Popcorn, Peanuts to Racing: Childress’ Road to the Hall of Fame

Popcorn, Peanuts to Racing: Childress’ Road to the Hall of Fame

Richard Childress has come a long way since his days of selling peanuts and popcorn at Bowman-Gray Stadium. Now the face of one of NASCAR’s most successful teams, Childress looks back fondly at that 7-year-old who fell in love with a sport that would shape his life.

“I told myself ‘okay, I want to be a race car driver some day,’” Childress said from his office at Richard Childress Racing [RCR] in Welcome. “I went out and bought a 47 Plymouth. I paid $40 for it and the rest is history.”

Childress started making his own racing history in 1969 when he made his debut on the NASCAR circuit at Talladega. He spent the next decade competing as an independent driver for his fledgling organization, RCR. Childress proved to be a competent driver, finishing in the top-10 76 times during his 12-year career, but he never managed to find Victory Lane. The wins he missed out on as a driver would be made up plenty once he transitioned to a full-time owner in 1981.

After Childress retired from driving, a racer named Dale Earnhardt agreed to get behind the wheel of RCR’s No. 3 Wrangler car for the 1981 season. Over the next two seasons, Ricky Rudd came aboard and led Childress to his first win before Earnhardt returned to the organization in 1984. Earnhardt and Childress combined to win six of the next 10 NASCAR championships, and the rest really is history.

“You always dream of doing the best you can and you had to be committed at whatever it was you were doing,” Childress said. “I happened to surround myself with the right people.”

NASCAR immortalized Childress last year when he was inducted in the Hall of Fame, an accomplishment he wasn’t sure he’d live to see. 

“I was nominated the first time but it took five times,” said Childress. “They told me the reason I didn’t go in earlier was that you had to die or quit racing or retire, and I didn’t like the first one at all. They changed the ruling and Rick Hendricks and I were able to go in. It was really a rewarding honor for everyone who has worked here at RCR. It wasn’t just me, it was all the employees, all the drivers, everybody. When I went in the whole company went in.”

Despite all the wins and all the championships, Childress has stayed true to his values. He believes in giving back and nothing shows that more than RCR and its sprawling compound snuggled in northern Davidson County. Childress, who grew up in Forsyth County, first came to Welcome in the 1970s following a little encounter with Mother Nature.

“I was a south side kid in Winston-Salem andI had an old shop rented that we built old wrecked cars and raced out of,” Childress said. “A bad storm came up and messed an engine up that I was building so I came down here and built a shop off Gumtree Road. Then I found this land and I bought it and built our first shop up here. We had 30,000 square feet and today we have more than half a million square feet.”

RCR’s expansion is reflected in the Welcome community. With more than 800 employees, Childress understands the impact his organization has on local businesses. When the team is out of town at a race, the community notices.

“I’ve always wanted to be here,” said Childress. “For us to move up here and stay here and give jobs and give back to the community is big. We’re an economic impact in Welcome and this whole area, from the restaurants to the filling stations to the drug stores. I try to do everything to support everything in the county that I can.”

Childress didn’t simply sit atop his perch at RCR signing paychecks. He kept the pulse on the community and was ready to step in when he felt the area needed a boost. In 2004, as Davidson County struggled with a mass exodus of jobs in the furniture, textile and tobacco industries, Childress opened Childress Vineyards in Lexington as a way to give back.

“I built the winery because we lost so many jobs,” Childress said. “I built the winery mostly because everything else had left. Instead of going to California or New York, I decided to do it here. If everybody on this earth, if they leave it a little better than when they came, it would be a better place for everyone.”

As more and more racing teams slowly migrated to the Charlotte area, Childress elected to keep his operation in Welcome.

Childress Nascar Hall of Fame with grandsons

Childress at Hall of Fame

Childress and his two grandsons attending this year's Hall of Fame induction ceremony. 

“Once you got people here, they stayed,” said Childress. “I’ve got some people working here who have been here 30 years. At the time it was by design; I wanted to be away from the Charlotte area. The Petty’s were near here and Junior Johnson was up in Wtilkesboro so we had a pretty good deal set up on the perimeters. You hired people back then and they stuck with you because it was so hard to get a job in Charlotte.”

With five decades of racing under his belt, Childress realizes the importance of changing with the times. RCR, like virtually every professional sports organization, has felt the repercussionsof a struggling economy over the past decade. Finding new ways to keep people engaged both at the track and at home watching on television, Childress feels, is the key to NASCAR maintaining its standing in professional sports.

“Everything in life goes in cycles,” Childress said. “In 2003, '04, '05, we couldn’t build enough grandstands. Take Charlotte for instance. It was up to 160,000 people and we sold completely out. Today, if you have still 100,000 people, the place looks empty, but 100,000 people at a sporting event is major. One challenge is making sure we can fill the seats. We’re like every other sport; you’d rather have your stadium full. The biggest challenge we have today is people’s time. I don’t have the attention span I had five years ago because there are things I want to do. Technology is making everybody’s lives more complicated because there’s always stuff we want to do. It’s a bigger challenge today than ever. You just try to do the best you can and adjust for the situation that you’re in. NASCAR is changing the ways they do a lot of things. I wish all of our races were 300-milers. I don’t think any race should last over three hours. You can have plenty of entertainment before and afterwards to make sure people get their money’s worth. I think you get the same effect.”

Stage racing is NASCAR’s newest feature, and while Childress didn’t believe in it at first, he sees the positive results it’s had on the sport.

“I think [stage racing] has really been good,” said Childress. “I questioned it to start with but I think it’s really been good for the fans and it’s grown a lot of interest. People are staying on TV longer.”

NASCAR also has been hit with a string of superstar drivers deciding to retire. Dale Earnhardt Jr. recently joined an all-star list of drivers who elected to step away from the track, joining stalwarts such as Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards. Childress believes this happens every decade or so, as the older generation makes way for fresh new faces.

“It happens every 15 years,” said Childress. “I remember as a kid running those cars at Bowman-Gray Stadium and we had Junior Johnson and Lee Petty and those guys. They then turned it over to Richard Petty, Dave Pearson, and Cale Yarborough. That group then turned it over to Earnhardt, [Darrell] Waltrip, and Rusty Wallace. Those guys turned it over to Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. Now that whole group is turning it over to Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon, and Chase Elliott. It’s just a changing of the guard. It goes to show how old I am that I’ve seen four of them.”

RCR has experienced a youth movement of its own with the addition of Childress’ two grandsons – Austin and Ty Dillon. Childress had hoped his grandsons would pick something other than going 200 mph around a race track, but now that they’re in the fold, he couldn’t be happier.

“I told them I’d rather they had done anything but racing,” Childress said. “I want them to be happy and satisfied with what they’re doing. I’m just glad they both got to have the stick-and-ball childhood and when they were ready they gave me a call. That was the most expensive call I ever had. We still hunt and go fishing together and we have dinner as a family together.”

RCR remains one of the elite teams in NASCAR, and already has one of its cars locked into the playoffs following Ryan Newman’s victory in Phoenix earlier in the season. Childress said his goal coming into every season is getting all of his cars into the post-season and he feels Austin Dillon is due for his first win at any time. A partnership with Germain Racing on Ty Dillon’s car has kept the younger grandson running with the leaders virtually every week.

“You start the year out trying to get everyone in the chase that they’re in,” Childress said. “You’ve also got to make sure you’re funding enough. My goal is to keep as much funding as I can to keep as many jobs as I can. It’s no different than Fox, NBC or NASCAR.”

Having accomplished nearly everything there is to do in the sport, Childress sees himself  gravitating towards other ventures in his life. Childress and his wife Judy in 2008 founded The Childress Institute for Pediatric Trauma, an institute dedicated to reducing death and disability to children under the age of 18 following an injury.

“I want to be involved until I’m gone,” said Childress. “I’m just trying to get myself in a situation where I can do other things.”

Childress also was recently named the first vice-president of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and will be the president in two years. He views the position as another chance to give back.

“I want to try and get things where I can spend a little time with that,” said Childress. “It’s a huge deal. It’s about protecting our country and protecting our freedoms.”

Childress has cemented his legacy in NASCAR and his place among the sport’s greats became official last year when he became a member of the hall of fame. To the people of Welcome and Davidson County, Childress sits alone at the top when it comes to putting a community first and always finding a way to give back.

Not bad for a kid selling popcorn and peanuts.