I am a Richard Petty fan. Anyone who knows me knows that. Anyone who has been in my office certainly knows that. As I type this I am being stared at by a bookshelf that contains a bronze bust of Petty, next to a pair of Petty bobbleheads, next to a framed photo of Petty with Arnold Palmer -- the Kings -- and all those Pettys are standing watch over a handful of Petty diecast race cars.
I am often asked why I grew up a Richard Petty fan. The short version is that I was born in Rockingham, North Carolina, just down the road from where he lived and home to a racetrack where he seemingly won every year. But the long version is the real reason, and it is really long. Like 40-something years long. My whole life has been spent watching and learning about The King, and the list of reasons to love him has never stopped growing. Getting to know him a little over that time has only made me dig in more.
On Sunday, His Royal Fastness will turn 80. So, in honor of that milestone, here's a roster of reasons why everyone should love Richard Petty, one for each candle on his cake.
1. He won seven Cup Series championships ... duh.
2. Those seven championships came via six different points systems, including a five-year stretch when he won four titles with four different points scales. As he recalled: "I just tried to win every week and if the math worked out at the end they gave me a big trophy."
3. His first three titles came during the days of huge schedules, running weeknights and dirt tracks. The final four came after the "Modern Era" shift to 30-something races per year.
4. When Dale Earnhardt tied Petty's titles mark in 1994, fans weren't super happy about it. In response, the Intimidator was quick to declare "Richard will always be the King" while Petty said "If this guy had started when I did, he might have won 300 races."
5. The Charlie 1 Horse cowboy hat with all the feathers and stuff on it.
6. The wayfarer sunglasses with the little STP oval sticker in the corner.
7. I once attended a NASCAR Christmas party to raise money for the Victory Junction Gang Camp and The King showed up late, like 10 p.m. He was still wearing the hat and shades, only he'd swapped out his black hat with the feathers for a white hat that was adorned with holly and the black sunglasses for a set of clear goggles. As he walked through the room, Santa Claus shouted between photos with children, "That's the coolest dude I have ever seen!"
8. I once asked Burt Reynolds, who rocked that look first, Burt in "Smokey & The Bandit" or Petty? "Are you kidding?" The Bandit replied. "They said, we want you to look cool. And Richard's the coolest S.O.B. I've ever seen."
9. That autograph, the one with the flourish that he learned at a local business college and practiced as a young man "so that it would stand out."
10. The fact that, in the words of Ned Jarrett, "Richard has to own the world record for autographs signed."
11. I once asked Petty to recall the weirdest item he'd been asked to sign. "A duck. Not from the grocery store, either. He was alive."
12. A few years ago, while watching The King sign endless autographs to the point that he was holding up race morning hospitality area golf cart traffic, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said: "He set the bar entirely too high for the rest of us, didn't he?"
13. He won 200 Cup Series races ... duh.
15. Petty won races on 51 different racetracks.
16. Those 51 Victory Lanes were scattered across 16 states, including Maine, West Virginia and New Jersey.
17. On 39 of those tracks, he won twice or more.
18. He's the all-time leader in Cup Series victories at North Wilkesboro (15), Martinsville (15), Richmond (13), Rockingham (11), Nashville (nine), Columbia (seven), Greenville-Pickens (six), Maryville, Tennessee (six), South Boston, Virgina (five), Macon, Georgia (five) and a long list of other short tracks that are no longer with us.
19. All 15 Martinsville Speedway victories came with the prize of a grandfather clock. Many are spread throughout the living rooms of family members, but at one time they were all either in his house in Level Cross, North Carolina, or in the old Richard Petty Museum in Randleman, North Carolina. "People say I lost my hearing at the racetrack. I think I lost it from all those grandfather clocks going off at noon and midnight."
20. On sacrificing his auditory abilities to racing: "Sometimes it's a blessing to be hard of hearing."
21. If spaghetti could walk, it would walk like Richard Petty.
22. He's had two songs recorded about him -- Alabama's "Richard Petty Fans" and son Kyle's "King Richard."
23. One of the Georgia Dome's first major events was a 1992 farewell concert by Alabama for Petty. Nearly 50,000 people showed up.
24. He's also done some singing himself, recording a pair of tunes for 1975s infamous "NASCAR Goes Country" album.
25. He crooned "Let the Good Times Roll" and "King of the Road." I have a copy of this in my office. It's not good.
26. In 1972 he starred in the motion picture "43: The Richard Petty Story" and his father was played by Darren McGavin, aka the dad from "A Christmas Story." I also have a copy of this in my office. It is also not good.
27. He knows they aren't good. At the grand reopening of his new museum in 2014 I was looking at a case full of awards. He walked up and said, "You'll notice there ain't any Oscars or Grammys in there .... "
28. He played a major role in Pixar's original "Cars" and is currently in theaters in "Cars 3" as, simply, The King. Or, as he says kids call him, "Mister The King." When I visited Pixar Studios last month they told me that The King's toys have always ranked among their highest sellers, just behind Lightning McQueen and Tow Mater.
29. He won two races in a row 22 times. And that's strictly the two-race streaks. In addition ...
30. ... he won three in a row nine times ...
31. ... and he won five straight in 1971 ...
32. ... and in 1967, he won 10 in a row!
33. That same season he won 27 of 48 races. He led 43 percent of the laps run that season and finished in the top five in 38 of the 48 events.
34. He did nearly all of that driving only one Plymouth Belvedere nearly the entire season, winning on superspeedways and short tracks, asphalt and dirt.
35. After winning a particularly brutal event at the Nashville Fairgrounds that summer, during which 22 of 32 cars fell out of the race and he too had to recover from a midrace spinout. Petty's summation of the day might be my favorite King quote: "I was doing plenty wrong, but they done wronger."
36. In 1997, I road tripped out west with my old college roommate to Tombstone, Arizona. On a street corner in front of the courthouse where the Gunfight at the OK Corral was held, a "Richard Petty for President" sticker had been slapped onto a stop sign. My buddy said, "Dang, how cool do you have to be to out-cool Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday?"
37. Before Richard started driving Cup races in 1958, he worked as crew chief for his father, fellow NASCAR Hall of Famer Lee Petty. He was 12.
38. His father realized sons Richard, Maurice and their cousin Dale Inman -- all future NASCAR Hall of Famers -- were good mechanics when he caught them taking tools and axle grease from his garage to strip down and modify their red wagons and bicycles to beat their classmates racing downhill to a swimming hole known as Pole Cat Creek.
39. Petty won races driving for Plymouth, Ford, Dodge, Oldsmobile. Chevrolet, Buick and Pontiac.
40. After saying that he refuses Novacaine when he visits the dentist he was asked, why? "If you stop every pain with some kind of drug you'll never learn any lessons. The dentist cringes when he puts that drill in me, but I just tell him, 'Go ahead. Maybe this will teach me to take better care of my teeth.'"
41. He was the first NASCAR driver to have a car donated to the Smithsonian. At the time he said, "They think I'm historic. I told them they could have the car because I was afraid they were gonna stuff me and put me in there."
42. In 1970 Petty was in a barrel roll crash at Darlington so violent that it broke the concrete pit wall. His body flopped out of the window multiple times, convincing ABC's Jim McKay that The King was dead. He wasn't. He was so alive that when the ambulance driver couldn't figure out how to get out of the racetrack, Petty sat up in his stretcher and barked directions to the hospital. Not bad for a guy who'd just scared the sport into mandating window nets.
43. When I asked him if he was ever scared in a race car, he told the story of being 6 years old, holding his mother's hand in the front yard and watching their house burn down after a kitchen fire. "Race cars aren't scary. That's scary."
44. He was in attendance for the inaugural NASCAR Cup Series race in Charlotte on June 19, 1949, and he'll be in attendance for its latest race, this weekend at Daytona.
45. He won the Daytona 500 seven times in three decades.
46. He started the inaugural Daytona 500 -- a race his father won -- in a convertible. "Yeah, I was only out there eight laps before we had an issue, but that was OK," he says, "It was a little too breezy."
47. His 51,406 career laps led are tops all time and lead second-place Cale Yarborough by nearly 20,000.
48. I asked him about that statistic and he said, "I don't know how many laps I led, all I know is that I led the last one 200 times."
49. He also led the first one a lot. He's the all-time leader in pole positions with 123.
50. He's also the all-time leader in second-place finishes, with 157.
51. To that he says, "People talk about the ones I won. I remember more of the ones where I finished second. I'm also the King of last-lap losses. That sort of luck got to wearing me down, and I'm not a wearing-down guy."
52. No one has ever made the thumb/pinky "hang loose" sign look cooler, not even surfers.
53. When my wife first moved to Charlotte we were at the Speedway for Coke 600 weekend. As we chatted, a scooter came over the hill and looked like it was being driven by a praying mantis. It was The King. As he rode by, he looked over his shades, winked at my wife, pointed at her, made a "click-click" sound with his mouth and then raised his hand into the hang loose sign as he disappeared into the infield. "Oh my god," she said. "That was the coolest thing I have ever seen."
54. The 1974 STP Racer's Edge Dodge Charger is the prettiest race car ever run.
55. The 1970 Plymouth Superbird is a close second.
56. No one has ever made facial hair look cooler, especially his 1972 Fu Manchu.
57. When African-American NASCAR pioneer Wendell Scott was posthumously inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, his family was greeted backstage by Petty. After he left, Scott's daughter told me, "People have no idea how many times that man 'accidentally' left a set of tires or tools or even a whole engine behind in the garage for my daddy to 'find.' They don't know because he's never bragged about it. So, I'll brag about it for him."
58. I did the Indy/Charlotte double with The King in 2009. He had a car running at Charlotte and a tribute car running Indy. We landed in a helicopter on the golf course, where golf carts were waiting to take us to Gasoline Alley. "Wait," he said to me, "you gotta go to the credential office, don't you?" Then he pointed to his own face. "I've already got my credentials with me, know what I mean? So I'll meet you cats inside." As Petty left, the chopper pilot said to me, "That's the coolest person I've ever seen."
59. He still says "cats" when referring to people.
60. He still ends nearly every sentence with "Know what I mean?" and it never gets old.
61. That same trip he asked where my parents lived. I told him Monroe, North Carolina. Then he and Dale Inman proceeded to tell me about a race at Monroe's Starlite Speedway and then went into insane detail about changing parts suppliers and how the guy swapped out some wrong bearings on them and his name was so-and-so and he lived on so-and-so a street and that day it had been raining because of Tropical Storm so-and-so and on and on, talking like it had happened the day before ... about a race they had failed to qualify for in 1966.
62. Petty holds the record for top-10 finishes with 712. That's 235 more than second place.
63. He posted his first top-10 finish on July 26, 1958, at Wall Stadium in New Jersey.
64. He posted his last top-10 finish on August 11, 1991, at Watkins Glen, New York.
65. Those happened 12,069 days apart. That's 33 years and 16 days, beginning in the Eisenhower administration and ending in the George H.W. Bush administration.
66. Speaking of presidents, when Petty earned his 200th victory at Daytona on July 4, 1984, Ronald Reagan was famously in attendance. After the race, The King shared a bucket of KFC with the POTUS. Afterward, sportswriter Tom Higgins wrote "It was the first time in history that a county commissioner outshone the President of the United States."
67. That reminds me, did you know that for 16 years he raced and served as a Randolph County, North Carolina, county commissioner? "When I was first elected, I had never even been to a county commissioner's meeting. I had no idea it could be that complicated. But politics I can handle, there's nothing more political than racing."
68. He's the all-time leader in starts with 1,184.
70. He married Miss Lynda in 1958 when she was a teenager, slipping into South Carolina for nuptials they kept secret for weeks. They remained fiercely dedicated until her death in 2014. "There's a lot that goes on out on the road," he explained to me shortly after my own marriage in 1998. "But ask yourself, is an hour of fun out there worth risking wrecking your whole life? That's an easy answer."
71. Lynda told me about the one time Richard decided to help around the house. "He insisted on buying groceries. He got all the wrong stuff and when he was pulling in, I passed him leaving. The store had called and said he forgot to sign the check. I sent him back to the race shop after that."
72. Around the time he met Lynda, he was an all-conference offensive lineman at Randleman High even though "I was built like a pipe cleaner. With my helmet on I looked like a Q-Tip."
73. During the initial vote to determine the inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame class in 2010, Petty spoke passionately to the panel about voting in the sport's pioneers -- Raymond Parks, Red Byron and the like -- first, even though it would mean he might not be in the first five. They didn't listen.
74. The following spring, I shadowed Petty on induction day. He stepped off the gold-plated elevator of the brand new five-diamond Ritz-Carlton, turned on his thickest redneck accent and shouted to me "Hey! They got a cement pond at this motel?!"
75. He's driven his '70 Superbird up the hill at Goodwood.
76. Remember that photo of Petty and Palmer? That day in 2008 I asked them both, once and for all, who is the real King? They both pointed at the other. "He is."
77. The way he says the word fast. He says "phaste," as in "I use Goody's Headache Powders 'cause it works phaste."
78. The charred car from his final start at Atlanta '92 is on display in the museum. "I was sitting there on fire and the firemen ran up wanting autographs. None of them had a fire extinguisher."
79. He once asked me why I became a fan. I told him about standing in line at Al Smith Buick in Raleigh when I was 9. My brother and I were the only kids there. He saw us and called us up to stand and talk to him while he signed. He asked if we played ball. He asked if we liked racing. He asked if we studied hard and were good to our parents. Then he signed a photo, ruffled my hair and said he'd see us at the track. He was the coolest person I had ever seen.
80. When I told him that story he smiled and said, "It worked, didn't it? How much Richard Petty stuff have you bought since then?" One day I'm going to show him my office.