Richard Childress recalls the gamble on Dale Earnhardt that almost broke him

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Richard Childress is back at the site of where it really all began for Richard Childress Racing.

Yet it almost was a short-lived run. Or so it would seem.

It was in 1981 at Talladega Superspeedway that Childress made the seemingly abrupt transition from driver to strictly car owner – taking out a second mortgage on his house and gambling literally everything he owned on a driver named Dale Earnhardt to do so. Although Childress fielded his first car for himself in 1969 and did so full-time from 1976 until that ’81 day in Talladega, it was then that he took his role as an owner to a different and much higher, albeit more expensive, level.

The late Earnhardt, who won a record-tying seven NASCAR Premier Series championships before passing away in a tragic last-lap accident in the 2001 Daytona 500, had won the first of those titles in 1980 while driving for owner Rod Osterlund.

But barely one month after Osterlund sold his racing operation to J.D. Stacy, Earnhardt met with Childress at the old Aniston Inn near the Alabama track and they cut a deal that resulted in Childress putting Earnhardt in the car Childress had been fielding and driving himself since 1976.

That specific deal was only for the final 11 races of the ’81 season. It was all Childress could afford at the time, and actually even more than he could afford at the time.

“When Osterlund was bought out by J.D. Stacey, Dale didn’t want to be sold, was basically what it came down to,” Childress recalled recently. “We were friends. I never will forget. We were in Aniston, Alabama, at Talladega, and he and I talked earlier that day and had put our deal together.”

Childress ran that Talladega race, but stepped out of the car afterward to let Earnhardt take over. Childress, who had been driving for 12 years in NASCAR’s top series at the time, would make only one more start, the 285th of his career, in the season finale that year at Riverside.

“I didn’t want to get out of the car, but I knew the opportunity was there – and I didn’t want to pass up what was a great opportunity. I knew Dale was a championship driver,” Childress said. “That was one of the biggest breaks in the history of RCR and for Richard Childress.”

Perhaps the only one bigger came after that 1981 season. Childress was not only broke, but worse than broke. He was in serious debt to the tune of some $75,000 – unsure how he would pay it off, much less field a team for an entire season in 1982.

“I was maxed out. I did everything I could do on my home, I sold everything I thought I had that I could sell, just to run Dale those (11) races,” Childress said. “I had borrowed some money from folks and everything just to run those (11) races.

“And when it was over, Ed Bowman (president of primary sponsor Wrangler jeans) called me and said, ‘Come on over and have lunch.’ I told him exactly where we were. I was somewhere around $75,000 in debt. I was really in the hole.

“So about a week later, he called me and said, ‘I want you to come over again. I want to talk to you.’ I came over (to Wrangler headquarters in Greensboro) and he handed me a check for $50,000. So that really helped me going into the following year.”

Childress isn’t sure Richard Childress Racing, which would go on to field multiple teams for the next 35 years and still counting and win a total of 15 championships across NASCAR’s top three national touring series, could have survived without the surprise check.

“It would have been tough,” he said. “It’s hard to say. I never looked back. I just looked ahead, and that was one of the things that helped me look ahead. I don’t know where we would have been.

“Hell, who knows? Maybe I’d still be in debt – or worse. It’s not easy. Those were some tough days.”

Although Earnhardt left RCR to drive for owner Bud Moore for the 1983 season – “We ran good (in 1983 with Ricky Rudd as the driver), but I knew we didn’t have what it took to have Dale run for a championship,” Childress said – Earnhardt returned in 1984 and remained with Childress for the rest of his career, winning six of his seven championships under the RCR banner.

An ironic thing happened along the way, as Bowman related to author Leigh Montville for the book “At the Altar of Speed.”

Talking about giving and loaning money to Childress in the early 1980s, Bowman told Montville: “He’d need money to buy a part or something and we’d give it to him. It was funny. One day I turned around and we weren’t making loans to these guys anymore because they were rich. It seemed like it happened in a minute.”