RIVERSIDE - Les Richter, an all-pro linebacker with the Los Angeles Rams who helped bring NASCAR racing to Southern California, died today in Riverside at age 79.
Richter died at Riverside Community Hospital after having a brain aneurysm Friday, his son, Jon, told the Los Angeles Times.
Leslie Alan Richter was born in Fresno on Oct. 6, 1930. He was a star football player at Fresno High School and UC Berkeley, where he was valedictorian and got a degree in business administration. An offensive lineman, linebacker and kicker, he was an All-American his last two seasons at Berkeley.
Richter was drafted by the then-Dallas Texans in the 1952 NFL draft, and was traded to the Rams for 11 players. After being in the Army for two years, he became a first-team all-pro linebacker in two of his nine seasons with the Rams, and played in the 1955 NFL championship game, losing to the Cleveland Browns, 38-14, at the Coliseum.
The Rams trained in Redlands in the 1950s, and one day the team's owners asked Richter to look at a 640-acre parcel in Riverside that had a racetrack.
Although it had little more than an asphalt track with a fence around it, the team owners bought it, and after Richter retired from the NFL, he became the track's general manager.
In 1963, Riverside International Raceway hosted to its first NASCAR race.
When Roger Penske, who had once driven race cars at the Riverside track, decided in the early 1990s to build another track in Fontana, he chose Richter to oversee construction of what became Auto Club Speedway, a 92,000- seat facility initially called California Speedway that opened in 1997 and now has two major NASCAR races a year.
Richter was grand marshal for the speedway's inaugural NASCAR race in 1997.
''Les Richter was a tremendous competitor, a great man and a good friend," Penske said in a statement.
''As a colleague, his knowledge, passion and enthusiasm for the industry was beyond compare," Gillian Zucker, president of Auto Club Speedway, said in a statement. ''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."
''Les Richter will be missed by the entire NASCAR community and always remembered for all he did for the sport on all levels," NASCAR Chairman and Chief Executive Brian France said in a statement.
In 1983, Richter became a NASCAR executive and helped NASCAR establish a race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway starting in 1994.
Jon Richter told The Times earlier this year that his father had been diagnosed in 2008 with dementia.
In addition to Jon, Richter is survived by his wife, Marilyn; a daughter, Anne; and three grandchildren.