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CALIFORNIA SPEEDWAY | OVERSEER

Leading the Way : 'Coach' Richter Returns to Southern California and Brings Auto Racing Back With Him

June 18, 1997|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He's called "Coach," but he never has been a coach. He's one of the most respected personalities in motor racing, but he never has been a car owner, a mechanic or a race driver.

Les Richter, "Coach," has been valedictorian of his graduating class at California, Dallas' first pick in the 1952 NFL draft, traded to the Rams for 11 players, a member of the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame, president of Riverside International Raceway and a NASCAR executive.

Impressive credentials all, but what you remember most after shaking hands with Richter is that your hand disappeared inside his massive paw.

Richter, at 67, an age when most men are scaling back, retiring or sitting with their grandchildren, is embarking on a new career as executive vice president of California Speedway.

Not entirely new, perhaps, because he has run race tracks before, but new in that he is the point man in Roger Penske's plan to turn Southern California into a racing metropolis, anchored by the $110-million, two-mile banked oval that has emerged from the rotting ruins of the Kaiser steel mill in Fontana.

Richter was vice president of planning and development, and director for competition for NASCAR and its hugely successful Winston Cup stock car series when Penske asked NASCAR President Bill France if he would lend Richter to help in building the new speedway.

France liked the idea. Richter and his wife, Marilyn, liked the idea because it meant returning to their longtime home in Riverside. Penske liked the idea because it meant he had a leader in place who knew all the nuances of the racing business in the Inland Empire.

"I thought I'd be here a couple of years and then go back to Daytona Beach and take up where I left off," Richter said. "Now, it looks like I'm here for the duration. After watching Riverside and Ontario [Motor Speedway] go under, I think all the signs are right for California Speedway to be successful.

"If Ontario could have made it to 1982 or 1983, when television discovered stock car racing, it could have survived. The new track is only a couple of miles from the old place, but the whole atmosphere has changed. NASCAR is the fastest growing sport in the country today."

France credits Richter with a lot of that change.

"Les helped guide us through a time of rapid growth," France said. "There have been a lot of adjustments to make, and Les was there to make them."

One of Richter's most important contributions at Fontana, even before the toxic waste cleanup was completed and construction began, was to win support of the neighboring communities for the project.

"At first, we had a lot of people saying they didn't want a race track in their area, but after I pointed out what a blight they had, and what a difference it would be with a clean grandstand, landscaped trees and grass and paved parking, it wasn't a hard sell," Richter said.

"The bottom line was, we were improving a blemished situation in that area. We also emphasized the economic turnaround. This piece of property was an important economic generator when the steel mill was operating. Then it went away."

At its peak, Kaiser had 11,000 employees and was the ninth-largest steel mill in the United States. It closed at the end of 1983.

"With the race track operating, it should become an economic generator again," Richter said. "All you need do is look around the perimeter of the track and see how all the businesses have spruced up their property. At first, they were afraid of a race track, but once they saw what we were doing, they realized that it was good for their own property value.

"When you convince people that change may help them in their pocketbook, it's easier to sell your idea."

Richter got into motor racing quite by accident.

He was an all-NFL linebacker, training with the Rams in Redlands in July 1959, when oilman Ed Pauley, one of the Ram owners, called.

"Slide over to Riverside on one of your days off and take a look at a fork in the highway that goes to San Diego," Pauley told Richter. "There's about 640 acres of land with a long-term lease on it, with favorable options to buy.

"There's supposed to be an automobile race track. It's got asphalt, and there's something about a road course, like they race on in Europe. We want you to go over and verify the land and the acreage and get back to us."

On a day off, Richter drove the 20 miles and took a look.

"The property was about the way they described it," Richter recalls. "It had a fence around it, no grandstands, no towers, nothing there to speak of except a piece of asphalt with a fence around it."

A year later, Richter got another call from Pauley. He, along with fellow Ram owners Fred Levy and comedian Bob Hope, had bought majority interest in the track and wanted Richter to sort of oversee it.

Joe Perry was the track's general manager at the time. After Perry died in 1962, Richter retired from football and became general manager.

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