Dirt track community mourns Richards, innovator
C.J. Richards, the founder of the Champlain Valley Racing Association whose innovations helped reshape the landscape of Northeast dirt track racing, died Thursday at the age of 74.
Richards had been in declining health for the last couple of months and was under hospice care at the time of his death.
Last fall, Richards sold Devil’s Bowl Speedway in West Haven, Vt., and listed Albany-Saratoga Speedway in Malta with a real estate broker, citing health issues as one of the reasons for his decision.
“It was a shock to me,” said Lebanon Valley promoter Howie Commander, who signed a two-year lease to operate Albany-Saratoga Speedway, Friday. “I went up there to see C.J. four or five weeks ago, and I was sure he was going to pull through this.”
Richards began his career in motorsports in the mid-1960s, when he began promoting races at Fairmont Speedway at the fairgrounds in Fair Haven, Vt. Two years later, facing increasing pressure from townspeople who didn’t want racing at the fairgrounds, Richards bought some farmland on Route 22A, a mile or so outside Fair Haven, and built Devil’s Bowl.
But it wasn’t until he took over the operation of Albany-Saratoga Speedway in 1977 that Richards could really put his promotional skills and long-range planning to work.
Albany-Saratoga Speedway had been a hotbed of asphalt racing in the late 1960s and early 1970s, drawing the best drivers from throughout New York and New England to battle against each other on Friday nights. But the deaths of promoters Lou Figari and Larry Mendelsohn in 1974 knocked the speedway on its heels, and two years later, Richards came in and converted the historic track to dirt.
Albany-Saratoga quickly became known as “The Great Race Place,” where the best drivers from Lebanon Valley and Fonda speedways would converge on Friday nights. Drivers like Tommy Corellis, Chuck Ely, Dave Leckonby, Mert Hulbert, Lou Lazzaro, Jack Johnson and Dave Lape made Friday night features at Albany-Saratoga look like all-star races.
It was during Richards’ first year at Albany-Saratoga that he introduced his “Super Shootout” concept, an annual (or sometimes, semiannual) high-dollar race that brought in the best drivers from New Jersey and Pennsylvania to square off against the regulars. The “Super Shootouts” were responsible for bringing drivers like Jimmy Horton, Kenny Brightbill and Billy Pauch to the speedway for the first time.
A true visonary, Richards realized that racing couldn’t survive if the costs kept going up, and he became the first promoter to mandate track tires. He then took the biggest gamble of his career in 1985, when he outlawed big-block modified engines and instituted small-block 358s as the power for his premier division.
The decision cost his some big-name drivers, like Johnson, Lape and Ken Tremont, but the 358s are now the engine of choice at most Northeast dirt tracks.
“C.J. was a promoter, through and through,” said Ron Hedger, who covered Northeast dirt track racing as a columnist for National Speedway Sport News. “He’d sit up there in Vermont every winter, hatching new ideas, and some of them were brilliant.
“He didn’t always like what I wrote about him and some of the controversies he stirred up, but he always got over it and we were friends for many, many years. Racing in the region benefitted greatly from C.J. Richards being part of it.”
The switch to 358s prolonged the career of many drivers who could no longer afford to be competitive against the big blocks, and drivers like Don Ackner, Bob Savoie, Don Ronca and Hector Stratton thrived on the CVRA circuit.
“The smartest thing he ever did was go to 358s,” said car owner Mike Budka, who won the overall CVRA championship in 1995 when he had C.D. Coville as a driver. “I got back into racing because of that. I couldn’t afford to run a big block anymore, and when C.J. said he was going to 358s, I told Jay [driver Jay Bleser], ‘Let’s sit back for a year and make sure he doesn’t change his mind.’ The next year, we went out and bought a new Troyer. I had no intention of getting back into racing until C.J. went to 358s.”
Things weren’t always rosy on the CVRA. When attendance started to drop drastically in 1993, Richards even switched back to big blocks for the last two months of the season, and in 1994, he relaxed his 358 rules so they would be more in line with the rules of other tracks in the Northeast. Those changes paved the way for Brett Hearn to become a Friday night regular, and he went on to become the winningest driver in the history of the speedway.
Although Richards officially retired many years ago, leaving the day-to-day operation of the two tracks to three of his children — Bruce, Jerry and Sharon — he was never far from racing. It wasn’t uncommon to see him on the grader at Devil’s Bowl before it switched to asphalt in 2010, and no major decisions were made without his input.
“We were competitors, and we were friends,” said Commander. “C.J.’s strong suit was that he never paid more than the facility he was running could afford to pay. That was a big reason for his longevity in the business. But on a few occasions, he’d go a little nuts and even though he knew he wasn’t going to make money, he’d put on a big show just for the sake of putting on a big show.”
Richards did what he had to to make a living and feed his family. If it meant cutting purses, he cut purses. “Drivers will complain, but they’d probably come and race for nothing,” he liked to say.
But Richards also had a soft side, especially for the owners and drivers who supported the CVRA.
“I remember one time we went to Devil’s Bowl, and Jack [Johnson] said he’d meet us there,” said Budka. “Well, Jack doesn’t show, and I’ve got seven or eight guys [crew members] with me. C.J. came out of the tower and walked over to us and said, ‘What’s the problem. Jack stiff you?’ We talked for a couple of minutes, and then he reached in his pocket and gave me all of our pit fees back. That’s when I knew he had a heart.”
A memorial service for Richards will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at the First Congregational Church in Fair Haven, Vt. There will be no viewing hours.