“Coach” Made a Mark on Everything and Everyone He Touched
San Bernardino County, Calif.
– Although Les Richter was known for his football prowess and NASCAR expertise, fans who have visited Auto Club Speedway can substantiate his proficiency in architecture as well.
For without Richter, affectionately known as “Coach” to the thousands of people whose lives he has touched over the years, Auto Club Speedway might still well be identified as “that old steel mill in Fontana.”
“Coach”, fondly known from his days coaching an Army football team while stationed at Fort Lewis Washington, was instrumental in the development of California Speedway, overseeing the project for Roger Penske from the demolition of the Kaiser Steel Mill, to its transformation into the first-class racing facility we all know today as Auto Club Speedway.
The legacy of the man who passed away at the age of 79 on Saturday will forever be more than just a consortium of steel and concrete nestled along the picturesque mountains in the Inland Empire. It will be a shrine to his unrivaled dedication, passion and devotion.
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. A seemingly small honor for a giant of a man who’s hard work and dedication for the Penske Family resulted in what might be a grander vision than even he ever thought – the opening of the Speedway which marked the return of professional oval track auto racing to the Southern California region.
A veteran motorsports executive, “Coach” 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, and the planning and execution of the raceway’s $3.6 million improvement plan in 1969.
His 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, he was named senior vice president of operations for NASCAR. “Coach” recently served as vice-president of special projects for International Speedway Corporation, the parent company of Auto Club Speedway based in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Speedway President Gillian Zucker knew him well and her feelings echo the feelings of everyone who has ever come in contact with the “Gentle Ben” of a man.
"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,” she said. “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."
A native of Fresno, Calif., “Coach” graduated from Fresno High School, where he served as student body president and captain of the football team. He graduated from the University of California at Berkeley where he was valedictorian of the 1952 graduating class. As an All-American linebacker, his football heroics led to his eventual election to the College Football Hall of Fame.
“Coach” 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. He went on to play for the Rams for nine years, making all-pro as a linebacker for eight years. He later was a player/coach with the Rams.
“Coach” served in the United States Army during the Korean War as a 1st Lieutenant of the 44th Infantry Division.
He is survived by a wife, son and daughter.
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