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Yentes: New beginnings for Josh Richards

Yentes: New beginnings for Josh Richards

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Simple relief.

It's one of the most blessed of human emotions, whether it's relief from an illness that's been healed, a debt that's been eliminated or a paralyzing addiction that's been conquered.

Dirt late model racing standout Josh Richards says it was a report from a doctor's office that triggered his relief, a sense of euphoria that overwhelmed every fiber of his being.

It was the news that he'd once more be able to drive a race car.

The word came after an extended period of medical poking, prodding, head scratching and agonizing uncertainty. After nearly a full season on the sidelines, Richards finally received clearance late last summer to once more buckle up and bear down behind the wheel.

"There was a point where I thought I'd never race again and it was very tough," Richards said. "We'd just come off winning (16) races and the (World of Outlaws Late Model) championship in 2013. To go from that, to thinking you might not ever be able to do it again was very hard."

It can be particularly hard for someone in his mid-20s and still in the early stages of an already successful and enormously promising racing career.

By age 25, Richards had won three World of Outlaws Late Model Series national championships on dirt. He'd also had a brief foray into NASCAR's second-tier Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series. 

Along the way, however, he says he began to experience little symptoms that something wasn't quite right.

Richards, who turned 27 on March 22, initially went about addressing the situation in a manner typical of most young men his age. He ignored it.

"I had some symptoms that I guess I overlooked for an extended period of time," he said. "Finally, I knew something was there, that I had a problem that needed to be taken care of."

It became a struggle to identify the source of the problem, however, and it was decided that Richards should step away from the car until there was a better handle on the cause.

It was finally determined he had suffered some nerve damage in his hands that was attributed to multiple racing accidents. Now cleared to race once more, Richards will be periodically monitored to make sure nothing is progressing.

He returned for a pair of events last fall and then began his 2015 season with his 50th career World of Outlaws win in Ocala, Fla. He has netted three top-five finishes in the seven WoO series events thus far.

He's scheduled to race twice in the Pantagraph area this year, first at the Illini 100 in Farmer City on April 17-18, then later this summer in the Prairie Dirt Classic at Fairbury.

Richards' new beginning not only includes a revived racing career, but a new journey in his personal life as well.

In his brief time in NASCAR in 2012, Richards and his Joy Mining Machinery teammates weren't getting the on-track results that they had hoped for.

But one of those teammates, team communications manager Honey Carrigan, did something that would change Richards' life more than a successful sponsorship proposal, finely tuned motor or series of well-executed pit stops ever could. She introduced him to his future wife.

In the press room at NASCAR events nearly every weekend from February to November, Carrigan had crossed paths with and befriended Andrea Cleveland, at the time the communications manager at Richard Petty Motorsports. Carrigan introduced Cleveland to Richards at a dinner party she and her husband hosted. 

Richards and Cleveland hit it off and eventually married on Aug. 16, 2014, somewhat defying the odds.

"After dinner I remember calling my best friend and telling her this would never work,"  the now Cleveland-Richards said. "Two things I always said, I would never date a race car driver or someone younger than I and Josh was both.

"Josh charmed me with his wonderful personality, but his values and morals were what caught my eye."

Their relationship also survived a glitch when Richards' NASCAR effort ended early and he returned home to West Virginia, five hours away from NASCAR's competition hub in Charlotte. In 2013, while he was enjoying his best dirt track season ever, Cleveland-Richards had moved to a new position in North Carolina with Richard Childress Racing.

Once married, Cleveland-Richards gave up her NASCAR career and joined Richards in Shinnston, W.Va., a small town about 45 minutes outside of Morgantown. Rocket Chassis, a leading dirt late model chassis manufacturer, is located in Shinnston. Richards' father, Mark, is its principle owner and Richards drives its "house car" on the World of Outlaws tour.

Richards says his wife's encouragement and a strong faith helped see him through the uncertainties of 2014

"I have a strong relationship with God and knew that I could trust Him and everything would somehow be OK," he said.

Bruce Yentes covers area motor sports for The Pantagraph. Contact him at byentes@pantagraph.com.

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