Richard Childress Racing

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July 22, 2014

ESPN.com: Childress Was Right About Indy

This was 35 years ago, 15 years before the first Brickyard 400 and 13 years before NASCAR so much as turned a wheel on the hallowed rectangle that had been built in 1909 and was forbidden to all but open-wheel cars.

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Twenty years into the Brickyard 400 tradition, nearing the 21st running, I can't help but think of the day the seed was sown.

We couldn't see the dogs, but we could hear them yelping, sounding nearer. Then we discovered someone had locked the gate behind us, trapping us inside storied Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
 
Oh, hell.
 
I can't remember which one of us said it, but there is no doubt we both thought it, Richard Childress and me.
 
At this moment it was clear that intruders from NASCAR were not welcome, were considered trespassers until proven otherwise. But who knew if the dogs had any sort of handler with whom to reason?
 
This was 35 years ago, 15 years before the first Brickyard 400 and 13 years before NASCAR so much as turned a wheel on the hallowed rectangle that had been built in 1909 and was forbidden to all but open-wheel cars.
 
Richard Childress Racing -- just about all of it that existed at the time, except for maybe a spare car or two back in Winston-Salem, North Carolina -- was on Interstate 465, skirting Indianapolis and bound for Michigan and the next race.
 
We were on a three-week road trip, chronicling the adventures of an owner-driver who even drove his own truck. We had gone from Texas into Mexico and out to Riverside, California, and we hadn't stopped since Las Vegas, taking turns at the wheel and in the sleeper of that old Chevrolet C-300 truck, towing a single Monte Carlo on a trailer.
 
So now, in midafternoon, Childress was driving on I-465 North and suddenly he said to me, "You know how to get to the Speedway? Man, I'd love to see that place."
 
"Sure. Take the Crawfordsville Road exit up about a mile, and I'll show you from there."
 
Crawfordsville runs into 16th Street, and right there, about the intersection with Georgetown Road, we parked that old rig in front of an open gate to the Speedway. A couple of old Southern boys just assumed we were welcome and walked right in.
 
I had been there before, covering the Indy 500. Childress was astounded upon his first sight of the most massive grandstands on the face of the earth. They were like nothing he had seen or even imagined in NASCAR. Then he began to survey the track itself, the low-banked Turn 4, down the flat front straightaway, into Turn 1 ...
 
"We could do it," he said.
 
"What? You mean race stock cars here?"
 
"Oh, hell, yeah," he said. "It's just like Ontario."
 
Truth was, Ontario was just like Indy. The short-lived Southern California track, where NASCAR raced regularly then, had been built as an exact replica of the Speedway.
 
Childress was mesmerized by the thought. You could almost see him thinking where, in Turn 4, he would get back on the throttle.
 
About then, we heard the dogs. We looked around. No humans visible. Just the yelping, in the distance but growing closer.
 
Guess we'd better leave. Sounded like someone didn't want us here. But when we got back to the gate, it had been closed and locked -- perhaps by remote control.
 
Oh, hell.
 
Only one thing to do now: climb over the gate. At least it hadn't been electrified, we realized as we grasped it. Not a second to spare. We scrambled over, snagging our jeans -- his Wranglers, my Levi's.
 
He was not yet associated with rookie driver Dale Earnhardt, who had brought Wrangler into NASCAR, but the sponsor was already giving deals to all the competitors on jeans. (So far as I know, Childress wears Wranglers to this day.)
 
Surprisingly, there were no security guards or police waiting for us at Childress' rig. We climbed aboard and drove on, back out to I-465 and north toward Michigan.
 
We laughed a little about our little scrape but got over it quickly. It wasn't like we hadn't been in a couple of scrapes before on this trip -- the worst one being almost losing the trailer brakes on that rig and plunging down a mountainside onto Hoover Dam. A few dogs and a locked gate weren't so bad, all things considered.
 
What Childress couldn't get over was the sight of that place and the idea of NASCAR racing there. He would never get over it.
 
As it turned out, what kept the guards and police off us was that John R. Cooper, a longtime NASCAR marketing executive, was about to be appointed president of the Speedway.
 
He had gotten a phone call the day of the dogs, saying there was some sort of NASCAR rig parked at the gate. It had a No. 3 on the side of the truck and the car on the trailer.
 
"Oh, that's just Childress," Cooper had told security. "He's just looking around. Leave him alone."
 
Childress was, at the time, the most liked and respected of all the "independent" drivers -- meaning the ones with meager if any sponsorship. His peers listened to him.
 
So did NASCAR president Bill France Jr., who admired Childress because "he started with nothing," France once said.
 
Cooper would remain the president of the Speedway until 1982, when he was named president of the Automobile Competition Committee for the United States, which was a conclave of all American racing organizations and the direct contact point with the world governing body FIA.
 
All the while, Cooper tried to facilitate a connection between NASCAR and Indy. This would be the perfect marriage, America's most popular form of motor racing with America's most revered racetrack.
 
And Childress told his peers that they all could do this -- the big teams and the little independents. It was just like Ontario.
 
In 1990, young Anton Hulman George turned 30 -- the age at which his family, which owns the Speedway, deemed him ready to ascend the throne. Suddenly the stuffy isolationism of the Speedway disappeared. George got over the exclusionary tradition of one race only at the track and began looking around for other forms of racing.
 
By 1992, George, France and Goodyear director of worldwide racing Leo Mehl had agreed to a NASCAR tire test at the Brickyard. Childress, by then arguably NASCAR's top car owner, with the big star Earnhardt in the seat, was a leading and enthusiastic participant in that test.
 
George was at first afraid that NASCAR fans, though they would come to the first race out of curiosity, might not come back after they saw that they couldn't see all the way around the track.
 
They sold out the first race, in 1994, within 24 hours -- and it wouldn't have taken that long if Indy's ticket computer system hadn't crashed under the demand. And they sold out the second, and the third, and so on ...
 
In recent years attendance has waned, as it has across the board in NASCAR. New Midwestern tracks have sprung up, at Kansas City and Chicagoland, to siphon off the disposable entertainment dollars in the area.
 
But the Brickyard 400 remains settled tradition in NASCAR, second only to the Daytona 500 on the calendar and easily the most talked about race of the summer.
 
They first dropped the green flag on the race in 1994, and a local kid named Jeff Gordon won it. The rest, of course, is history.
 
Through all of that, I think back to a summer afternoon in 1979, just before we heard the dogs, when Richard Childress stood at the catch fence and said, "We could do it."
 
Then and there was where it started.
 
To read Ed Hinton’s article as it appears on ESPN.com CLICK HERE.

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