Richard Childress was a 19-year-old race fan when he drove south to Daytona Beach from North Carolina in 1965 to roll into Daytona International Speedway for the first time.
Then the track was a bare shadow of the mega-stadium-like facility that now towers over the major gateway to one of Florida’s key beach cities. Still, it was dazzling for a kid from the Carolinas with racing stars in his eyes.
“Came down with a guy named Wayne Smith,” Childress remembers. “Of course, it was before any of this looked anywhere like it does now. We stayed in a campground out on Nova Road (near the track) and slept in a tent. Came back a year or two later and slept in a tent again, and then another year slept in a camper in one of the (infield) road-course corners.”
Only a few years later, Childress drove in the Daytona 500 for the first time, finishing 40th after his Chevrolet’s engine failed in the 1974 race. Over his years as a driver, Childress would race in the 500 eight times, scoring a high finish of ninth in 1976, the year of the famous last-lap crash between Richard Petty and David Pearson, seconds before Pearson won the race.
“I don’t think I ever entered a race that I didn’t think I had a chance to win,” Childress said. “I was thinking, ‘Is today the day all of them are going to have a problem or blow up or something and I can win?’ I always kept that in the back of my mind. I had a couple of really good cars over the years, did well at Darlington and Riverside. But here, just finishing this race was big.”
Childress, underfunded but a wild dreamer, never finished on the lead lap in the 500. His driving career lasted from 1969 to 1981, when he made the decision to become a full-time owner. Eventually, that choice would lead to a storied pairing with Dale Earnhardt Sr., six Cup championships and residency in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Famously, Childress’ Daytona 500 drought ended in 1998 when Earnhardt finally ended his own Daytona misery by winning the 500. That 500 was Childress’ 23rd.
There would be more dry years at stock car racing’s most famous track before Childress visited the 500’s victory lane again. Kevin Harvick won in an RCR car in 2007, and Austin Dillon, Childress’ grandson, scored in 2018.
Of course, there is a tragic dark side to the Childress Daytona story. Earnhardt was killed while driving RCR’s No. 3 in the 2001 500.
“We’ve had some of the biggest ups here and the biggest down when was when we lost Dale in 2001,” Childress said. “But I still love this place. It was one of Dale’s favorite race tracks. We had some conversations about retirement, and this track was still in his retirement plan.”
Childress, 76, remains active in the management of his race team. He’ll be back at DIS next month with drivers Tyler Reddick and Austin Dillon, back for yet another run at the 500, a race that has framed his career and its highs and lows.