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Richter remembered as West Coast 'motorsports pioneer'

Les Richter excelled at every endeavor in his multi-faceted Hall of Fame life and he did it with a charming-yet-modest personality that made him a popular figure in football and motor racing. Richter died Saturday of a brain aneurysm in his adopted hometown of Riverside, Calif., at 79.

Richter was a two-time All-American guard-linebacker at Cal-Berkeley, where he was the valedictorian of the class of 1952. The second pick in the NFL draft, Richter spent two years in the Army, serving in Korea, before joining the Los Angeles Rams in 1954. He had already made NFL history when the Rams acquired his rights by trading 11 players to the Dallas Texans.

Richter played nine seasons with the Rams and made the Pro Bowl in the initial eight at three different positions: linebacker, middle guard and place kicker. Richter was first team All-Pro at middle guard in 1956. He played center in his final season of 1962, taking over when regular starter Art Hunter was out with injuries.

How good was Richter with the Rams?

"The best," said Jon Arnett, a Pro Bowl halfback who played with Richter from 1957 to 1962. "Why he is not in the (Pro Football) Hall of Fame is beyond me. His intelligence was probably his greatest calling card, in all walks of life and not just football. His size (6-3, 238 pounds) was standard for the day, but he was noted for his size of calves and legs, both extremely big and strong.

"Les was not noted for his speed and probably would not have been picked by today's 40-yard speed nuts. He might not have been fast, but he was always there where the ball was. I played 10 years with the Rams and Bears and would find it hard to find anyone who excelled at his position as much as Les Richter did at middle linebacker, period."

Arnett says Richter was "loved" by his teammates. "He was the leader," Arnett said. "Les had the intelligence that commanded respect, whether it be on or off the field."

By the time he retired from the Rams, Richter was already well into his transition to a second career as a motor racing executive. He had started working as an aide in the offseason for oilman Edwin Pauley, who was a partner in the Rams' ownership group, in the mid-1950s and when Pauley bought Riverside, a bare-bones road racing track 50 miles east of Los Angeles, Richter moved into its marketing department in 1959.

"Every time Pauley needed a political or business thing done, he called Richter," said Deke Houlgate, a long-time southern California reporter and publicist who worked for Richter at Riverside from 1964 to 1967 and from 1975 to 1983.

Richter became president and general manager at Riverside in 1961 and ran it until 1983, when the track was sold. Richter played a key role in developing the track into a major facility and brought American racing's best series to it. Probably most important to the track and the region was permanently establishing NASCAR at RIR.

NASCAR's Grand National division, the predecessor to today's Sprint Cup, raced at Riverside in 1958 and 1961 without enough financial success to return in 1962. Richter, now in charge, convinced founder Bill France Sr. to give the track another chance in 1963. The Cup series raced there until the track closed in 1988 to become a real estate development.

The track became famous around the world, hosting Indy cars, Can-Am, Trans-Am, IMSA Camel GT and the IROC Series under Richter's guidance.

"To us old timers 'All-Pro Linebacker' Les Richter will forever be the face of Riverside (International) Raceway," said the legendary Dan Gurney, who grew up in Riverside and won many races at the track. "Les was a motorsports pioneer who brought NASCAR stock car racing and Indy road racing to the West Coast.

"He organized the Los Angeles Times Grand Prix for Sports and Can-Am racing cars, each event often drawing more than 100,000 spectators to the desert.

He greatly contributed to the flourishing car culture of southern California in the 1960s and 1970s, and all of us who raced through the Esses and Turn 9 in those spectacular racing days owe him a silver trophy full of gratitude.

So long 'Daddy Warbucks.'"

Richter joined NASCAR in 1983 and became one of Bill France Jr.'s top advisors. The Coach, as many called him during his motor racing career, became NASCAR's executive vice president of competition in 1986 and senior vice president of operations in 1992.

"Les Richter will be missed by the entire NASCAR community and always remembered for all he did for the sport, especially NASCAR's short-track racing and promoting the sport on the West Coast," NASCAR CEO Brian France said in a statement. "Les, a tireless worker, was one of NASCAR's most respected officials and one of my father's most trusted lieutenants."

When Roger Penske began developing the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana the mid-1990s, he lured Richter back to southern California to head the project.

It was built on the site of the former Kaiser Steel Mill and there were environmental problems with government approvals and permits to obtain. Richter also met with citizens at town-hall meetings. The track opened in 1997 and hosts two Cup events a year.

"Les Richter was a tremendous competitor, a great man and a good friend," Penske said in a statement.

It was Richter's last job. He retired to Riverside, his long-time home, where he had also made an impact through his community involvement.

Richter entered the College Football Hall of Fame in 1982 and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in Novi, Mich., last year. He's also in the Riverside Sport Hall of Fame. There are those who argue vehemently that Richter also deserves to be Canton, Ohio, in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I agree with them, but I don't think he cared. There wasn't an arrogant bone in Richter's body.

I grew up in Los Angeles and was fortunate to have seen him play for the Rams. As a journalist who regularly covered races at Riverside and Auto Club Speedway, I got to know him during his long involvement in motor racing.

Coach was a great football player and an even greater man.

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