Petty, Richard Lee

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PETTY, Richard Lee

(b. 2 July 1937 in Level Cross, North Carolina), professional race car driver who won seven Winston Cup championships, seven Daytona 500 races, and 200 National Association for Stock Car Automobile Racing (NASCAR) races between 1958 and 1992.

Petty was the elder of two sons born to Lee Petty, a pioneer of NASCAR and a three-time Grand National racing champion, and Elizabeth Toomes, a homemaker. Petty's childhood was filled with the normal activities of an up-bringing in the rural South during the 1940s, racing bicycles, swimming in nearby creeks, and engaging in other childhood adventures with his younger brother. However, Petty learned the value of hard work at an early age. While still in grade school he earned spending money by picking cotton on Saturdays and during school holidays. He attended Randleman High School, where he was an average student and a good athlete, becoming an All-Conference guard on the football team. After graduating in 1955 he took a business course at Greensboro Junior College and began to work full-time in his father's racing company, Petty Enterprises. In 1958 Petty and Lynda Owens, who had been a cheerleader at Randleman High, were married. In addition to their son, Kyle, who followed his father into racing, the couple had three daughters.

Between the late 1940s and 1958 Petty worked as a mechanic for his father. As a member of Lee Petty's pit crew, he watched stock car racing evolve from a backcountry pastime into a major spectator sport. The coming of age of stock car racing was initiated by two major events: the creation of NASCAR in 1948 and the opening of a super-speedway stock car racing track at Darlington, South Carolina, in 1950. Petty's father became one of the first champions of NASCAR, winning three national championship titles and fifty-four Grand National races. While Lee Petty was earning his place in racing history, his son was learning everything he could about racing engines and suspensions. Though Petty readily admits that his younger brother Maurice was the mechanical genius of the Petty racing team, his own understanding of the technical aspects of racing greatly enhanced his skill as a driver. Throughout his career he possessed the ability to push his race cars up to, but not beyond, their breaking point.

In 1958, the day after his twenty-first birthday, Petty began racing cars instead of working on them. He finished sixth in his first contest, driving one of his father's older cars on a dirt track near Columbia, South Carolina. The rest of the year was less than spectacular. In his first nine races he managed to win only $760, but it was enough to maintain his interest in driving. During the following year Petty began to establish himself as a formidable competitor. He won NASCAR Rookie of the Year honors by posting nine top-ten finishes in twenty-two racing events and earned nearly $8,000 for the year.

During the 1960s Petty continued to be a force in stock car racing. In 1960 he won his first Grand National circuit race on the dirt track in Charlotte, North Carolina, and he finished just behind Rex White in the Grand National (later Winston Cup) year-end point standings. To accomplish this feat he posted sixteen top-five finishes in forty races. When injuries from a near-fatal crash forced Lee Petty to retire in 1962, Petty assumed all the driving duties for Petty Enterprises, while his father went to work in the pits. The father-son combination proved a winner. Petty won fourteen races in 1963 and again finished second in the point standings for the national championship title. In 1964 Petty won his first Grand National championship. In what proved to be a record year, he won his first Daytona 500, eight other victories, and thirty-seven top-five finishes in sixty-one races, earning an astonishing $98,810 in prize money.

In 1965 NASCAR imposed limitations on the size of engines used in stock cars. These new rules essentially outlawed the powerful Chrysler 426-inch hemispherical head engine that Petty had used in his racing cars. As a result Chrysler temporarily withdrew their sponsorship from stock car racing and began to support drag racing. Petty made the move with Chrysler, but instead of finding glory at the drag strips, he met with tragedy. On 28 February 1965, on a strip in Dallas, Georgia, the left front suspension of Petty's car broke, causing the vehicle to careen out of control into a crowd of spectators. Six racing fans were injured, and an eight-year-old boy was killed. The event proved traumatic for Petty, and he vowed to never drive again in a drag racing event.

In 1966 Petty returned to NASCAR to win his second Daytona 500. In 1967 he passed his father's career record of fifty-four wins. That year he had thirty-eight top-five finishes out of forty-eight races and won his second Grand National championship.

The 1970s marked the high point in Petty's racing career. In 1971 he became the first stock-car driver to boost his career earnings to more than $1 million, and he won his third NASCAR Grand National title. Over the decade Petty won five Winston Cup championships (including those from the earlier Grand Nationals) and four Daytona 500 races.

In the early 1980s Petty still seemed to be at the top of his sport. He won his seventh Daytona 500 in 1981 and three years later, with President Ronald W. Reagan in attendance, he won the Firecracker 400, giving him his 200th career victory—95 more wins than the driver closest to him, David Pearson. However, Petty's 1984 victory at the Firecracker 400 was his last, even though he did not retire from the NASCAR circuit until 1992.

Petty underwent successful surgery for prostate cancer in 1995. A year later he ran an unsuccessful political campaign as the Republican candidate for Secretary of State in North Carolina. He was inducted into the National Motor Sports Hall of Fame in 1998. He remains active in NASCAR events, operating Petty Enterprises and serving as owner of the racing team his father originally built and his son, Kyle, continues to represent.

Few men have done more for their sport than Petty. Called "the King" because of his many successes, Petty's seven Daytona 500 wins, seven Winston Cup championships, and a remarkable 200 NASCAR wins placed him in the record books.

Petty has three autobiographies: Grand National: The Autobiography of Richard Petty as Told to Bill Neely (1971), written with William Neely; "King Richard" : The Richard Petty Story (1977), written with Bill Libby; and King Richard I: The Autobiography of America ' s Greatest Auto Racer (1986), written with William Neely. These books are filled with valuable information about Petty's personal views and racing career. Two biographies are Marshall and Sue Burchard, Sports Hero: Richard Petty (1974), and Frank Vehorn, A Farewell to the King: A Personal Look Back at the Career of Richard Petty, Stock Car Racing ' s Winningest and Most Popular Driver (1992). The latter is the more comprehensive study. Periodical articles include Robert F. Jones, "Petty Blue, STP Red, and Blooey!," Sports Illustrated (9 Apr. 1973); M. H. Gregory, "20 Years in the Fast Lane: King Richard Celebrates an Anniversary," Motor Trend (Sept. 1978); and Sam Moses, "It's All in the Family—Again," Sports Illustrated (26 Nov. 1979).

Kenneth Wayne Howell