By Alicia Doyle

The Writer
Specializing in Good News
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Seniors gives 'active' new meaning

Photos by Dana Rene Bowler / Star staff John Richards, 76, — sprint car racer, pilot, motorcycle rider and businessman — has no plans to slow down. "I enjoy doing this. I get to spend time with my son Curtis. We are family and we are friends."

He's 76 and a motorcyclist, pilot, sprint car racer

Ventura County Star/March 31, 2008

At 76 years old, John Richards of Ventura still rides motorcycles, races sprint cars and flies airplanes.

"I'm so damn old that anything I do is a big deal," said the grandfather of four. "I am pretty well consumed and focused on what I am doing at the time. I am a lucky guy."

A California native, Richards was born and raised in La Puente, graduating in 1949 from Puente Union High School. He went on to the University of Arizona, where he graduated in 1953 with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering.

A Ventura resident for 31 years — and a registered professional mechanical engineer since 1958 — he still works in his consulting business, Richards Mechanical Systems Inc. Before that, he worked for Shell Oil Co. in the Ventura Avenue Oil Field and then moved to Santa Paula to work as chief mechanical engineer for a startup company, Pulsation Controls Corp.

In 1970, along with two associates, he started Fluid Kinetics Corp. in Ventura, where he worked until 1985.

No plans to retire

Looking back on his business ventures, Richards said he has no plans to quit anytime soon.

"Retire why?" said Richards, who has been married to his wife, Sally, for 54 years. "It makes me feel better about blowing money on some of these things when I have some income to offset it."

Randy Vernon of Ventura said Richards hasn't slowed down since he met him about 20 years ago when the two were part owners of a noise-control business.

"He's pretty remarkable; he's very positive and upbeat, and always in a good mood," said Vernon, 58. "To look at someone who's 76 who's as active as he is is inspiring for anybody.

"He takes motorcycle trips, rides his sprint cars and wins races, works doing engineering and consulting work and just keeps busy. He is quite extraordinary in that respect."

A fan at Ventura Raceway for many years, Richards became involved as a sprint car driver in 2001.

He competes in about 15 senior sprint car races every season in a 1,350-pound machine with a 360 cubic inch, fuel-injected V-8 engine with 600 to 700 horsepower.

"I was a 69-year-old rookie — apparently the oldest rookie sprint car driver ever anywhere," said Richards, who also assisted in the design of sprint car mufflers that are mandatory at Ventura Raceway.

Rookie driver of year

During his first season, he was named "senior sprint car driver rookie of the year."

"I tell people anyone can do it," Richards said. "The cars have power steering."

Jim Naylor, promoter at Ventura Raceway, remembers when Richards raced for the first time in the senior sprint car division a few years ago.

"At age 75, he won his first senior sprint car main event," Naylor recalled. "John also took on the challenge of working with Extreme Muffler owner Dan Wheeler to create a muffler that could meet city sound requirements. John, who is a sound engineer by trade, has spent many hours doing sound tests to make sure that Ventura Raceway is meeting its sound needs."

He, wife travel by motorcycle

When he's not consulting or racing sprint cars, Richards likes to travel with his wife via motorcycle. Since 1979, they have ridden in 28 countries, as far east as Romania, from Alaska to the tip of South America.

"Sally has ridden behind me for thousands and thousands of miles but has never ridden her own motorcycle; she is a perfect passenger," said Richards, who owns several bikes, including a BMW, Harley-Davidson, Honda, Moto Guzzi and Ariel, as well as vintage bikes including Indians Scouts and an Excelsior Super X.

The pair have traveled to western Canada, to Panama and through the eastern half of Australia, among other places. Richards particularly remembers their trip in 1979, when he and his wife picked up a BMW in Munich, Germany.

"Those were the Iron Curtain days for the eastern bloc countries," Richards recalled, adding that they had some interesting experiences, all good except one.

"Just west of Prestina, Kosovo, near the Albania border, we were apprehended by the police for taking a photo at the wrong place and time," he said. "We spent only about 10 hours in their custody, which is not long, but until you are released you do not know if it will be 10 hours, 10 days or whatever. We ended that trip in London and shipped our bike back from there and eventually sold it."

He has, and flies, 3 planes

Motorcycles aside, Richard also owns three airplanes hangared at Santa Paula Airport: a 1936 Ryan model STA civilian sport plane; a 1942 Ryan model PT-22 former World War II military trainer; and an Owl Formula One race plane.

A licensed pilot since 1956, "I am still active with the airplanes," Richards said, "but my sprint car activity has cut into my flying time."

He said he believes his energy and passion for life come from his parents.

"My mother and father were a good team and always doing something," Richards said. "When my mother found out she was dying from cancer she said, I cannot die; I have too many projects.' It appears I may go out the same way. I am not hurrying it."

About 10 days before his mother passed away, he asked her what she would do different in her life.

"Without hesitation she said, I would travel more and spend more time with my children,'" Richards said. "Some good lore there."

Looking back on his life so far, Richards has gained valuable wisdom of his own.

"Like sprint car racing, flying the airplanes and other things I have been involved with, the most valuable thing is the people you meet and get to know."

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