Richard Childress: Tragedy and triumph

Richard Childress was 5 when his daddy died. "From then on, I considered myself a man," he told me once. "Had to. There was nobody to go home to and whine, 'Johnny whipped my ass today.' I had to fight my own battles."

He still does, always will, even turning 65 next month at the helm of NASCAR's most resurgent team, hurtling back toward the pinnacle for the first time since Dale Earnhardt was his driver.

From first grade on, Childress cleaned the lunchroom and swept the hallways to earn his school lunch. He couldn't pay, and there were no free lunches in Winston-Salem, N.C., in the 1950s.

He hawked Cokes and peanuts in the grandstand at the Bowman Gray Stadium stock car races, watching Junior Johnson and Curtis Turner go at it out of the corners of his eyes.

He began dreaming there.

This week, as he announced yet another lucrative sponsorship in the super-funding of his Richard Childress Racing operation -- this one Budweiser for Kevin Harvick -- I couldn't help asking him after the toast with longnecks whether that little man, age 5, has ever left him.

"Not really," he said. "I never know that I may not have to be out selling peanuts in the grandstand again."

At first, I laughed. Then his eyes said he was serious. They didn't mist and they didn't glint, but they changed somehow, suddenly seeing again all they'd seen in the past.

"I've just never got comfortable -- you know?"

I know. And you should know too, as Childress sends Harvick closer and closer to RCR's first championship since 1994, Earnhardt's seventh and last.

Richard Childress is, you see, a Dickensian character, a little of Pip from "Great Expectations," a lot of Oliver Twist, with a touch of the class of David Copperfield, but his is a tale told in America.

As a teenager who didn't have time to finish high school, Childress looked for bigger bucks -- and found them in the deadliest part of the bootlegging trade.

The moonshine runners had it relatively easy. They just drove the liquor down from Wilkes County and parked their cars at the all-night gas station where Childress worked.

The runner might go off to see a girlfriend. Childress' job was to deliver the moonshine directly to the retailers, the illegal "drink houses" of Winston-Salem, where drunken bedlam was the only rule.

Delivering a few cases at a time, he saw "people coming out of those places with their guts hanging out -- all sorts of fights," he told me years ago. "Then I saw a guy get blown apart."

That's what got Childress out of the liquor business. Two men were arguing as he walked in, and "One came up with a shotgun and blew guts and blood everywhere."

From there, he went a safer but less lucrative route, into stock car racing. His first NASCAR race experience came on the notorious Talladega drivers' strike weekend of 1969. As a replacement driver, he took home $7,500.

"There's a wonderful picture [from that weekend] somewhere, of Childress with a glass of champagne and a bologna sandwich," Jim Hunter, NASCAR's grand old chief publicist, often claims.

Childress was indeed a champagne-and-bologna guy when I got to know him in 1979, when I rode with him -- a struggling independent driver, driving his own truck over the interstates, on the tour -- on a 17-day road trip.

The bologna side worked on anything that went wrong with that race car or that old C300 truck, and the champagne side ordered escargot in the finest restaurant in Ciudad Juarez when we ventured into Mexico on the way from Texas to California.

The champagne side loved to gamble: He was $5,000 down at a craps table in Vegas when one of his mechanics told him we had to go to stay on schedule. He told us to give him 10 minutes, and when we came back he was $5,000 up -- and ready to go.

Late at night, crossing the desert with no air conditioning in that truck, the champagne and bologna would mingle as he'd tell how he was plowing every penny back into that shoestring racing team, and how one day he would get out of the car and put a younger driver in it, and make something of it.

That was two years before he and Earnhardt got together. Earnhardt was unhappy with his team of the time, and after a midseason meeting, Childress agreed to climb out of the No. 3 car and put Earnhardt in the seat with Wrangler on the side.

Even in that partial season, with the Wrangler sponsorship, Earnhardt's wild wrecking left Childress $75,000 in the hole. He told Earnhardt, "We're not ready for a championship driver like you," and sent him off to a better-financed owner, Bud Moore, while Childress built his own team slowly with Ricky Rudd.

By the end of the 1983 season, Childress was ready to take Earnhardt back beginning in '84, but Moore stood on a balcony in Riverside, Calif., looked Childress in the eye and warned:

"Boy, he'll break you."

The rest, of course, is the history of the most storied partnership in NASCAR, as Earnhardt and Childress grew rich together, winning six of Earnhardt's seven championships.

That it was the perfect pairing, of two hardscrabble guys who had never finished high school, made it all the more devastating to Childress when Earnhardt was killed in 2001.

But the little man, age 5, was there, and Childress picked himself up and immediately placed an unknown California driver named Kevin Harvick in the most hallowed seat in the sport, though he changed the number from 3 to 29.

This is the 10th year of Childress' unflinching faith in Harvick through modest-to-good success and bitter criticism from Earnhardt's legions of fans.

But now they're at the brink of the championship. Harvick has led the point standings since May and has three wins, most recently winning this past Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, an intermediate-size track -- the type that is the key to winning the Chase.

And the sponsorship money is pouring into RCR for next year, not only from Budweiser for Harvick but from billionaire John Menard, who'll sponsor a fourth RCR car for son Paul. Funding for Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer is solid.

And RCR engines, supplied by the company's Earnhardt-Childress Racing engine co-op, are the overpowering envy of the sport right now.

Nobody would have blamed Childress if he had retired to that big ranch in Montana nine years ago after Earnhardt died.

Or if he left there only on his beloved big-game hunts from Africa to Alaska (a Cape buffalo once charged him, getting within 20 yards before he dropped it).

Or if he turned all his attention to his winery -- he developed a taste for good wine back in the champagne-and-bologna days, and "Today, to have my own, is pretty neat," he said the other day.

"I still get to do the things I want to do because I've got the right people in place," he said of the managers at RCR. Even the winery is run by his only child, daughter Tina, "and that's the neatest thing about it -- I get to spend time with her."

Still, the turnaround at RCR began in Childress' own uncomfortable mind, as he stood atop one of his haulers at Charlotte in May 2009, watching his cars go 'round ineptly, determining right then that "something has to change."

And even in acquiring the Budweiser sponsorship, arguably the most coveted among NASCAR teams, Childress himself was the point man.

Here's a man pushing 65, with everything he has ever wanted in life, yet the man of 5 presses on.

"There's a certain amount of fighter left in me," he said soon after the toast with longnecks. "I'm getting a little older, but I still -- you gotta fight to survive. And I want to win another championship for this organization. I want to be involved in it. And that drives me.

"And the two grandsons [Austin and Ty Dillon] coming along now, both of them racing [Austin at 20 has already won in the Truck series], it gets you excited to watch them."

All that good life aside, he paused and looked around the vast auditorium, where hundreds of RCR employees had sat for the Bud announcement.

"That's just part of 'em," he said of the more than 400 employed by RCR and ECR. "It's a big responsibility."

The man of 5 was fully with us now.

"We had a family day the other day -- all the kids and the wives that you're out there supporting," he said.

"It means a lot to me to take care of those people."

So they'll have someone to go home and whine to when Johnny whips their ass. So they can pay for school lunches. So they won't have to grow up facing sawed-off shotguns in drink houses.

That's a lot of why Richard Childress races, to this day.

If that sounds maudlin, you should have had him look you firmly in the eye and say, "Never forget where you come from, and never forget you may end up having to go back there someday."

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.