Everywhere Richard Childress goes, a motor pool of pickup trucks drafts behind him.
The 62-year-old NASCAR team owner is crisscrossing the mountainsides of the Grizzly Meadows Ranch, his 800-plus-acre spread in Montana, and he is supposed to be on vacation. But from the moment he arrived in the Yellowstone River Valley, he's been trudging up hills, cell phone in one hand, GPS device in the other.
He wants to figure out a way to get the water from the valley up the mountain to create a lake outside his bedroom, but first he wants to clean out the lake on the other side of the house … but before that he owes callbacks to Dario Franchitti, George Gillett, the CEO of AT&T, Brian France, Childress' wife, and, oh yeah … he needs to eat lunch.
"We've been trying to keep up with him since the sun came up," one exhausted subcontractor moans as the army of 4x4s races by, trying to maintain contact with the man up front on the four-wheeler, excitedly pointing left and right to describe the vision they have to make reality. "It's impossible. This dude never stops."
Funny, that's the same thing everyone keeps saying about Childress back home in the NASCAR garage.
Hell no, we won't go
A dozen races into the 2008 season, RCR has three cars sitting in the top seven in the Sprint Cup point standings, two of which already have visited Victory Lane. In 2007, those same three cars each won a race, including Kevin Harvick's thrilling Daytona 500 and All-Star race victories; all three qualified for the Chase for the Cup; and Clint Bowyer remained a title contender until the season's final weekend.
Some dared to call '07 a fluke. So far, '08 has kept the doubters silenced.
Quips Jeff Burton, who enters Dover second in points: "Not bad for a team that was supposed to have already been shut down and auctioned off."
As recently as four years ago, the paddock was filled with whispers that the once-dominant Richard Childress Racing empire was on the brink of extinction. From 1983 to 2003, RCR won at least one race in all but one season and took six Cup titles back to Welcome, N.C. But in 2004, eight drivers combined for a total of zero wins, zero poles and zero qualifiers for the inaugural 10-driver Chase for the Cup.
That chase was filled with cars from NASCAR "superteams" such as Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Racing and then-new Evernham Motorsports. While those engineer-driven organizations were heralded as cutting edge, RCR was described as "a throwback," garage code for "irrelevant." What's more, poor roster chemistry among Harvick, Robby Gordon and Johnny Sauter divided the RCR camp while others mastered the art of teamwork.
"Did we get a little behind?" the owner asks. "We did. We lost our way a little, and we'd lost ground before I realized it. When Dale [Earnhardt] died, it made things worse. But even when we struggled, I was constantly thinking about what we needed to do not just to keep up but to get ahead."
Turning the tide
Childress began constantly flipping the Rubik's Cube of RCR around in his hands, swapping crew chiefs, crews, cars and drivers. He built a new shop behind the old one and nearly doubled his engineering staff.
Between '03 and '05, he used 15 drivers, searching for the right combination of talent and personalities. By the end of '04, he'd hired Burton to take over a mess of a 31 team. One year later, he plucked Bowyer from the short tracks of Kansas to take over the 07 Chevy.
To those on the outside, the constant movement smelled like desperation. In the shop, the rearrangements began to make sense … not to mention horsepower.
"In the '80s, Richard was known as doing things first," says Larry McReynolds, who worked as a crew chief at RCR from 1997 to 2000. "He was the first to hire a full-time engineer and was heavily involved in helping GM develop new technology. Now he's back leading things trendwise, and it's no surprise that he's also leading races again."
RCR was the first Cup team to install a seven-post shaker to re-create race conditions back at the shop, now a must-have for any serious contender. Childress led the way in recruiting outside investors to create an influx of cash, enlisting the help of Chartwell Investments well before Roush met Fenway or Gillett met Evernham.
"Truthfully, I could have never made my deal with Ray happen without Richard," Gillett admitted while standing in Coca-Cola 600 Victory Lane on Sunday night. "His guidance and knowledge have been invaluable."
The right combination
Ever since RCR expanded to two cars in 1996, driver chemistry had been a problem, beginning with the legendarily strained relationship between Earnhardt and Mike Skinner.
But almost overnight, Burton-Harvick-Bowyer fit together like the perfect gear selection. After years of unsettling tension, Burton's arrival provided the ballast the organization had so sorely needed -- the level-headed veteran to offset the sometimes-temperamental driver in his prime and the wide-eyed youngster.
"Burton walked in here from Roush," Childress recalls. "He stood up and told everyone that he'd seen what Roush had and he'd seen what we had, and we had the same resources and the talent to win. The next day, people were walking around here with their heads higher than they had been since Dale died."
In 2006, Harvick and Burton became RCR's first Chase for the Cup participants. In 2007, all three drivers made the cut. And in the then-Busch Series, the team brought home a championship in '06 and an owner's title in '07, with all three drivers taking turns behind the wheel.
"There's just not a lot of B.S. with the three of us," Bowyer says. "We don't do a lot of hanging out and partying together or anything; we just work well together and talk well together and in the end, we just want to win. I think that starts with Richard. If winning races and championships isn't what you are about, then you aren't going to last very long with him."
Full steam ahead
Kind of like these poor souls in Montana.
After a quick sandwich on the massive back deck and another conference call with AT&T, he's back at it, this time dragging the contractors through the brush toward a section of fence that looks like it's been damaged by some jumping elk.
Back in Welcome, they've opened the new 93,000-square-foot addition to the race shop, more than doubling RCR's size to make room for the addition of a fourth Cup team in '09. The campus now encompasses more than 500,000 square feet of work space covering 50 acres. Among the cars being built are the rides for Childress' two grandsons, Austin and Ty Dillon, who are tearing up their respective short-track divisions, each with an eye on NASCAR. And now everyone, from the receptionist to the racers, is required to spend time in the new RCR gym with pro sports trainer and former LSU outfielder Ray Wright.
Says son-in-law and RCR VP Mike Dillon: "Even on the treadmill, he's daring us to keep up."
It is a work ethic born from a childhood of poverty, a self-made man and racer who still acts as though slowing down will cause him to lose it all. He'll tell you all about it when he finishes writing his autobiography … the one he's been meaning to finish for three years.
For now, the boss has work to do, once again pointing left and right, envisioning the future and leaving a trail of panting wannabes in his wake.
"This place is going to really be great when I get it the way I want it," he says.
Then he looks over his sunglasses and laughs at himself.
"But I'll never get it the way I want it, will I?"
Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.