Petty, Richard (1937—)

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Petty, Richard (1937—)

Known throughout the stock car-racing world as "King Richard," Richard Lee Petty compiled an extraordinary record of 200 wins in events sanctioned by the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR). After 34 years of success in the sport, he retired in 1992 with a record 700 top ten finishes and an astonishing seven Winston Cup championships, based on annual point totals. Finishing in the money nearly every time he raced, Petty earned a career total of $7,757,964. He was widely sought after for commercial endorsements, and his fans voted him the year's most popular Winston Cup Series driver nine times. He also holds the distinction of being the first driver to be inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association's Hall of Fame.

In the 1967 season, Petty won ten consecutive races—another of his records unlikely to be broken—and added to his legend by coming in first in races where all the odds were stacked against him. In a race in Nashville that season, he was leading when a tire blew out, causing him to smash against the fence. He managed to drive his car to the pits, and his crew changed the tires and hammered on the sheet metal to straighten it. While Petty waited, he dropped from first place to ten laps behind, but the crew got him back on the track. "It looked awful," Petty said of the car, "but it ran." No one gave him much of a winning chance, but by the time the race was three-fourths over, he was in fifth place, and with the leaders falling out one by one, "King Richard" won the race by five laps.

Petty also won his 55th race in 1967 and replaced his father, Lee Petty, as the NASCAR driver with the most victories. Lee, a NASCAR pioneer and a three-time winner of the Winston Cup, was the first back-to-back winner of that trophy in the 1958 and 1959 seasons. Lee and Richard Petty were the first of what has become a dynasty of champion stock car race drivers that, by the late 1990s, included Richard's son, Kyle, and his grandson, Adam, both young drivers with promising futures.

The period from 1964 through the 1979 season, when Petty won his seven Winston Cup Championships, was to many fans the Golden Age of stock car racing, featuring fierce competition among some of the top drivers in NASCAR history. During those 16 years, both David Pearson and Cale Yarborough were three-time Winston Cup winners. In the three remaining years Ned Jarrett, Bobby Issac, and Benny Parsons each took the trophy once. Petty ranked David Pearson "a better pure driver than I am and probably the best pure driver ever." Pearson, said Petty, "drives smart and hard and he has to be one of the best ever. I respect his record, which is the best ever." Assessing Yarborough, Richard called him a "tremendous competitor, but he runs so close to the ragged edge he'll spin cars more often than most good drivers." Yarborough said, at the mid-point of Petty's career, "The thing that sets Richard apart is his dedication to stock car racing. He's been at it a long time, he knows it as well as anyone, and he works just as hard at it today as he did ten years ago."

The Darlington Speedway, called the "granddaddy" of stock car tracks, was the scene of some bad racing luck for Petty, and it was there in 1970 that he had his most dramatic accident. Coming out of the fourth turn, he lost control of his car, which struck a concrete wall and skidded sideways into the main stretch before becoming airborne, tumbling end over end and then crashing into the pit wall in front of the main stands. Fans were hushed with horror as they saw Richard hanging unconscious, half out of his upturned car. After being rescued by pit crewmen, he was carried off on a stretcher while the crowd watched in stunned silence. When the track announcer spread the good news that he had suffered no more than a dislocated shoulder and a few cuts and bruises, the fans stood and cheered.

Petty has argued that athleticism is required in the sport of stock car racing, stating that the "race driver has to have the reflexes, eyesight, strength, and stamina of any athlete." He pointed out that "driving in tight traffic, speeding up and slowing down at just the right times, passing and being passed, there isn't a time your reflexes aren't important." Eyesight is as important for a race driver as for a baseball hitter, he says, and physical strength is needed to "wrestle a car that weighs three to four thousand pounds for three to five hours." Stamina is vital to compete at a high level for hours in a "roasting hot" car, with no breaks other than the 15 seconds or so during pit stops.

—Benjamin Griffith

Further Reading:

Bledsoe, Jerry. The World's Number One, Flat-Out, All-Time Great, Stock Car Racing Book. New York, Doubleday, 1975.

Howell, Mark D. From Moonshine to Madison Avenue: A Cultural History of the NASCAR. Bowling Green Ohio, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1997.

Libby, Bill, with Richard Petty. "King Richard": The Richard Petty Story. Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1977.