Childress Racing Is Still Going Strong At Age 50

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 27 2019
Austin Dillon is carrying on the tradition at Richard Childress Racing. (RacingToday/HHP photo by Jim Fluharty)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer

Today when Richard Childress crosses the railroad tracks in tiny Welcome, N.C., he enters the 52-acre campus of the racing operation that bears his name. Housed in the 17 buildings are a museum, three NASCAR Cup and two Xfinity series race teams, ECR Engines and more than 400 employees.

Richard Childress Racing proudly possesses 15 championships and more than 200 victories across NASCAR’s top three series. It’s a legacy that was built on long, hard work hours, plenty of busted knuckles, and gut-wrenching perseverance that could be considered mule-headed determination.

Childress’ organization’s first victory in NASCAR’s premier series didn’t come until 14 years after it made its debut at Talladega and it was another three years before it would enjoy its first championship. Both came after Childress stepped from the driver’s cockpit. The first victory came with Ricky Rudd at Riverside, Calif., in 1983. Three years later Childress had his first championship. That year Dale Earnhardt swept the races at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but it was his victory in the fall race, then known as the Oakwood Homes 500, that propelled the team to the 1986 title. 

This year RCR celebrates its 50th anniversary, but the racing bug actually bit Childress when he was just a youngster selling popcorn and peanuts at Bowman-Gray Stadium in his hometown of Winston-Salem, N.C. The historical short track also was the site of Childress’ first race. He paid $20 for a 1947 Plymouth and entered it in the $99 Claiming Division. Under that division’s rules, anyone in the grandstand could purchase your car for $99 after you won the race or if another competitor wanted to buy your car you had to sell it for $99. If you didn’t want to sell your car, then you had to move up to the track’s Hobby Division.

Austin Dillon and team owner Richard Childress after their Daytona 500 win.

“I even had a partner because I didn’t have enough money to pay for the whole thing,” Childress recalled. “I let my buddy drive it the first week. I ran it the second week and I liked it so much that we became a two-car team the third week.”

In 1969, Childress decided it was time to move into the big leagues and he made his NASCAR Cup debut in Talladega’s inaugural race. He started 26th and finished 23rd, completing 80 of the 188 laps before breaking an axle. His winnings totaled $1,175.

Over the next decade, Childress became one of Cup racing’s most popular drivers and one of the sport’s most successful independents. His best finish in the driver standings occurred in 1975 when he placed fifth. From 1971-81, he finished in the top 10 in the standings in five seasons. Childress never tasted victory lane as a driver in NASCAR’s premier series, but in 285 races he recorded six top-five and 76 top-10 finishes, led 133 laps and earned $850,143. He not only built his own cars, but his engines as well.

“Junior Johnson and Ralph Seagraves (head of R.J. Reynolds sports marketing program) came to my shop one day and I had an old piston in a vice that had come out of a blown engine,” Childress said. “I was trying to straighten it to put back in the engine and get my clearances. He (Johnson) said, ‘Boy, come up to my shop and I’m going to give you a set of pistons.’

“That was when it started. He would help me out. I would always buy used parts from him and used tires. We would run some of his development parts and pieces.”

It was during this decade that Childress began using the No. 3 on his car. The change to the single digit from the No. 96 came in 1976 and was strictly for economic reasons. Numbers were hand lettered then and it was cheaper to put one number on the door than it was two. Team owner and engine builder Ray Fox had used the No. 3 during the 1960s, but when it became available Childress wanted it.

A few years later Childress found himself at a career crossroads. Twenty races into the 1981 season Childress had to decide if he wanted to continue as a driver/owner or step out of the car and focus strictly on ownership. Earnhardt was upset that Rod Osterlund had sold his 1980 championship team to J.D. Stacy. He and Childress were hunting buddies and the opportunity was there for them to finish the 1981 season together if Childress would stop driving. On a hot summer night in Anniston, Ala., Childress met with Johnson before talking with Earnhardt.

“I will never forget him (Johnson) telling me, ‘If you can put this deal together, there are a lot of race drivers out there, but there aren’t that many good car owners. You’ll make a good car owner,’” Childress said. 

Johnson wasn’t wrong. In Earnhardt and Childress first outing together at Michigan Earnhardt qualified 10th and finished ninth. Over the 1981 season’s final 11 races Earnhardt produced six top-10 finishes.

“We knew we had something special,” Childress said. 

However, Childress knew his operation wasn’t at the caliber it needed to be for Earnhardt. 

“We sat out there together at the old Sheraton (in Darlington) for the Southern 500, had us a few cool ones, talked about it and I said, ‘Dale, you can go drive the (No.) 28, but that’s the reason you left Osterlund was because J.D. Stacy bought them,’” Childress recalled. “He told me the other options he had and I said, ‘Well, I’m not ready to race you. We’re not ready to race a champion. You need to go drive for one of those guys. If it was me, I would go drive for Bud Moore. He’s a racer. He knows how to do it. You’ll be successful with Bud.’” 

Earnhardt took Childress’ advice and went to Moore while the new full-time team owner hired Rudd. That was the status for two years. Then the two drivers switched teams. It was the beginning of the Earnhardt-Childress dynasty that had a pit crew that was just as famous as the owner and driver. Initially known as the “Junkyard Dogs” with the Wrangler-sponsorship, the pit crew became the “Flying Aces” when financial backing switched to GM Goodwrench.

Childress and Earnhardt talked constantly about what they wanted to do with the team and it was that friendship and mutual respect that translated into six championships. 

“We both had a tremendous respect from where we had come from and where we were back then,” Childress said. “We both wanted to go win. We both had a passion for winning, and I still do today. He knew I was an owner that would be in there working full bore to win.

“We had our friendship, but our racing was our business and our living. It came first and our friendship was right there with it.”

Heading into the 1986 fall race at Charlotte, Earnhardt already possessed three victories that season. However, it was his 1.9-second victory over Harry Gant that gave him a 159-point lead over Darrell Waltrip and propelled him to his second championship and Childress’ first.

“After winning the race at Charlotte, I felt we had a great shot at winning the championship,” Childress said. “Everybody was watching us because Dale Earnhardt was there. We all knew Dale could do it, but nobody believed that RCR could do it. When we put it together it took a load off our shoulders. It made us feel like we belonged in NASCAR at that point in the Cup Series.”

Winning the 1986 title changed RCR. It gave the team confidence and instilled a swagger like no other organization possessed.

“It made us know that we were cable of doing what most people didn’t think we were capable of,” Childress said. “It was just such a good feeling to take a bunch of good ol’ boys and go out and win a championship, and we had a good ol’ boy as a driver, too.”

Throughout the years with Earnhardt, Childress visited Charlotte’s victory lane on many occasions, but perhaps the most emotional time occurred in 2017 with his grandson, Austin Dillon, when he returned the No. 3 to victory lane in the Cup Series in the Coca-Cola 600.

“We ran from fifth to 10th all night long,” Childress said. “He was racing Jimmie Johnson. The Toyotas were better than both of us, but we both had a good race and a good strategy. For him to be able to make that win, be in the winner’s circle with him was like a dream come true.”

In some ways, it all seems like a dream. A once self-described “ol’ redneck with long hair” building race cars in a 4,000-square-foot shop on Gumtree Road near Winston-Salem becomes one of the most successful car owners in NASCAR history.

“I drive across those railroad tracks and I look around at the building where the museum is now and it was a pretty modern shop in ’85,” Childress said. 

“You drive by the sign that says Richard Childress Racing, but the sign doesn’t talk about Richard Childress. It should talk about the many hundreds of people that helped build that sign. It’s about the guys that worked for me when I couldn’t pay them. They would come and help me as volunteers. I’m still friends with many of those people. A lot of them aren’t with us today, but I’ve been fortunate to have surrounded myself with the right people, made the right business decisions along the way and being a part of NASCAR. We all ought to be thankful.”    

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 27 2019
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