Les Richter, twice a key force in establishing big-league auto racing in Southern California after a career as an all-pro linebacker with the Los Angeles Rams, died Saturday. He was 79.
Richter died at Riverside Community Hospital after suffering a brain aneurysm Friday, said his son, Jon.
Richter first led Riverside International Raceway, a twisty road-racing course, to national prominence largely by bringing NASCAR there in the early 1960s.
FOR THE RECORD:
Les Richter: The obituary of motor sports figure and former Los Angeles Rams player Les Richter in the June 13 California section said that Riverside International Raceway hosted its first NASCAR race in 1963. NASCAR first raced in Riverside in 1958. It was in 1963 that the Riverside track, then under Richter's management, became an annual fixture on the NASCAR schedule, where it remained until the track closed after the 1988 race. —
After that track closed in 1988, he helped supervise development of Auto Club Speedway, the 92,000-seat Fontana track initially called California Speedway that opened in 1997 and now hosts two top-level NASCAR races a year.
"As a colleague, his knowledge, passion and enthusiasm for the industry was beyond compare," Gillian Zucker, president of Auto Club Speedway, said in a statement Saturday. "As a mentor, he was always there with sage advice and a hug that would knock the wind out of you, but would leave no doubt how much he cared. He was a special friend and we will miss him dearly."
Richter, whose football background earned him the nickname "Coach," was an influential motor sports figure nationally even though he never drove a race car or turned a wrench.
Richter, "more than anyone but [NASCAR founder] Bill France Sr., was responsible for the expansion of NASCAR," the late Shav Glick, longtime motor sports writer for The Times, said in 2004 when Richter won an award named after Glick that is given to Californians with distinguished achievements in racing.
"Les Richter will be missed by the entire NASCAR community and always remembered for all he did for the sport on all levels," NASCAR Chairman and Chief Executive Brian France said in a statement.
As a former football player, Richter was an imposing figure with a thick, 6-foot-3 frame and massive hands, but he was also known for managing with persuasion, patience and planning.
In promoting Auto Club Speedway's construction, for instance, the track's original owner, Roger Penske, tapped Richter to meet with politicians and answer the public's questions at town hall meetings.
Richter "did everything that was needed to get this project off the ground," Penske's son Greg once said.
A Fresno native, Leslie Alan Richter was born Oct. 6, 1930. He was a star football player first at Fresno High School and then at UC Berkeley, where he was valedictorian and earned a degree in business administration. An offensive lineman, linebacker and kicker, he was named All-American his last two seasons at Cal.
Richter was one of the first players selected in the National Football League draft of 1952, only to be traded by the then-Dallas Texans, a one-season team on its way to becoming the Baltimore Colts, to the Rams for 11 players.
After he spent a two-year hitch in the Army, the seemingly lopsided trade worked in favor of the Rams, with Richter being a first-team all-pro linebacker in two of his nine seasons. He also was the team's No. 1 placekicker his first three seasons.
The high-water mark for the Rams during his tenure was the 1955 season, when they reached the NFL championship game only to lose to the Cleveland Browns, 38-14, at the Coliseum.
The Rams trained in Redlands in the 1950s, and one day the team's owners — who included the late oilman Edwin Pauley, namesake of UCLA's Pauley Pavilion — asked Richter to check on a 640-acre parcel in nearby Riverside that had a race track.
"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," Richter recalled.
Even so, the team owners bought it and, after Richter retired from football, he was named the track's general manager.
Richter then persuaded Bill France Sr. to bring stock-car racing to the West. It wasn't an easy task because NASCAR races then were run mostly on oval tracks in the Southeast. But in 1963, Riverside International Raceway played host to its first NASCAR race.
"He had a huge impact on motor sports in California," Ken Clapp, a retired NASCAR executive and longtime friend of Richter's, told The Times on Saturday. "He was sort of a godfather out here for NASCAR, and a mentor to all those who followed him" in operating and promoting the tracks, he said.
Over the next two decades, the track became a legendary venue for hosting nearly every form of motor racing, including cars from the Indy, Formula One and Trans-Am series, and for being used in countless movies and television shows.
After new owners acquired the track in 1983, Richter became an executive with NASCAR, based in Daytona Beach, Fla. He lobbied for NASCAR in Washington, at times oversaw the sanctioning body's operations and competition and helped NASCAR establish a race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway starting in 1994.
In the early 1970s, Richter also helped create the now-defunct International Race of Champions, a long-running series that pitted drivers from different series in identically prepared cars.
When Roger Penske — who had once driven race cars at Richter's Riverside track — decided in the early 1990s to build another track in Southern California, he chose Richter to oversee construction. Penske chose a site in Fontana that was once occupied by a Kaiser Steel mill.
It became the 565-acre Auto Club Speedway, which was a key part of the nationwide expansion that has made NASCAR one of the nation's most popular sports. Richter was grand marshal for the speedway's inaugural NASCAR race in 1997.
"Les Richter was a tremendous competitor, a great man and a good friend," Penske said in a statement Saturday.
Penske later sold the two-mile oval track to International Speedway Corp., and Richter continued working there for several years as an executive.
Jon Richter told The Times earlier this year that his father had been diagnosed in 2008 with dementia.
In addition to Jon, Richter is survived by his wife, Marilyn; a daughter, Anne; and three grandchildren.