What do sports greats Jim “Catfish” Hunter, Sonny Jurgensen, Arnold Palmer, Gaylord Perry and NASCAR team owner Richard Childress have in common? Well, at least after Thursday evening’s induction ceremony at the Raleigh, North Carolina Hilton in which Childress will be honored; all will be members of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. Childress’s selection is well deserved, and if anything… long overdue.
North Carolina is truly the Mecca of stock car racing and holds the sport’s legends, in particular those native to the state, in high regard. Other North Carolinians from stock car racing that have previously been selected for the Hall of Fame include Buck Baker, Ned Jarrett, Junior Johnson, Lee and Richard Petty, Herb Thomas and Richard Childress’s close friend and driver, the late Dale Earnhardt.
No one can argue that the list of those that preceded Childress into the Hall of Fame are all worthy, and no one should argue that any are more deserving than the 63-year old, born in Winston-Salem, N.C. Childress, who lived most of his life in and around Welcome, N.C. in neighboring Davidson, County epitomizes everything one would expect from a Hall of Fame inductee, in sports and in life.
Always a straight-shooter, but with a kind and down-home demeanor that makes the man easy to like, Childress is a bonafide American rags-to-riches, couldn’t happen to a nicer guy success story. Though losing his father at the tender age of five years old and knowing poverty first hand, Childress has become unimaginably wealthy and resides in one of the most impressive homes in Davidson County. His charitable deeds and contributions to his community are considerable and are accomplished in a manner that fits his personality – humbly and with little fanfare.
But it is stock car racing NASCAR style that has allowed Childress, who at one time in his young life sold hot dogs at Bowman Gray Stadium, to become a Hall of Fame recipient. A career that has spanned almost four decades and has seen him compete as a driver, an owner/driver and a multiple championship-winning team owner.
Childress is a self-made man by every definition of the phrase. He had no one to give him that “big break.” There were no uncles, brothers or a father to pave the way in the sport and make his career path less difficult. No wealthy friends or corporate sponsors to rely on. All Richard Childress had is a love of the sport, and a desire to compete. Yet few, even with such advantages have accomplished more, or lasted as long a he has managed.
As a driver and eventually as an owner/driver, Childress’s on-track record may not seem all that impressive. However, he competed in woefully under-funded equipment and in a period of 12 years had, though never winning a race in NASCAR’s top series, managed a commendable 76 top-10 finishes. Childress retired as a driver in 1981 after receiving an offer of solid sponsorship in return for putting his friend and hunting buddy Earnhardt in the seat of his car. Childress, at 36 years of age and still in his prime years as a racecar driver, made a decision to take the offer, which would at least allow him to better compete; albeit not behind the wheel as he preferred.
The rest, as they say is history. Childress suggested that Earnhardt find equipment more deserving of his driving talents after their first year together. But two years later, with a vastly improved No. 3 Wrangler Jeans-funded racecar to offer, Richard Childress Racing and Earnhardt reunited to eventually win six NASCAR championships together. Only Petty Enterprises can claim more Cup championships.
Almost as in a word association game, it is virtually impossible to say Childress without thoughts of Earnhardt emerging, so intertwined are the two’s careers. They were like bread and butter, or in my case, peanut butter and pancakes. To debate which one is responsible for the other’s success would be an exercise in pure silliness. For both brought out the best in the other and had a personal relationship based on mutual respect in the others ability to win. Childress already knew Earnhardt could win races and championships. He had already proved that with six wins and a 1980 championship while driving for Rod Osterlund. But it is fair to say that Earnhardt also knew that he and Childress together could win many more times.
However, it is not fair to Childress to hitch his success only to his association with the man known as the “Intimidator.” Neither would it be fair to unduly credit Richard Childress for Earnhardt’s selection to the Hall of Fame. It is reasonable to believe that both men were immensely capable of winning, but together as a team were able to achieve greatness.
There have been no other NASCAR Cup championships for RCR since Earnhardt won his final title in 1994. Except for Earnhardt’s second-place finish in the 2000 points standings, Childress-prepared Chevrolets have not truly competed for a championship until Clint Bowyer’s surprising third-place finish in the season-ending championship points race last season.
Not to say there haven’t been some wins along the way. Although the RCR teams have not performed at as high of a level as Roush Fenway, Gibbs or Hendrick, they have certainly belonged on the track. But a less dedicated sportsman than Richard Childress may have seen the drop-off in the performance as an indication that it might be time to cash in his chips and enjoy life outside the sport.
But not Richard Childress. Instead he recommitted himself to the sport. Accepted the fact that his “old-school” ways that had brought him so much success would not work in today’s NASCAR. He cut ties with the past, accepted the many changes that have occurred in the sport and has for at least the last three years strived to not only catch up, but also once again lead.
Today RCR has all three of its drivers, Jeff Burton, Bowyer and Kevin Harvick, sitting in the top 10 in the points standings. That in itself is quite an accomplishment in today’s much more intense and competitive environment. But even more, it speaks volumes as to the enduring commitment of Childress to the sport. A sport he seriously considered walking away from after the tragic loss of his friend and driver Earnhardt in 2001.
And no one would have blamed him if he had made the decision to spend his remaining years pursuing his numerous other hobby and business interests. But he couldn’t.
Hall of Famers aren’t quitters.
And that’s my view from turn 5.