Richard Childress Gets Big Break
by Tom Jensen September 14, 2020
This Week in NASCAR History, the first Talladega race marked by controversy turns out to be just the opportunity one Hall of Famer needed.
September 14, 1969
One person’s dilemma is someone else’s opportunity. Hall of Famer Richard Childress (2017) learned that first hand in 1969, his first full season as a NASCAR racer, and the year he got what may have been the biggest break in his career.
In 1969, Childress began racing in the NASCAR Grand American Division, a series devoted to the popular pony cars of the era, including the Chevrolet Camaro, Ford Mustang and Pontiac Firebird. To get his NASCAR career started, Childress bought a wrecked 1968 Camaro for $400 and built it into a Garand American race car.
Success was hard to come by in that season, but Childress hung in there. He and the rest of the series regulars headed to Alabama in early September for the inaugural race weekend at Alabama International Motor Speedway (now Talladega Superspeedway).
The Grand American cars were slated to run a support race on Saturday, with the Grand National Division (now premier series) scheduled to race on Sunday. But the Grand National drivers were concerned about tire wear due to the unprecedented high speeds at the 2.66-mile, high-banked superspeedway.
The drivers briefly created an organization called the Professional Drivers Association and brought their concerns to Hall of Famer William H.G. France (2010), the founder and chairman of NASCAR. But after several contentious meetings over safety, most of the PDA drivers walked out, refusing to race on Sunday.
Faced with a shortage of cars and drivers for his first race at the new track, France asked Childress and the other Grand American Series drivers to stay and compete in the Grand National race. France promised to pay the drivers well for their loyalty, and he did.
The Grand American regulars agreed, and the field was set. The remaining Grand National drivers who did not boycott lined up for the start by how they qualified, and the Grand American competitors slotted behind them in the order that they finished in the Saturday race.
Childress raced in the main event, and found himself going 180 mph in his homebuilt $400 Camaro. Although his 23rd-place finish in his first premier series start was hardly remarkable, Childress’ financial windfall was, thanks to France being a man of his word.
“I came back with $4,000 or $5,000, maybe – more money than I’d ever seen in my life,” Childress said. “I figured, ‘Hell, I won’t ever have to work again.’”
With his winnings from Talladega, Childress earned enough money to gain a real toehold in the sport he loved so much.
“In everyone’s lives, there’s moments that change it and Talladega definitely set the road, the path for me to move up in racing,” Childress said. “I came back and bought some land, built a shop, started my first shop. Opened it up as a garage fixing wrecked cars and racing on the side.”
The rest of This Week in NASCAR History:
September 15, 1967
For six seasons, the premier series raced at Beltsville (Maryland) Speedway, a 0.500-mile short track about 28 miles southwest of Baltimore. Hall of Famer Richard Petty (2010) won the Maryland 300 at Beltsville in 1967, finishing two laps ahead of fellow Hall of Famer Bobby Allison (2011). Petty’s victory, which paid $1,400, was his seventh straight in what would become a record 10-race winning streak en route to another record, 27 victories in a single season.
September 16, 1956
One of the most unusual tracks in the first decade of NASCAR racing was Memphis-Arkansas Speedway in LeHi, Arkansas, a long 1.5-mile dirt track that played host to a 300-mile Convertible Division race. This race was swept by Hall of Fame teammates Curtis Turner (2016) and Joe Weatherly (2015) both of whom drove for the factory Ford team owned by Pete DePaolo. Turner won $3,800, as he finished three laps ahead of Weatherly. LeHi and the February Daytona Beach & Road Course race tied for largest purses in the series in 1956.
September 17, 1989
At Dover Downs International Speedway (now Dover International Speedway), Dale Earnhardt (2010) put on an intimidating performance, leading 375 of 500 laps to capture the Peak Performance 500 ahead of fellow Hall of Famer Mark Martin (2017) and Ken Schrader. Those three were the only drivers to finish on the lead lap at the “Monster Mile.” For his efforts, Earnhardt and his Hall of Fame team owner Richard Childress (2017) walked away $59,500 wealthier.
September 18, 1977
Competing against a field of 11 of the world’s best drivers from NASCAR, USAC and Formula One, Buddy Baker (2020) won an International Race of Champions (IROC) event at Michigan International Speedway. Baker finished ahead of Johnny Rutherford, A.J. Foyt and nine other racers, all driving identical Chevrolet Camaros. The victory came in Baker’s first IROC appearance and would be his only series win in seven starts.
September 19, 2011
After going winless with only three top-five finishes in NASCAR’s 26-race regular season, Hall of Famer Tony Stewart (2020) thought he didn’t belong in the premier series playoffs at all. But when the 10-race, season-ending playoffs began at Chicagoland Speedway, Stewart won his first race of the year by capturing the GEICO 400 and with it the $332,308 first-place money. That began a remarkable title run for Stewart, who won five of the last 10 races and with it his third championship as a driver and first as co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing.
September 20, 1964
At Orange Speedway, a 0.900-mile dirt track in Hillsborough, North Carolina, Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett (2011) lapped the field to capture a 167-lap premier series race and with it, the first-place money of $1,550. Hall of Famer Cotton Owens (2013) finished second, a lap behind Jarrett. Also finishing in the top five was fourth-place Wendell Scott (2015), who ended the race 11 laps behind Jarrett and his Bondy Long-owned Ford.