Growing Up Together

One person who comes to mind whose career has grown faster than mostanyone in racing during this span of time is Richard Childress.Considering his start, I know of no one who has come farther. Childresswas born in Winston-Salem in September 1945. He bought his first racecar at age 17, a '47 Plymouth. He paid $20 for it, earning the money bycrawling under the fence at Bowman Gray Stadium on Saturday nights andselling popcorn at the races.

Childress drove in races at Bowman Gray for a couple of years, thenjoined NASCAR's big-league circuit in 1969. His team included himselfand crewchief Tim Brewer, who could call himself crewchief because therewas no one else to prepare the car. Childress' best season as a driverwas 1978. He earned his highest career finish, Third at Nashville, andfinished 11 times in the Top 10.

In 1981, Childress made a career change from driver to full-time teamowner, stepping aside to let Dale Earnhardt replace him in the driver'sseat.

Earnhardt launched his career in big-league racing in 1975 with a carowned by driver Ed Negre. He didn't have a full-time ride untilCalifornia businessman Rod Osterlund came on the scene in 1978. In 1979,Earnhardt and Osterlund joined forces and won the NASCAR Rookie of theYear award, and they also won their first career victory at Bristol andtheir first pole position at Riverside.

Earnhardt won the Winston Cup championship the following year. He alsowon his first superspeedway race at Atlanta.

In 1981, he earned his first $1 million, and after 16 races that season,Osterlund sold his racing operation to Jim Stacy. It not only surprisedEarnhardt, but also everybody else in racing. Earnhardt had only runfour races for Stacy when the bottom fell out. He quit Stacy, and only ahandful of people knew where he might be headed.

Childress knew, because he had been talking with Junior Johnson andwaiting on Earnhardt.

Childress has been a master of picking opportunities during his racingcareer. Back in 1969, wife Judy wanted a new car. "A new car would benice," Childress told her, "but I need a new race car. Let's keepdriving the old Ford a little longer."

It was Christmas of 1974 when Judy said something about a new house."That would be fine," Childress said, "but I just bought some land outin the country and I want to build a shop there."

Finally, in July 1983, Richard and Judy moved out of the four-room housewith 900 square feet that they had lived in for 18 years. They movedinto a new home Judy designed with 4,400 square feet, complete with aswimming pool. It would be their home for a few years, and then theywould move on to larger things.

I remember Childress explaining details about the first shop he built.It was nice, but small compared to the massive layout of buildings hehas now in Welcome, North Carolina.

This is what he said one day while standing in front of his first shop:"By looking at all the other shops, I got a lot of ideas about what Iwanted. I have the engine room as far away as possible from the body andpaint shop simply because of the dust factor. Behind the offices is therace car assembly area. Behind this is the machine area, and in back ofthe building is the parts room. To the side, in a separate area, is thefabrication room. The next area we build will be for research anddevelopment."

He was always planning and carrying out plans. At that time, Childressowned one of the very few operations on the circuit that did not dependon outside help when a car was built. He started his race cars fromtubing right out of the steel rack. His crew built their own chassis andengines.

"I knew from the start," Childress said, "that I wanted to beindependent, right or wrong, and that's the way I plan to keep it. We doit all, even our own cylinder heads."

Childress prepared and drove his own cars from 1969 to midway though theseason in 1981.

Now Earnhardt wanted to drive his car and was tugging on his shoulder.Childress, then 39, was doing a lot of talking with Junior Johnson, whowas telling him drivers were a dime a dozen, there was a bigger need forgood team owners and team managers, and that this would be the way tomake money in the future. "Junior had always helped me," Childress said,"even back in 1971 with old parts, old tires, and he even loaned andrented me engines, but his advice had been worth the most. I had tolisten to him.

"Well, Earnhardt had won one championship with Osterlund in 1980. ThenOsterlund up and sold the team to Jim Stacy. It wasn't long untilEarnhardt wanted out of the Stacy deal. In fact, it was at Talladegawhen Dale told me he wanted to drive my car. I told him to get back intouch. I met with Junior for about two hours and finally made thedecision to quit driving.

"I told Dale we would do it. Then we started meeting and broughtWrangler in with a 10-race sponsorship program to finish the season."

This was all well and good, but Childress knew he was only foolinghimself. "I knew I didn't have the setup for a sponsor such as Wrangleror a driver such as Dale," he said. "I knew I couldn't do justice toeither. I told Wrangler and I told Dale that I needed time. I told themboth to go away and give me some time. They did. Dale drove for BudMoore. Meanwhile, in 1982 and 1983, I built my shop and added some goodpeople and then both came back.

"While I was doing this, Ricky Rudd came along and wanted to race. Italked to Junior again, and he knew that Piedmont Airlines wasinterested in getting into racing, so we got Piedmont as a sponsor whilewe were rebuilding. At the end of 1982 we signed another contract withPiedmont, but by the end of 1983 we were in good shape and ready to talkwith Wrangler and Dale again. It all worked out well."

And it did. The rest of the story is history. Childress and Earnhardtwon six Winston Cup championships together and a sack full of races.

RCR has come a long way. Once it was Tim Brewer setting up the car andChildress driving it. RCR now employs 325 people.

After high school, Childress worked at a battery company. From age 16 to21, he went from the $99 claiming division through the Modified and LateModel Sportsman divisions. When he was 21, NASCAR came up with the GrandAmerican division and scheduled a race for Daytona.

Childress sold all his modified and dirt stuff, borrowed some money, andbuilt a Grand American car. "I remember I qualified Eighth on the roadcourse and started alongside Parnelli Jones. At the time, I didn't thinkyou could get any bigger than that," he said.

Childress' first major-league race was in 1969 when the Talladegaboycott occurred. He had a new Camaro and was towing it with a '55 Ford.

He ran the Grand American circuit until 1972. Finally, the batterycompany told him he couldn't be off work to go racing anymore.

The four-room house he was living in had a two-car garage. He opened upthe garage and did public work. At night, he worked on his race car. Hisfirst sponsor was L.C. Newton Trucking, and CRC Chemicals was next.Warner Hodgdon helped Childress from time to time.

Brewer was hired full time in 1972 and stayed with Childress until 1976when he joined Junior Johnson. Johnson called Childress before he hiredBrewer.

In 1979, Childress hired Kirk Shelmerdine as crewchief, and later thatyear hired Lou Larosa as engine builder.

As you can see, there were plenty of times Childress could have turnedhis back and walked away from the sport.

Childress enjoys hunting as a hobby and has hunted all over the world.He has a beautiful home in Montana, where he and his family spend timebetween racing seasons.

More recently, he has gotten into producing wine with his own fields ofgrapes and his own vineyard.

Still, he takes everything one step at a time. The sport is lucky thatRichard Childress came along when he did.

The Petty Legacy

Now we move on to others: What would NASCAR be like had the Pettysdecided to go back to farming after Lee had the terrible wreck atDaytona in 1961?

It was two years after Bill France opened Daytona International Speedwayin 1959. The qualifying races, always a preliminary to the Daytona 500,had Richard Petty starting in the first 100-mile event and Lee in thelineup for the second.

The first race was flagged to a halt after 39 of the scheduled 40 lapshad been completed. Five drivers went to the hospital as 13 cars werewiped out in a series of mishaps. Junior Johnson and Fireball Robertswere side-by-side for the lead. Johnson ran over some debris and hisPontiac nicked Richard Petty's Plymouth. Petty's car became airborne andsailed over the wall in Turn 1. Johnson turned into the wall head on,smashing the engine up into the driver's compartment.

Petty suffered abrasions of both eyes and a cut hand, and Johnson had alacerated chin and possible jaw injuries.

Petty showed up back in the garage area before the second race began.Lee tried to get his son to drive his car in the second 100-miler."Daddy wanted me to drive the car because he felt like I needed to getright back in a race car to get over the scare of what had happened.

"I convinced him I was not hurt, and that I would be OK," Richard said.

Lee started Fifteenth. He and Johnny Beauchamp, principals in theinaugural Daytona 500 finish, tangled in Turns 3 and 4. Both cars sailedover the guardrail. Petty suffered a punctured lung, multiple fracturesof the left chest, a fractured left thigh, a broken collar bone, andmultiple internal injuries. Beauchamp suffered head injuries.

Lee was hospitalized in Daytona Beach for months. Elizabeth, Lee's wife,stayed at his bedside.

"Maurice and I came home and we didn't know which way to turn," Richardsaid. "We didn't know what to do. We gave a lot of thought to quittingthe sport and doing something else.

"I guess it is the closest Petty Enterprises has come to going under,but we held our heads up and kept going," he said.

Petty went on to win seven championships, seven Daytona 500s, and 200races. He became King of the sport. His 1967 season-27 wins in 48 racesentered, including 10 straight victories at one point-remains one of themost impressive feats in the history of the sport.

The day Petty won for the 200th time-at Daytona in July 1984 withPresident Ronald Reagan on hand-he told a little story.

"I remember a story the preacher told one Sunday a long time ago aboutsome other preacher and a farmer talking.

"The preacher told the farmer, 'You have much to be grateful for.Providence cares for all of us. Even the birds of the air are fed eachday.'

"The farmer replied, 'Yeah, off my corn.'

"Well, I've won 200 races now, and I want to tell you that I have muchto be grateful for. I want to take this opportunity to thank a lot ofpeople who have provided the corn to feed me over the years."