When Richard Petty first climbed into a racecar in the late 1950s, the weight of a dynamic, emerging American sport had not yet been thrust on his young shoulders. But fate would eventually tap him as NASCAR’s winningest driver and undisputed "King."
"Our timing was right," says Petty, 67, seated in his office in Level Cross, N.C. "We were just the right people coming into the sport at the right time."
Such simple yet profound rhetoric has made Petty a folk hero and sage among devoted fans. His observations reveal a humble wisdom and no-frills, down-home philosophy. (On wrecking: "Never let a crash dim your enthusiasm. Heck, we all have days like that." And on winning a race: "I did plenty wrong, but they did wronger.")
But behind the shades, expansive grin and relaxed demeanor is a man of thought, principle and extraordinary talent—enough of the latter to reign as stock car racing’s all-time champ, with 200 Grand National/Winston Cup victories and seven driver’s championships.
Born to Race
The son of racing pioneer Lee Petty, a three-time NASCAR Grand National (forerunner of Winston/NEXTEL Cup series) champion, who won the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959, Petty wasn’t just handed the keys to a racecar and given the green flag.
"I started by sweeping the floors, changing oil," says Petty, a life-long resident of Level Cross. "Then I graduated to building cars, building motors, worked on ’em, took ’em to the racetrack. The only thing I hadn’t done was drive the car. That was just the next step."
On the track, Petty was a natural, absorbing the art of driving by studying all the greats from his father’s day.
"I’d watch Fireball (Roberts), Junior (Johnson), Buck Baker, Tim Flock," Petty recalls. "It wasn’t that I knew what to do, I knew what they did. You’d see some and say, ‘I want to drive like him.’ But I’ve seen some, where I said, ‘I don’t want to drive like that.’ You just develop your own style, whatever the circumstances are, with the equipment you got and the ability you have."
Petty’s natural ability allowed him to forge ahead on the track. He quickly perfected his own finesse-type style of driving, and he wasn’t afraid to get in the thick of the action.
"My object was to win," he says. "If I had to run hard I would, if I didn’t have to run hard, I didn’t. Our strategy was don’t see how far you can get ahead, just see if you can win the race."
And the wins came for Petty like no other driver in the history of the sport. Within 10 years after his first NASCAR race, a convertible division non-points event in Columbia, S.C., in 1958, Petty had attained 75 wins and two driver’s championships. It wasn’t long before he was dubbed "The King" by a team of reporters on the racing circuit.
"In ’67, we just dominated," Petty says of his banner year, in which he entered Victory Lane a record 27 times, including 10 wins in a row. "We had a group of reporters who traveled together, who’d go to Charlotte, Raleigh, Richmond, South Carolina. They were out one night and started giving out nicknames. (David) Pearson was ‘The Silver Fox,’ and then one of them said, ‘Okay, Richard, you’re "King Richard."’ Once they wrote it two or three times, others just started picking it up."
Petty, the essence of feet-on-the-floor royalty, also is The King to his fans. He’s credited with being the first driver to actively promote driver-fan friendliness, consistently going over to the fences after each race to sign autographs and chat with adoring admirers.
"Today’s drivers are in great demand for appearances, but I’m not sure that some of them can stand up to what his standards were," says Dale Inman, Petty’s cousin, longtime friend and crew chief. "Years ago, when he did spend that kind of time with the fans, he did it because he realized that the fans were what was making the sport go at that time."
Tragedy and Victory
For the driver who has won everything NASCAR has to offer, including a record seven Daytona 500s, the sport’s crown jewel, there are still new worlds to conquer.
"I’d like to win more races as an owner," says Petty, who fields two racing teams and attends most of the races in the NEXTEL Cup series. "I’ve won as an owner-driver, but since I’ve been an owner, we haven’t won but three or four races. Stuff like that bothers me."
While racing’s ups and downs may chafe the legendary driver, they take a backseat these days to charitable projects that Petty generously involves himself with, a major one being the Victory Junction Gang, a camp for seriously ill children in Randleman, N.C. (pop. 3,557).
Victory Junction honors Petty’s grandson, Adam, the son of 24-year NASCAR racing veteran Kyle Petty, whose own commitment to charitable causes has been recognized by the racing industry. Adam, a promising young driver and the fourth generation of Pettys to race professionally, was instrumental in starting the camp. He died in a racing accident in 2000 at age 19.
"All the racing people, plus the fans, contributed over 20,000 donations, whether it was a dollar or a million dollars," Petty says proudly. "We got donations from all 50 states."
The camp has been vital in mending the Petty family in the wake of the tragic loss. "I think the camp is the healing process. I think Kyle sees it that way. If we didn’t have this, if the camp wasn’t there, then I think the loss would have been greater," Petty says. "Now, when we think of Adam, we think of what he helped generate. We traded Adam for what the camp is and for the many people whose lives he brightened."
The sport that Petty grew up with and helped change, of course, continues to change. Not all of it, however, is to Petty’s liking.
"Now, they look at it as show business first and, oh, by the way, there’s a race," scoffs Petty. "Hey, come to the race, throw the green flag, let ’em run, throw the checkered flag, let ’em go home. That’s what I came to see. I didn’t come to see people jumpin’ out of the sky, airplanes runnin’ at each other, people shootin’ at each other, people jumpin’ cars."
Despite the changes, King Richard takes them all in stride from a familiar vantage point in Level Cross.
"This is home. I went to school here, I grew up with these people. I’m just one of the neighbors, and I like that," he says. "You’re not special here. You move to some other place, you’d get to be special, and it would get to workin’ on your mind. Dad always said, ‘Don’t get above your bringin’ up.’ It’s a happy life for me here."
And for the King of NASCAR, that happiness is emphatically the highlight of his illustrious career.
"I’m still here. Still kickin’, still enjoyin’ most of it," Petty says. "To me, that’s what it’s all about. Gettin’ from Turn One to Turn Two to Turn Three to the checkered flag. And I ain’t got to the checkered flag yet."
For more information on Petty Enterprises, log on to www.pettyracing.com.