Petty: Little has changed in NASCAR

He made racing not-so-Petty
By Ron Flatter
Special to

He has not won a race since 1984. His last championship came in 1979. But Richard Petty's big sunglasses, cowboy hat and that No. 43 still loom large over stock-car racing.

 Richard Petty
Petty raced for a remarkable 34 years.

His record seven Daytona 500 wins might fall some day, as might his seven Winston Cup championships. But what never can be displaced is the role Petty had building stock-car racing from a day at the beach for good ol' boys into a superspeedway sport for the masses.

The winner of a remarkable 200 NASCAR races was a man for the people, a charismatic presence the way Arnie was for golf and Babe was for baseball. From the '50s to the '90s, millions flocked to see the races because of him -- "The King."

"It was as if Richard had written the script," driver Darrell Waltrip said, "and NASCAR just helped him out."

The script had many milestones: First stock-car racer to exceed $1 million in earnings; first to repeat as winner of the Daytona 500; winner of 10 consecutive races; 356 top-five finishes; $7,755,409 in earnings.

Not bad for a guy who made only $760 his first year of racing.

Richard Lee Petty was born on July 2, 1937, in Randleman, N.C., the son of one of stock-car racing's early pioneers, Lee Petty. The elder Petty won three Grand National championships in the '50s, and his 54 NASCAR victories stood as a record until his son broke it.

Even though young Richard was bitten by the racing bug as a kid, his father would not let the future king compete until Richard was a legal adult. Only days after turning 21, he finished sixth in his first race.

The next eight events would come and go, and Petty failed to finish any of them. Then he thought he had his first win. The checkered flag was waved for him. He was on his way to victory lane before another driver protested, successfully claiming the checkered flag was waved on the wrong lap.

The driver? Lee Petty.

Not that Richard was looking for any charity. As he said, "I wanted to do it on my own."

In 1959, the year Daytona International Speedway opened, Richard Petty did not look like the man who would practically own the track over the next 22 years. While his father was winning the inaugural Daytona 500, Richard was watching most of it, having blown his engine after only eight laps.

Still, the era of superspeedways had dawned, and Petty thought: "If I was any good, I could grow along with the sport."

Petty, NASCAR's rookie of the year in 1959, finished second to Rex White in the Grand National (later Winston Cup) points race in 1960.

In 1962, Lee Petty was knocked out of racing by a near-fatal crash. It was Richard's turn to carry the Petty family name.

Two years later, he would begin his first run to a Grand National championship with his first victory in the Daytona 500. But by then, a lot of winning made the 27-year-old Petty a target. Rival racing teams protested, saying his engines were too big. Petty decided his sport was petty - - with a little "p." He was through with stock-car racing.

Tragic as that might have been to NASCAR, it would take a greater tragedy to bring him back.

Petty spent 1965 competing as a drag racer, but that phase of his career was cut short when he crashed his car at a race in Georgia, killing an 8-year-old boy.

Returning to his roots, Petty began his NASCAR comeback in 1966 by becoming the first driver to win two Daytona 500s.

Petty's bellwether year was 1967. Of the 48 races he started, he won 27 -- including 10 in a row -- and he finished in the top five in 11 others to gain his second Grand National championship.

Along the way, he broke his father's career record for victories with his 55th win after just eight seasons on the circuit. That blue-and-red No. 43 had everyone in its rear-view mirror. Well, almost everyone.

A popular rival was emerging, and David Pearson's duels with Petty were big events coming into full bloom. Between 1963 and 1977, Petty and Pearson finished one-two 63 times, with Pearson holding a 33-30 edge.

Most fans seemed to be behind the ever-accessible Petty. "Anybody else who tried to come in, tried to get a leading role, had to be the bad guy," Waltrip said.

Petty was winning in seemingly every make of car there was -- Oldsmobile, Plymouth, Ford, Dodge, Chevrolet, Buick and Pontiac.

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In the '70s, Petty won five Winston Cups and four Daytona 500s, although the one that got away is the one everyone seems to remember. Petty and Pearson were running bumper to bumper on the last lap of the 1976 Daytona 500 when they collided. Petty got the worst of it, and Pearson limped across the finish line to win what may have been NASCAR's most memorable race.

Still, Petty was "The King" among NASCAR fans. But by 1978, time was beginning to catch up with him. After having 40 percent of his stomach removed because of ulcers, he came back the following year to win the Daytona 500 en route to his last Winston Cup championship.

One last Daytona 500 triumph in 1981 came three years before his last driving win of any kind. With President Ronald Reagan in attendance, Petty won the Firecracker 400 two days after his 47th birthday. His 200 victories are an incredible 95 more than the driver (Pearson) closest to him.

With more and more races separating him from that last win, talk of retirement began to swirl. By the '90s, a new Petty -- Richard's son Kyle -- was beginning to make his mark. In October 1991, at age 54, Richard Petty announced he would retire after a 29-race fan appreciation tour the following season.

After his last race in 1992, Petty considered his 34 years of success in a sport that tests one's ability to survive. "In New York," he said, "they throw stuff at the players. Here, the players throw themselves at us."

He is the subject of the popular Richard Petty Museum in his family's hometown of Level Cross, N.C.

Although these may be signs of retirement, Petty is only inactive where driving is concerned. He runs Petty Enterprises and serves as team owner for the racing team his father began and his son represents.

Maybe Richard Petty was right when he said: "One of these days, when they have a race and I don't show up, then everybody will know I've retired."