Les “Coach” Richter, who was instrumental in the development of California Speedway, overseeing the project for Roger Penske from the demolition of the historic Kaiser Steel Mill, to its transformation into a first-class racing facility, passed away quietly this morning at the age of 79.
"Coach's name was synonymous with west coast motorsports, somewhat ironic for a man who became famous in football, but fitting for a man who could charge through any obstacle and was larger than life,” said Auto Club Speedway President Gillian Zucker.
Zucker also added that, “As a colleague, his knowledge, passion and enthusiasm for the industry was beyond compare. 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 recently served as vice-president of special projects for International Speedway Corporation, the parent company of Auto Club Speedway.
The current trophy for the Auto Club 500 is named the “Richter Trophy” as a lasting tribute to his contributions to Auto Club Speedway and the world of motorsports.
Richter’s hard work and dedication for the Penske Family resulted in the opening of the speedway and marked the return of professional oval track auto racing to the Southern California region.
On June 22, 1997, he served as the first Grand Marshal for the California 500 Presented by NAPA.
A veteran motorsports executive, Richter became the executive director of Riverside International Raceway (RIR) in 1959.
Two years later, he became the president and general manager of RIR, a position that he held until 1983.
He is credited with making RIR consistently profitable through his nationally known innovations and creativity, including the creation and promotion of the NASCAR Motor Trend 500 in 1963.
Richter’s 11-year association with the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) began in 1983, and in 1986, he became NASCAR’s executive vice president of competition.
In 1992, Richter was named senior vice president of operations for NASCAR.
“He was an impressive guy and had an impressive life,” said Mike Helton, President of NASCAR on Saturday afternoon at Michigan International Speedway.
Helton also added that, “To be as genuinely human as he was—he had such a remarkable story all the way through his life. NASCAR was just very fortunate to have him part of NASCAR’s community for a while.”
NASCAR Chairman Brain France also added that, "Les Richter will be missed by the entire NASCAR community and always remembered for all he did for the sport on all levels.
Richter made a lasting impression while serving as Vice President of Competition, and he along with his dedication to NASCAR's short-track racing program as well as promoting the sport on the west coast.
A native of Fresno, California, Richter graduated from Fresno High School, where he served as student body president and captain of the football team.
Richter graduated from the University of California at Berkeley where he was valedictorian of the 1952 graduating class.
As an All-American linebacker, Richter’s football heroics led to his eventual election to the College Football Hall of Fame.
Richter was the first player chosen in the regular draft of the National Football League in 1952.
The New York Yankees Professional Football Club, who moved to Texas that year to become the Dallas Texans, selected him.
On June 13, 1952, the Los Angeles Rams traded 11 players and draft choices to the Dallas Texans for the rights to Les Richter—an NFL record.
Richter went on to play for the Rams for nine years, making all-pro as a linebacker for eight years, and he served in the United States Army during the Korean War as a 1st Lieutenant of the 44th Infantry Division.
Richter was affectionately known as “Coach”—from his days coaching an army football team while stationed at Fort Lewis Washington. He later was a player/coach with the Rams.
Funeral arrangements will be announced at a later date.
Special thanks to David Talley Director of Communications at Auto Club Speedway for the story.