McGEE: Childress still an independent owner

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Ryan McGee

On Thursday, presents "Richard Childress: Racing to Success". Childress and his teams talk with Steve Byrnes about the past, the present and the future of the six-time Winston Cup championship team. There are certain breeds of men that have become increasingly hard to find. There are no Steve McQueens left in Hollywood. Roy Rogers and the rest of silver-screen cowboys have ridden off into the sunset. And when was the last time you heard about a test pilot doing something as cool as some of Chuck Yeager's bravest moments? On that same endangered species list is the group that laid the foundation for what has become the most popular form of racing in the United States ¿ the independent driver/owners. From the 1950s through the mid-1980s, the likes of Richard Petty, David Pearson, Ned Jarrett, Fred Lorenzen, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison dominated the NASCAR Winston Cup Series with "factory rides" out of Detroit. However, the stars weren't the only drivers on the track every weekend. Filling the fields each and every lap were guys who took out second mortgages on their houses to buy parts, worked on their own race car during the week and towed that car to the track themselves on the weekends. I'm talking about the independent driver/owners of NASCAR. Guys like Ralph Earnhardt, Neil Castles, Cecil Gordon, Elmo Langley, ¿ and, believe it or not, Richard Childress. Before the fame, before the millions, before The Intimidator, Childress had designs on being a championship driver and owner. "I was running dirt tracks, Late Models and asphalt on little tracks all over the South," recalls the Winston-Salem, N.C. native. "I started out running at Bowman-Gray Stadium and started working my way up. My first Winston Cup race ¿ we called it the Grand National division then ¿ was the first race at Talladega when most of the regular drivers boycotted. I came back two years later and ran on and off until going full-time in the mid-70s." From that 23rd-place finish at Talladega in 1969 until the middle of the 1981 season, Childress the driver made 285 Winston Cup starts. Over that span, "R.C." picked up 76 top-10 finishes in his self-owned, self-built, self-towed No. 3 racecar. Fittingly, his career best finish was third ¿ coming at Nashville on July 15, 1978, five laps down to race winner Cale Yarborough in Junior Johnson's factory-backed Chevy. "Looking back, it was a hard time, but it was a great time," says the 57-year old. "We almost won a couple of times. We finished in the top 10 in points a handful of times. And I made friendships that will never go away. It was an exciting time to be a part of this sport." At the midpoint of 1981, Childress hit a crossroads in his career. Car owner Rod Osterlund had gone bankrupt, meaning that his driver ¿ 30-year old Dale Earnhardt ¿ was out of a ride. Just two years earlier, Earnhardt had won the Winston Cup title with Osterlund, now he was pacing the garage with his hat in his hand, filling the field in a third-string car owned by J.D. Stacy. It was then that Richard Childress removed himself from the ranks of the breed he had helped create. The driver/owner would now be just the owner. "I got out of my own car and hired Dale," he remembers. "Originally, I had intended to drive again. But after the first few races he ran for me, I knew that I needed to be running a race team instead of driving." In 11 races, Earnhardt and Childress didn't win, but they did pick up six top-10 finishes. After 1981, Earnhardt left to drive for the powerhouse team of Bud Moore, leading Childress to hire . Rudd finished ninth in points in 1982 and '83, winning two races. At the end of 1983, Earnhardt decided he was leaving Bud Moore's organization to rejoin Childress. The result was the most legendary driver-owner pairing in the history of NASCAR. "We struggled those first couple of years," Earnhardt recalled in a 1999 interview. "We won a few races, but we were wrecking a lot and blowing up a lot of engines. Richard came to me in 1985 and said, ¿Dale, this team is doing you justice. You're a champion. If you want to leave, I'll understand.' I told him I wasn't going anywhere. He had stuck with me when I was struggling, and I was going to stick with him because of that. The next year, things took off." In 1986, Childress and Earnhardt won their first NASCAR Winston Cup title together. In 1987, they won their second. Two more came in 1990 and '91, followed by another pair in ¿93 and '94. During the Earnhardt years, the Richard Childress Racing operation moved from its tiny Welcome, North Carolina race shop to a much larger facility next door. Childress expanded his team from one car to two, adding the number 31 team in 1996, moving his 1995 championship-winning Craftsman Truck Series team up to the big leagues. Everything was rolling in the right direction until the final lap of the Daytona 500 on February 18, 2001. "When Dale died, it took an awful lot for us not to throw our hands up and say, ¿Well, that was fun but it's over' and pack up our stuff and quit. But I also knew that Dale would have gotten mad at us for doing that. That being said, going back to Rockingham that next week and putting that car out there without him in it was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. I don't know how we got through it." In 2000, Childress and Earnhardt had carefully crafted a five-year plan that would eventually build Richard Childress Racing into a powerful three-car operation. West Coast youngster was in RCR's Busch Series car, prepping for an arrival in the Winston Cup Series two years later. But the death of Childress' best friend had accelerated the methodical blueprint into a sprint. Harvick was in Winston Cup immediately. By the end of the year, Skinner was out, replaced by a two-headed monster of and . Soon Green and Gordon were both signed and RCR was a three-car team overnight. On top of it all, RCR was in yet another new building, converting Earnhardt's old shop into a museum for fans. The future had arrived a little quicker than expected. "When you think about it, it's hard to catch your breath. And I think that all of the changes and all of the growth and the additions have been amazing." That's when the racer's face takes on a bit of a scowl. "But we aren't winning races. And that bothers me." Harvick, Gordon, and Green share only four top 10s between them this season. Harvick's last win came 26 races ago. Gordon's lone visit to Victory Lane was over Thanksgiving weekend of 2001. In 50 starts with RCR, Green has yet to win. The average points position of the three Childress drivers? A very dull 19th. "We were behind last year," he admits. "I think we started out behind. I think a big part of that was adding the AOL team. There was more to it than what we realized. I think now that we've gotten through building that we're where we need to be. Putting all the teams together, getting our fab shop and engine shop in order we'll keep working on it until we get it where I think the three-car team works." He pauses, reaches back into 40 years of risk-taking experience before verbalizing his next thought. "If I have to tear it all down and start over, I will. I have to make it work."
Ryan McGee is the managing editor of and on Fox Sports Net. He can be reached at his e-mail address:

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