Northeast Dirt Modified Hall Of Fame Set To Honor Late Promoter C.J. Richards

Story By: TOM BOGGIE / NORTHEAST DIRT MODIFIED HALL OF FAME – WEEDSPORT, NY – C.J. Richards was called a lot of names—some printable, some not printable—during his long tenure as a dirt track promoter.

He was a visionary, a risk-taker, an innovator, a dreamer, a stubborn SOB who would cut purses at a moment’s notice. But the word that set Richards apart from his rival promoters was that he was a showman. Like a modern-day version of P.T. Barnum, Richards loved to put on a show, and at times, would even be part of it.

For his many accomplishments in racing, Richards will receive the Leonard J. Sammons Jr. Award for Outstanding Contributions to Auto Racing at the Northeast Dirt Modified Hall of Fame in Weedsport, NY, on July 20.

From his early days, when he began promoting racing in 1962 at Fairmont Speedway at the Fair Haven (VT) Fairgrounds at the age of 24, Richards knew the value of putting on a show, realizing that if you wanted to bring fans back, you had to hook them first.

Richards hit his first home run, as they say in the promoting business, when he staged the Vermont State Championships at the Rutland (VT) Fairgrounds on September 8, 1962. Despite the event being plagued by bright sun, dust and accidents that sent both drivers and spectators to the hospital, Richards estimated that he drew over 10,000 spectators for that show, which was the largest crowd for an outdoor event in the state of Vermont.

The 1963 season is recognized as the beginning of Richards’ Champlain Valley Racing Association, a sanctioning body which then listed over 300 members and later grew into a three-track circuit, comprised of Albany-Saratoga, Devil’s Bowl and Airborne Park in Plattsburgh.

In 1966, hearing continued complaints from the town of Fair Haven concerning noise and traffic, Richards began looking for a new location for his track. He ended up settling on a piece of land on Route 22A outside of West Haven, and built Devil’s Bowl out of the rich Vermont clay prior to the 1967 season.

Richards made his biggest career move prior to the 1977 season, when he took over the operation of Albany-Saratoga Speedway. He was sitting pretty on Route 9 in Malta, smack dab between his two biggest rivals, Fonda and Lebanon Valley, which both ran on Saturday nights. As a result, Richards’ Friday night shows drew the cream of the crop from both tracks, with Jack Johnson, Dave Lape, Lou Lazzaro and C.D. Coville going head-to-head against the likes of Chuck Ely, Mert Hulbert, Eddie Delmolino and Tommy Corellis.

Always thinking, Richards came up with the concept of a Super Shootout Series, with top-heavy purses that attracted all of the best drivers from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. That series introduced Albany-Saratoga fans to drivers like Jimmy Horton, Kenny Brightbill and Billy Pauch, who before then were just names in trade papers.

The 1983 season would be a turning point in Richards’ battle against the ever-rising cost of racing. After raining out six of the first eight shows, Richards announced he was cutting his purse. The drivers revolted, and planned a boycott for Friday, May 20. Ironically, that night was also rained out.

During the offseason, Richards announced that Albany-Saratoga was going to be sanctioned by Drivers Independent Race Tracks (DIRT) in 1984, and his Modifieds would now be following the DIRT rulebook.

That experiment only lasted for a year, and Richards then threw a huge monkey wrench into the works, banning big-block motors in place of 358 cubic inch small-blocks for the 1985 season.

Small-block spec engines are now the norm at Modified tracks around the region, but it was a radical departure back then. Richards’ critics didn’t think he would survive, but he did. The first two seasons with the 358s were a disaster, with more people in the pits than there were in the bleachers at Albany-Saratoga. But gradually, things got better. And just when you thought you had C.J. Richards figured out, he changed course again.

In late July of 1993, he announced the end of the CVRA Modifieds, and the return of big-blocks. The rules were rewritten for 1994; most of the big-name drivers who had defected returned to Friday night racing in Malta and Brett Hearn began to call Albany-Saratoga home.

In an interview in 1993, Richards said, “I tried everything. Five-dollar admission, discount nights, two-for-ones. Nothing worked. We’re dead in the water. This was always the Great Race Place and I want to make it that way again.”

And he did.

Promoters today hype the fact that they run races that pay $25,000 to win. C.J. Richards did it first, in 1999, when he staged the Empire State Nationals. Mike Ricci landed a ride in the Jack Ryan Express and walked out with the top prize.

Richards also was a car owner. In 1992, C.D. Coville, one of the biggest drawing cards at Albany-Saratoga, didn’t have a ride. So Richards provided him with one. Neither Coville nor Richards ever publicly admitted that Richards was the car owner. In fact, when Coville picked up a win in the second week of the 1992 campaign, he said the car was owned by a law firm called “Dewey, Cheatum and Howe.”

In Richards’ mind, the show always had to go on.

Even when his health began to decline, C.J. kept his thumb on the pulse of the CVRA, sometimes calling the shots, sometimes just offering advice. Right up to his death on February 9, 2012, he never stopped scheming and dreaming. And he always found solace behind the wheel of the grader at Devil’s Bowl.

P.T. Barnum never met C.J. Richards, but one of Barnum’s famous quotes perfectly describes Richards’ life: “No one ever made a difference by being like everyone else.”

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