Photo Credit: Pete Biro
by Tom Higgins
Les Richter can lay claim to the rarest of honors. He's a hall-of-famer in two sports—football and auto racing.
Richter first gained fame as a two-time All American linebacker in the early 1950s at the University of California-Berkley, where he graduated as valedictorian of his class. Auto racing was to come later in his professional career.
After serving two years in the U.S. Army following college, Richter was selected No. 2 overall in the pro football draft by the Dallas Texans. The Texas team traded him to the Los Angeles Rams for 11 players, still an NFL record.
L.A. got the best part of the deal. Les was an eight-times-in-a-row all-pro with the Rams, not only playing defense (and sometimes offensive line), but kicking extra points and field goals.
"The National Football League wasn't near as glamorous, or as enriching, back then as it is nowadays," Richter recalled a couple years ago. "I remember being paid only $25 for pre-season games.
"We asked for $50 per game, laundry money of $15 per week and an increase of per diem on road trips from $7 to $12. Also, we wanted the team to buy our football shoes. We were turned down, and the league essentially said anyone who didn't like it could go home."
Richter stuck it out and played through 1962. Richter got into motorsports in 1959 as part of a group that bought Riverside Raceway in Southern California.
"I'll never forget the first time I saw the place," he recalls. "It was just a strip of asphalt twisting over rocky, hilly terrain. There were rattlesnakes, coyotes and no telling what else around.
"It took us a while to get started, to be taken seriously. What really enabled the track to take off is when NASCAR's Wood Brothers, Glen and Leonard, came out west and put Dan Gurney in their car. Dan probably was the most respected driver in America at the time.
"Dan drove the Wood Brothers Fords to victories in our NASCAR races in 1964, '65 and '66. Parnelli Jones won for them at Riverside in '67 and Gurney again in '68."
I once asked Richter his most amusing memory from pro football.
He laughed heartily.
"It happened my rookie year," Les said, his eyes twinkling. "We were playing the Detroit Lions and their great quarterback, Bobby Layne, in the L.A. Coliseum.
"In pre-game warm-ups Layne was throwing passes end-over-end. He obviously had partied all night. At halftime I think we were ahead 17-0. You know, the Lions got him to come around at halftime and he brought them back to beat us."
Les said the toughest player he ever faced was Jim Taylor, a Green Bay running back.
"I tried to tackle him head on, one-on-one," said Richter. "He left a bony bulge in my shoulder the size of a peach that's still there. I call it my 'Jim Taylor Knot.'
Who among the drivers of the 1980s and '90s did Richter see being as tough as Jim Taylor?
"No contest," said Richter. "Dale Earnhardt. He would have been a great safety."
While president of Riverside Raceway Richter helped form the International Race Of Champions (IROC) Series in 1972. When the Riverside track closed in 1989, he joined NASCAR as a vice president, working out of the Daytona Beach headquarters.
Upon retiring from NASCAR, Richter became a vice president of the California Speedway at Fontana, and still serves as a consultant.
Now 78, Richter and his wife Marilyn reside near Riverside.