'Petty Blue' is back at the track

On Wednesday, Richard Petty Motorsports and sponsor Smithfield Foods announced that during the 25 races when Smithfield is the primary sponsor on Petty's famous No. 43 Ford, it will be returning to a throwback design of basic logos against Petty Blue.

That begins this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway with Smithfield's Farmland Foods brand on the hood of Aric Almirola's Fusion.

The hope is to err on the side of tradition, stepping around the often confusing rotation of complicated paint jobs that, in Petty's opinion, makes it too hard to pick out his RPM cars from the grandstands or on TV.

"Maybe I'm just old-school, but I like it simple," Petty said. "I like consistency. Now, no matter what week it is, you can spot that 43 car as soon as you start looking."

Courtesy Richard Petty Motorsports

One of the new "Petty Blue" cars Aric Almirola will drive in 2013.

Why is this a big deal? Is a paint scheme really news?

It is when it's this particular paint.

"Name me one other kind of paint so famous that everyone knows its name, immediately associates it with one individual and one family," says H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, former longtime president of Charlotte Motor Speedway. "You can't. Not just in sports, but really anywhere."

Wheeler has a point. Dale Earnhardt will forever be associated with black, but it's not called Intimidator Black. There's no Jimmie Blue or Johnson Gold. Nor is there a Pearson Crimson or Yarborough Orange. There was a time when Jeff Gordon laid claim to the rainbow, but he was always in line behind at the very least Finian and the Lucky Charms leprechaun. Even Celtics Green and Dodger Blue are associated with teams, not individuals. It's not Bird Green and Koufax Blue.

Petty Blue is a legit, officially recognized hue. You can order it from paint companies. (Full disclosure: I have a can of Petty Blue spray paint in the garage.)

"There is a sort of a cool homecoming feeling when you see it out there on the track," Gordon admitted when the 43 car returned briefly to its blue roots last spring at Kansas Speedway. "My first Cup race was Richard's last [Atlanta, November 1992]. So maybe I like seeing it because it makes me feel young again. It's probably like that for a lot of people."

Richard didn't just use the shade, he invented it. In 1959, the same year that father Lee won the inaugural Daytona 500 in a mostly white ride, 22-year-old Richard and brother Maurice were working on a wrecked Petty car. With only half a bucket of dark blue and half a bucket of white, neither bucket being enough to paint a whole car, Richard mixed them up and … voila!

"I've been running it ever since," says The King, now 75. "Well, sort of."

From 1960 through '71, all of Petty's cars were solid blue. When STP came on board in 1972, Petty Blue covered half the car, joined by STP's Day-Glo red, still NASCAR's most recognizable paint scheme.

When STP scaled back its sponsorship in 2001, General Mills still worked to keep Petty Blue involved. But as paint schemes changed weekly and struggling Petty Enterprises took on more one-off sponsorships, the hue was relegated to being the background of only the 43 door number.

As the team folded and re-emerged as Richard Petty Motorsports, Petty Blue essentially vanished, appearing only on the rare occasion of special throwback paint schemes. (Speaking of which, STP will return for a Petty Blue-backed scheme at Martinsville on April 7.)

But during an era when NASCAR openly admitted that it had to work to reconnect with old-school race fans, Petty Blue never lost touch, even when it was on the verge of extinction.

"Even still, it was the color that people associated with us," says Dale Inman, Petty's cousin and NASCAR Hall of Fame crew chief. He still works with RPM as a consultant. "People who come to our [automobile customization] shop to have their cars done up, they want Petty Blue worked into it. And I watch Richard autograph die-cast cars all day every day. Just about every one of them is Petty Blue."

Last weekend, in the infield of Daytona International Speedway, a customized newer-model Dodge Challenger sat near the media parking lot. It was made up like a 1970 Plymouth Superbird, complete with a rear wing and painted Petty Blue.

A few lots over, a school bus was painted nose to tail in Petty Blue, complete with a giant 43 on the side. The fans on the roof of that bus cheered as a family rode by in an old golf cart painted, yes, Petty Blue. Riding in that cart was a kid holding a toy from the Disney/Pixar film "Cars." It was a plastic version of the character known as "The King." Yes, it too was Petty Blue.

"It never really went away because the fans wouldn't let it go away," Petty explains. "Even though I haven't driven in 20 years now and that color hasn't been to Victory Lane in a long time. And even though we haven't used it much, they always have. Now, we're kind of meeting them back in the middle, you know?"

Then Petty extends his arms and gestures toward some nearby fans holding Petty Blue die-cast cars, waiting to have them signed. "Give the people what they want. They want the blue. Just so happens that's what I want, too."

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