Les Richter, a former NFL star who played an integral role in the rise of NASCAR, died Saturday (June 12). He was 79.
Richter died at a Los Angeles-area hospital after suffering a brain aneurysm Friday, the Los Angeles Times reported.
NASCAR president Mike Helton replaced Richter as NASCAR's competition director in 1994. Richter, who was once traded for 11 players in the biggest NFL deal for a single player, played in eight Pro Bowls while with the Los Angeles Rams and was known as “Coach” in the NASCAR community.
“He was an impressive guy and had an impressive life,” Helton said Saturday afternoon at Michigan International Speedway. “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.”
A graduate of the University of California graduate and member of the College Football Hall of Fame, Richter was a guard, linebacker and kicker. He spent two years as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army in the Korean War before his NFL career (1954-1962).
After his football retirement, Richter became active in motorsports. He was a co-owner and president of Riverside Speedway, was a co-founder and chairman of the IROC Series, served as a NASCAR vice president, and played a leadership role in the building of California Speedway, where he later served as executive vice president.
“Les Richter was a tremendous competitor, a great man and a good friend,” team owner Roger Penske said. “On the football field, he was a terrific athlete and leader, and after his playing career he became an innovative motorsports executive.
“Les played a key role in the development of NASCAR, and he was the driving force behind the success of Riverside Raceway and California Speedway. We will miss you, Coach.”
Longtime team owner Jack Roush credits Richter with helping him get his start in the sport.
“Les Richter, in a manner of speaking, was my sponsor,” Roush said. “He was the guy within the NASCAR organization that decided that in spite of the fact that I hadn't run in the Nationwide Series, the truck series didn't exist (at that time), I hadn't run in any of the Saturday night or weekend series, that I could be afforded an entry into the 1988 Daytona 500.”
Roush said Richter suggested he attend the 1987 Southern 500 in Darlington to meet with NASCAR officials, including NASCAR president Bill France Jr. and Cup series director Dick Beatty.
“They introduced me to everybody and reviewed what my motivations were and what my interest was,” Roush said. “Les was the one that put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'I think he'll be OK.' ”
Helton said Richter left an impact on many people.
“When you look at Les' life, it was remarkable in a sense that he played a significant role in developing the NFL as a player and he played a big role in NASCAR as an administrator and official,” Helton said. “He transcended two sports in a time period where both of them were developing. … He passed on to me not only the principle of being firm but fair but how to go about doing that.”
NASCAR chairman Brain France said: “Les Richter will be missed by the entire NASCAR community and always remembered for all he did for the sport on all levels, especially as vice president of competition, his dedication to NASCAR's short-track racing program and promoting the sport on the West Coast.”