Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Pillars of North Carolina: Richard Childress

The racing legend’s career includes pit stops in entrepreneurship, wildlife conservation, guns and winemaking.

Winston-Salem native Richard Childress became famous during a storied career on the racetrack, competing against other stock-car racing legends and eventually landing in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.  Childress’ competitive spirit and winning attitude later drove him to other successful ventures, including heading a NASCAR team at the height of superstar Dale Earnhardt’s career. Later, Childress formed one of the state’s largest wineries.

At 75, Childress is chairman and CEO of Richard Childress Racing, headquartered on a 52-acre campus in Welcome, about 16 miles south of Winston-Salem. Since 1969, the family-owned business has grown to include two teams in the NASCAR Cup Series and a team in the Xfinity Series. It builds and engineers its own stock cars. Childress’ son-in-law, Mike Dillon, was a Busch Series driver in the mid-1990s and now serves as RCR’s executive vice president of business operations. Grandsons Austin and Ty Dillon, along with Tyler Reddick, are key team drivers.

[/media-credit] Photo credit: 2012 RacingOne

Childress retired as a racer in 1981 with six top-five and 76 top-10 finishes. Meanwhile, RCR teams have collected more than 200 wins and 16 championships across the NASCAR series.

Childress and his wife, Judy, became interested in winemaking while visiting California vineyards when he raced in Sonoma. In 2004, Childress Vineyards opened in Lexington. Wines created from European varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Grigio and native grapes such as muscadine are available in the tasting room, gift shop, online or in the winery’s Bistro restaurant.

Off the track, Childress was a longtime supporter of the National Rifle Association, rising to first vice president of the group’s board. With a scandal brewing over mishandled funds by NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre, he stepped down in 2019, citing business obligations. Several other board members made the same decision. The NRA is now facing pressure by the New York attorney general to dissolve.

Childress and Judy founded the nonprofit Childress Institute for Pediatric Trauma in 2008. Along with Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, the group conducts research on preventing severe injuries in children. He served on the board of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation and supports wetland conservation nonprofit Ducks Unlimited and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a conservation and pro-hunting organization.

Comments are edited for length and clarity.

One of the first times I remember Dale Earnhardt was back in 1974 or 1975. My brother called me one night. He was chief steward at Caraway Speedway [in Sophia]. He said, “Boy, if you ever look for a driver, you need to watch for this Dale Earnhardt. He and Butch Lindley came across the line down here, and Dale had two wheels up on top of the wall and never lifted and won the race.”

I remember a race at Metrolina Speedway in Charlotte in 1974. On the last lap, I was in second with Cale Yarborough right in front of me. I knew there was one way to win, and that was by driving there. Cale and I got together on the last lap, and I ended up winning the race. Cale was really mad, but we were still friends after that.

After the race, Earnhardt came over to me sitting on the trailer wheel. He finished second. He came up in that Dale Earnhardt way, long, shaggy hair and moustache. Both of us were rough-looking kids back then. He poked me right in the chest and said, “Next time I race with you, I’m going to beat your ass.”

In the early days, Junior Johnson helped mentor me through a lot of times and changes [and helped me understand] the sport. When I was driving, I’d buy used parts from him. He sort of took a liking to me. In 1981, when Dale and I got together, I met with him at the Days Inn in Anniston, Ala. He said, “Let me tell you, Richard, there are a lot of race car drivers out there, but we don’t have a lot of car owners coming up. I think you’d make a better car owner than a driver.” So I took his advice.

I didn’t mentor [Dale Earnhardt]; I think we mentored each other. We had a partnership that was beyond a lot of expectations at the time. Two guys with the same personalities would never get along, but we proved a lot of people wrong.

Every time we’d load up to go to the racetrack, I’d say, “We’re taking our friends with us. We don’t have any friends at the racetrack.” And that way, you didn’t back off for nobody.

You went there to win, and you were mad if they took the trophy and the money. That was our motto: Take your friends with you if you’re going to win.

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My favorite [drivers] are my two grandsons, Austin Dillon and Ty Dillon — to see them grow from where they started with a Bandolero car. One of the most expensive phone calls I ever got was when Ty Dillon asked me, “Pop-pop, you said if we ever wanted to go racing to give you a call. We’re ready to go.” I laid a plan out for them, how we wanted to see them be successful.

I said, “Guys, you’re not going to race just to be racing. You’ve got to prove your way all the way through it.” Both [Austin and Ty] have won races and championships. They’ve proved it on their own. I’m really proud of them for what they’ve accomplished.

People still love racing. They’ll watch it when they can on TV. Our TV ratings are still good. Are they what they were in 2003, 2004 and 2005? Probably not. But the whole sport has changed. I think NASCAR has a bright future. They have a lot of young superstars coming up that have followings. These newer, younger drivers are bringing their groups in. And [when] you get people involved like Michael Jordan and Pitbull, that just helps elevate the sport as well.

When I first got into [winemaking], I went to a wine seminar at one of those hotels near the Greensboro airport. All these local wineries had wine set up to drink. Man, I could hardly drink any of them. But North Carolina now has some really sophisticated wines. Our goal is to see every winery in North Carolina be successful. I wish we had one across the street and one at the next exit.

You see people coming in limousines, you see them coming in bus loads, you see them coming in groups. [There are] more birthday parties [at Childress Vineyards] than you can imagine.

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You have to move with the trends. We go where the market is — that’s the key about the wine business and no different than racing. You have to be able to change with the times. At first, we saw more wine connoisseurs. Now we’re getting such a different group and a younger group. They love to learn about the wine experience.

I do stuff with the military any chance I get. Before COVID, the first Wednesday of every month, we would have a veterans coffee [event at the winery]. The best one that still sticks in my mind today, we had about 1,200 veterans from all over. We had 82 World War II veterans there that day. We owe so much to that group. Most of them are in their mid-90s. I went around and shook their hands. ■

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