 wins, 35 top-5, 45 top-10 finishes. Also 7 poles. Best season finish: first with Ron Hornaday Jr. (split the 1996 season with Doug Williams) and third with Hornaday (1995).
Veteran motorsports writer Jerry Bonkowski is writing a number of “Where Are They Now?” stories this year for NASCAR.com. Check out stories he has already done on Brian Scott, Robby Gordon, Ricky Craven, Terry Labonte, Kenny Wallace, Trevor Bayne, Ken Schrader, Shawna Robinson, Sam Hornish Jr., Bobby Labonte, Greg Biffle, Ricky Rudd, Darrell Waltrip, Mark Martin, Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya. Follow Jerry on Twitter @JerryBonkowski.