Longtime NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team owner Richard Chilress is no stranger to victory lane at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He’s been the winning car owner in three Brickyard 400 and has bragging rights on sending the most drivers to the IMS victory lane — three (Dale Earnhardt in 1995, Kevin Harvick in 2003, and most recently, Paul Menard in 2011).
The Sprint Cup Series heads to Indy this weekend, with the Nationwide Series in tow. Sunday’s Cup race will mark the 20th for the circuit at the famed Brickyard. Earlier this week, Childress looked back at NASCAR racing at the Brickyard, specifically his three wins there. Here’s a transcript:
RICHARD CHILDRESS: You know, when you said 20 years, it kind of reminds me of that old song Bob Seger sings, 20 Years Ago, Where Does It Go? It doesn’t seem 20 years ago when Dale Earnhardt pulled up there to run our first test. I guess that was a year or so before we went up there and raced, just to see how the Cup cars would do.
To be able to see that car go around the racetrack in such a historical place as Indy with all the history there, to have Dale go around there, it was pretty amazing. That was one of the first memories I have of being at Indy, other than going up there and jumping the fence one time, John Cooper let me go.
I think the win with Dale that day, I remember just like it was yesterday. We were getting ready to leave and to go to Ruth’s Chris to have dinner because we thought the race was going to be rained out. But the skies opened up. We beat Rusty out of the pits. I don’t remember if we took two, why we done it, but we beat Rusty out of the pits on final pit stop. Track position was everything. Dale held him off for the last 20 or so laps.
Q. Sunday’s race may add a little bit of personal interest to you with your grandson Austin running his first Brickyard 400. Any thoughts on his debut this weekend?
RICHARD CHILDRESS: It’s going to be really special to see him in a Cup car up there. Both of the grandsons ran the inaugural Nationwide race there.
But seeing him in a Cup car, we have special things going on that weekend, we have a lot going on with some sponsors and some folks there. I’m really, really proud to be there with him and to be able to watch him run that race.
We’re going to have an announcement coming soon on the sponsorship and it’s going to be a really special weekend.
Then coming back in 2003, we won with Kevin Harvick up there. That was a special win, as well, because we did start from the pole that day. We’ve been right there to win other Brickyards, but unfortunately we didn’t pull them off.
One that ranks really high, maybe above the other two, was when Paul Menard won in 2011. What made that so special was knowing that Paul’s family was there. Knowing what John Menard had put into that, I think he had entered like 30 some car over 20 years at Indy, in the Indy 500. To be part of watching his son win that race was such a special day.
Riding around the track, that’s the neatest part of Indy, is getting to ride around the track, seeing all the fans hollering. That’s really a cool thing right there.
Q. Richard, you talked about Dale’s win up there. Is there anything specific that you remember about the first race itself?
RICHARD CHILDRESS: The first race Jeff Gordon won, I think, if my memory serves me right. It was just the amount of people that were in the grandstands, the enthusiasm, walking out on pit road, thinking about all the history of the people that had walked out there on the starting grid before the race and stand out there, you take pictures and see everything.
Dale set on the pole for one of those races, and Rick Mast sat on the pole, I don’t think that was the first one. But that first race, just the crowd was what kind of blew me away.
I don’t even remember now where we did end up finishing in that race, but I knew we ran good.
Q. It was a big deal at that time for that. Is it still a marquee event to teams, owners and sponsors today?
RICHARD CHILDRESS: Yes, it is. If you want to win a race, you want to win the Daytona 500, you want to win the Coke 600, and Indy, the Brickyard 400. Those are the three, in my opinion, of the biggest crowns you can win.
Q. Richard, you’ve been a driver. Talk about the difficulties that this track presents in terms of just producing good side-by-side racing. It’s so fast on the straightaways, so tight in the corners. It has been a challenge to put on good shows, though they’ve been memorable.
RICHARD CHILDRESS: Yes, it is. It’s the same even prior to this new IndyCar. I think the new IndyCar works well with the draft. Hopefully our new Gen-6 will do the same thing. You’ll be able to draft a little better with it.
I think it’s such an aero-dependent racetrack that you can be 3/10ths faster than another car, and can’t be able to do it. With our new Gen-6 car, I’m hoping we can do a lot more drafting with it.
Q. Can you speak to the decline in the crowds. I know that isn’t your area of concern or expertise, but it has been a glaring thing we’ve seen.
RICHARD CHILDRESS: I know the crowds are down at football games, basketball games. A lot of other sports, they’re seeing some of the same things we’re going through. I think the economy has a lot to do with it, some to do with it.
I think you can see so much at home on your TV. A lot of people are throwing big parties. You have so much more access today than you had in the ’90s. You can pull it up on the Internet. There’s so many other ways to watch racing and be involved and not be there.
I think some of that, with just the technology today that’s out there, I think a lot of that’s part of the decline in several sports, not only NASCAR.
Q. Can you talk a little bit about why you think Chevrolet has been so successful at the Brickyard over the last 19 seasons.
RICHARD CHILDRESS: I guess they have won a lot of races. I don’t know how many of those they’ve won. But I think the caliber of the teams, the effort that every team puts in to go win at Indy, because we know it’s a big deal for Chevrolet to go up there and win. I think it’s just that extra motivation for all of us.
The other guys have it, too. But I think we know how important that win is for Chevy.
Q. I want to ask you about that inaugural Brickyard race. I know the story about when you went testing, how Dale wanted to lead that first lap of testing, Rusty beat him to the line. Inaugural race Dale starts second to Rick on the pole. How much was Earnhardt trying to lead that first lap at Indy? He bounced off the wall on turn four. How much does that matter, trying to lead that first lap of competition in the inaugural Brickyard 400?
RICHARD CHILDRESS: That was his goal. He had his head set he was going to lead that first lap. I couldn’t remember that race, I thought it was the earlier one when I was speaking about it. They ran that thing side-by-side. He come off of turn four on the outside and brushed the wall. We had to work on the car. Now I do remember it was the inaugural.
His whole goal from the time we set on the outside pole was that he was going to lead that race. I think if he would have set on the pole, we would have led the race. But we didn’t.
I remember now it did hurt us some in the field that day. We had a very fast racecar prior to that in practice.
Q. Was it surprising Rick Mast was able to hold on and lead that lap with how determined Dale was that day?
RICHARD CHILDRESS: For sure. I think him and Rick kept going back and forth gouging each other on who was going to lead that first lap. I think Rick was about as determined as Dale was that he was going to lead that first lap.
Q. What you said earlier about how Paul Menard’s victory ranks high, maybe above the other two. I know the Dale Earnhardt win was a big deal for you. Was it the fact also that it was Paul Menard’s first victory in Cup; did that make it more of a momentous win for you?
RICHARD CHILDRESS: Yeah. Not taking anything away from Dale or Kevin’s first win there, but that one was so special I think because of being able to win a race with Paul, being able to win at Indy where that whole family had put so much into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
John Menard played a huge role for many years. To be able to win that race with him, have his whole family there that day, it was almost like a storybook ending to a great venture in Indy for John Menard.
Q. I was wondering how it feels on being the only car owner to win at this racetrack with three separate drivers.
RICHARD CHILDRESS: I didn’t realize that until today. It’s really a neat deal. Hopefully we can add the fourth driver to that list this weekend. Not taking anything away from Kevin or Paul, but it would be neat to go win it with either one of the four.
But, yeah, that’s pretty neat. I didn’t even realize that until I was told that earlier today.
– photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR