Richard Childress: Everyman's owner
Nobody in NASCAR cares about you more than Richard Childress does.
You get to celebrate his 100th Cup win as a team owner with him, because every one of them was fought for, worked for, raced for, all out, with you in mind.
"It goes back to some of the philosophy Dale [Earnhardt, who got him 67 of those wins] and I planned many years ago," Childress said after Clint Bowyer got him to the milestone Sunday at Talladega, Ala. "That's race as hard as you can, run up front all day."
What for? Why take the risks before they're necessary in the waning laps of races?
"To give these fans a show," Childress said.
All owners and drivers say that. Childress means it to his marrow.
He may not know you personally, but he knows you very well. The harder you work for your money, the more you've struggled in life, the harder you've fallen and gotten back up, the more he relates to you -- and the more hope he holds out for you.
"Only in America could a kid with a $20 race car [that's right, $20 was what he paid for his first jalopy] do what I've been able to do, myself and my people working with me. It started with an old $20 race car and a dream."
Actually it started before that, in the grandstands of old Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C.
There was no one to pay the price of admission for little Richard Childress, whose father had died when he was 5. So he sold concessions in the grandstands, and while making change he would catch glimpses of Junior Johnson and Curtis Turner on the track.
Hard as he worked once he went racing himself, plowing every dollar won back into his cars, Childress might never have made it from the obscurity of weekly shows at Bowman Gray but for one volatile weekend at Talladega that birthed Richard Childress Racing.
"It all started here for RCR, in 1969," Childress said. "It's nice to come back where I got my big break, in '69 when they boycotted."
Most of the top drivers of the time refused to run in Talladega's inaugural Cup race because of safety concerns over tires that were shredding at the uncharted speeds.
Upstart Childress ran in a support race for NASCAR's original Grand American series on Saturday. After the big teams pulled out later that afternoon, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. struggled to fill a field to give the fans a show -- some kind of show -- on Sunday. Childress agreed to run as a replacement driver.
"I went ahead and ran the race, and I got money on Saturday, got money on Sunday, got deal money [a guaranteed amount just for starting] from Mr. France ... more money than I'd ever seen in my life."
In all, he took home about $7,500.
"We went back, built a shop and started racing."
Still he struggled. He made it onto the Cup tour but went winless for his entire career as a driver. He survived on small sponsorships, and largely on support from the powerful team of Junior Johnson, who admired his spunk and gave him experimental parts to develop.
(Few remember that before "3" was Dale Earnhardt's number, it was Richard Childress' number, and before that Junior Johnson's number.)
In 1981, Childress got out of his car for keeps and put Earnhardt in. But Earnhardt was so hard on equipment that Childress, even with the Wrangler sponsorship Earnhardt brought, ended the season $75,000 in the hole.
Childress blamed himself -- "We're not ready for a championship driver like you," he told Earnhardt, and sent him off to drive for better-established Bud Moore in 1982-83, while Childress tried to get his financial footing.
With Ricky Rudd as driver, Childress got his first Cup win in 1983, on the road course at Riverside, Calif.
He and Earnhardt reunited in '84 and the rest, of course, is history that changed the course of NASCAR.
Maybe it was because he grew up watching Johnson, who as a driver ran all out, all the time ... maybe it was because he learned at Talladega in '69 that what mattered more than anything was to give the fans a show ... maybe it was because he paired so perfectly with the relentless Earnhardt ...
And maybe it's because Childress never has forgotten what he wanted to see from the grandstands at Bowman Gray.
Whatever the reasons, he races with you in mind.
Four owners beat him to 100 wins. Two other active ones, Rick Hendrick and Jack Roush, are well ahead of Childress with 199 and 125, respectively.
I would argue that Childress won his harder, from farther down in life.
The late Bill France Jr., second czar of NASCAR, never a man given to flattery, once called Childress "my hero, because he started with nothing."
No knock on Hendrick or Roush, but they both started with something. Hendrick already was a successful automobile retailer when he arrived at Cup level in 1983. Roush in '88 was already a successful businessman and engineer and had fielded winning sports car teams.
Only in America could a kid with a $20 race car do what I've been able to do, myself and my people working with me. It started with an old $20 race car and a dream.” -- Richard Childress
And both went early on into full assault on the owners' wins column by going to the multiple-driver concept. As their teams gobbled wins, Childress stuck with one driver. Earnhardt wouldn't hear to a teammate until 1996 -- and even then, Childress, knowing he must have multiple teams to keep up in research and development, had to force Mike Skinner into the operation against Earnhardt's wishes.
Hendrick and Roush are businessmen who run their operations as such. But sometimes that means leaving fans snoozing in their grandstand seats and armchairs -- take the lagging back by Roush's Carl Edwards and Hendrick's Jimmie Johnson at Talladega, while Childress ordered all four of his drivers to go all out.
"That's what you're in this business for: race hard, put on a show for the fans," Childress said.
He runs his operation like -- well -- a fan. That means rolling dice, taking risks, seeking thrills, paying dearly for it. With that style, he hasn't won a championship since Earnhardt's last one, in 1994.
It continues to bite him -- take Sunday, when Kevin Harvick entered the race only five points behind Edwards in the Chase but ran hard from the outset, got caught up in a wreck and fell to fifth in the standings.
But, "we're not done," Childress said. "We're going to race, take no prisoners ... race as hard as we can."
Bowyer, even as he prepares to leave Childress for Michael Waltrip Racing next season, takes with him the Childress mindset: "These fans pay a ton of money to watch these races and we owe it to them to put a show on them, rag to rag." That's Bowyer's Kansas dirt-track speak for flag to flag.
"It may bite us," Childress said. There was no regret in his voice.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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