Note: With the No. 3 and No. 31 Sprint Cup Series teams honoring Richard Childress Racing’s first career NASCAR victory with throwback paint schemes for this year’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, we look back at the organization’s historic first win on June 5, 1983 at Riverside International Raceway.
Richard Childress Racing has a storied history in NASCAR, earning 105 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victories and six championships over 43 years. However, there was a time when visiting Victory Lane was a much sought-after dream for team owner and founder Richard Childress.
Making his first NASCAR start during the inaugural event at Talladega Superspeedway in 1969, Childress spent the following years competing at the sport’s highest level, but never truly finding success.
After serving as owner and driver for many years, Childress handed over driving duties in 1981, first to Dale Earnhardt and on one occasion to Kirk Shelmerdine. Yet for the 1982 season, a young driver from Chesapeake, Virginia named Ricky Rudd was brought on to pilot Childress’ No. 3 car.
That first full season together, Rudd and Childress earned six top fives and 13 top 10s en route to a ninth-place finish in the series standings, ending the season with a second-place finish at Riverside International Raceway.
Things were just heating up for the Welcome, North Carolina based team.
For 1983, Rudd was just 26 years old and in his second full season for RCR, the eighth full season for the organization. The No. 3 Piedmont Airlines team had a strong start to the season in qualifying, earning three consecutive poles to kick off the year. In fact, through the first 12 races of the season Rudd recorded a total of four poles and 11 top-10 qualifying efforts.
Despite the stellar starting spots, the team battled to find the consistent finishes to match the qualifying efforts. Through the first 12 races of the season, Rudd and the No. 3 team had earned top-five finishes at Darlington Raceway and Martinsville Speedway, with additional top-10 finishes at North Carolina Motor Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.
As the team headed to Riverside International Raceway, the No. 3 RCR team was coming off a disappointing string of three finishes of 24th or worse. However, it was clear Rudd and the No. 3 Piedmont Airlines Chevrolet would be in contention for the win on the 2.62-mile road course.
“Ricky had a knack for the road courses especially, he started his career on road courses in go karts. We put all the bullets in the gun for that race knowing that if we had to pick one race to win, that was it,” said Kirk Shelmerdine, crew chief on the No. 3 Piedmont Airlines Chevrolet.
The strong qualifying efforts continued once the weekend kicked off, with Rudd putting the No. 3 Chevrolet fourth on the starting grid for the 95-lap event.
It did not take Rudd long to make his way to the front, doing battle with Tim Richmond for second and staying hot on the heels of pole sitter Darrell Waltrip as they traversed the winding road course. By the second lap, Rudd was in second. Two laps later, the No. 3 Piedmont Airlines Chevrolet worked under Waltrip to take the lead for the first time.
Showing the way for a total of seven laps early on, Rudd and the No. 3 RCR team settled in to the top five and kept the race leaders in sight throughout the day. Just before the halfway mark of the race, the No. 3 Piedmont Airlines Chevrolet retook the lead from Harry Gant on Lap 37.
For the next 18 laps, Rudd, Gant and Tim Richmond did battle around the twists and turns of the road course, with the No. 3 Piedmont Airlines Chevrolet finally getting the advantage and the top spot for good on Lap 55.
As other competitors fell by the wayside due to mechanical issues and accidents, the No. 3 Piedmont Airlines Chevrolet remained the best car in the field and never gave up the lead. Despite a late-race restart with Waltrip putting on the pressure, Rudd kept the car out front and pulled away from the competition.
Taking the checkered flag with a seven-second margin of victory over Bill Elliott, Rudd gave RCR the team’s first NASCAR Premier Series win in dominating fashion, leading 57 of the 95 laps. As the No. 3 Piedmont Airlines Chevrolet crossed the start-finish line, the crew erupted into celebration on pit road.
“We’re just tickled to death with it,” Rudd said of the win standing in Victory Lane. “We’ve been waiting a long time for this and really just tickled to death that it’s come. It really just hasn’t sunk in. It’s hard to believe that this Piedmont Airlines/A&W Trucking Co. car held together all day long. It was the strongest car on the racetrack. The guys back home did a great job on the motor. We had the car that was the one to beat out there today, but we were just worried about finishing. We broke down the last three or four races.”
After a total of 241 career NASCAR Premier Series starts, team owner Richard Childress finally saw one of his cars take the checkered flag to earn the organization’s first victory.
“I’m just thrilled for the whole crew, Ricky and everyone behind us,” Childress told Pat Paterson on ESPN’s broadcast that day. “Piedmont Airlines stuck with us when we had bad times and they’re a great sponsor. A&W Trucking is a co-sponsor and they’ve been with us. We’ve got a winning team, but we’ve had a lot of bad luck. We have a lot of people that work hard and put it together. Kirk Shelmerdine, the crew chief, he’s super.”
Childress told Paterson after the victory that he hoped the tide of poor luck would turn with the first win finally in the books.
“Racing’s tough,” he said. “You can’t count on nothing from race to race. You just have to go out and race every race individually and do it as hard as you can.”
With that first victory officially in the books, RCR’s winning ways were far from over.
Rudd piloted the No. 3 Piedmont Airlines Chevrolet to a second win in 1983 at Martinsville Speedway in September, again dominating the race by leading 380 of the 500 laps.
“It was a great team, I just think it needed a little bit more strength in it,” Rudd later said. “I think Richard knew exactly how to do it by making the change with Earnhardt. The history of what happened after that set the tone for the record books today.”
In 1984, Dale Earnhardt rejoined the team and went on to record 69 victories for the team. RCR has also been to Victory Lane with Kevin Harvick, Robby Gordon, Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer and Paul Menard all behind the wheel.
This year at Darlington Raceway, the No. 3 Chevrolet driven by Austin Dillon and the No. 31 Chevrolet of Ryan Newman will throwback to that first win at Riverside International Raceway on June 5, 1983.