DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (June 12, 2010) – Les Richter, who achieved extraordinary success in both a NASCAR executive and a National Football League defensive star, died Saturday morning at the age of 79 at Riverside (Calif.) Community Hospital.
After becoming both an All-American and All-Pro as a hard-nosed lineman and linebacker, Richter, a native of Fresno, Calif., brought an incomparable work ethic to the world of motorsports. His second career began in 1959 at Riverside International Raceway, where he quickly rose to become president and general manager in 1961.
Richter, affectionately known as “Coach” throughout the motorsports industry, came to NASCAR in 1983 and evolved into one of the most important advisors to then-NASCAR Chairman/CEO Bill France Jr. as NASCAR’s popularity expanded. Richter was named NASCAR's executive vice president of competition in 1986 and the senior vice president of operations in ’92.
His last job in motorsports was as vice president of special projects for Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., a track he helped come into existence and then become established as a big-time facility. As his health declined in recent years – Richter battled dementia and debilitating effects of old football injuries -- so did his visibility, as he spent most of his time at home in Riverside with his wife of 55 years, Marilyn.
Despite his failing health, Richter still delighted in meeting with old friends and was ever-ready with his trademark prank: extending his right hand, inviting a person to shake and squeeze ... and then applying a vise-grip handshake that felt like 1952 all over again, all the while smiling widely.
"Les Richter will be missed by the entire NASCAR community and always remembered for all he did for the sport – especially NASCAR's short-track racing and promoting the sport on the West Coast," said NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France. "Les, a tireless worker, was one of NASCAR's most respected officials and one of my father's most trusted lieutenants. Our respect and condolences go out to the Richter family."
After his All-American playing days as a linebacker and guard at the University of California, -- where he graduated as class valedictorian – Richter was drafted by the Dallas Texans of the NFL in 1952. When contract negotiations broke down, the Los Angeles Rams traded 11 players for the rights to Richter, who went on to play nine years (1954-62), and was an All-Pro selection eight times. Richter’s NFL career was delayed for two years, due to his service in the Korean War.
Richter was named to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1982. He has never been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and has been called by the some to greatest player to never make that hall.
“He was an impressive guy and had an impressive life,” NASCAR President Mike Helton said Saturday afternoon at Michigan International Speedway, where he informed competitors of Richter’s passing. “To be as genuinely human as he was … he had such a remarkable story all the way through his life. We were just very fortunate to have him as part of our community for a while.
“When you look at Les’ life, it was remarkable … he transcended two sports in a time period where both of them were developing.”
In addition to his wife, Richter is survived by a son, daughter and three granddaughters.