American race car driver
Richard Petty's thirty-four years of winning competition on the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) circuit—during most of which he was the overwhelmingly dominant force—earned him the fitting nickname "The King." His record is unprecedented and unlikely ever to be equaled: 200 wins in NASCAR competition; seven Winston Cup championships; a record 700 top ten finishes. In 1967 alone, he won twenty-seven races, and in 1971, twenty-one. Petty won at least one race in eighteen consecutive seasons, from 1960 until 1977. When he retired in 1992, his racing winnings totaled $7,757,964. But more than the winningest driver in NASCAR history, Richard Petty was far and away its most popular figure. He was a man of
the people who thought nothing of devoting eight or more hours to signing autographs for the legions of fans who turned out to see him wherever he appeared. Nine times fans voted him Winston Cup's most popular driver, and by the 1980s his fame had spread as far as Europe and Asia. It was Petty's common touch, far more than his dominance of the sport, that won NASCAR the following it enjoyed as the 1990s ended.
Richard Petty ranks in the pantheon of motor racing. He stands alone in stock car history: His 127 pole positions is a record, as are his twenty-seven victories in one season, his ten victories in a row, his 513 consecutive starts, and his 1,185 total starts. In addition, he has won seven Winston Cup championships, seven Daytona 500s, and was voted NASCAR's most popular driver in nine different years. What's more, Petty was an active participant in NASCAR history from its earliest inception when as a twelve-year-old, he was his father's pit crew chief into its period of greatest popularity in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s—popularity fueled by his own popularity among race fans. As NASCAR President Bill France Jr. told USA Today when Petty retired, "Richard Petty is NASCAR Winston Cup racing." That was no exaggeration.
Growing Up With Cars
Richard Petty was born on July 2, 1937 in Level Cross, North Carolina. He was the son of three-time NASCAR Grand National champion driver Lee Petty and his wife Elizabeth. In 1943, after a fire that destroyed the Petty home, the family moved to Randleman where Petty and his brother Maurice attended elementary and high school.
Cars were an integral part of Petty and Maurice's lives from the time were old enough to be aware. Lee Petty was constantly repairing, rebuilding and racing automobiles. By the time the two boys were about to become teenagers, they were members—sometimes the only members—of their father's pit crew at races mounted by the nascent NASCAR. Racing was in Richard Petty's blood, whether it was wagons, bicycles or cars. Even as a young boy, he seized every advantage over his opponents. When he was eight, Richard, Maurice, and a friend were racing wagons. "I had a plan," he wrote in his autobiography, King Richard I, "I went straight to the reaper shed and got a can of axle grease from the shelf, and I took off each wheel and greased the daylights out of the axles.… Dale and Maurice didn't know they were in a race; they thought they were just playing, but I meant business. I beat them both by a country mile." Petty concluded: "Racing Lesson Number One: If you can get an advantage, take it." Unfortunately the other two boys caught on to his trick, teaching him that the secrets of such advantages had to be held close to the vest.
|1937||Born July 2 in Level Cross, North Carolina to Lee and Elizabeth Petty|
|1949||Becomes Lee Petty's crew chief at age twelve|
|1958||Drives in his first NASCAR event|
|1959||Wins his first NASCAR race at Columbia Speedway|
|1960||Richard, Maurice, and Lee Petty race in the same event for the first and only time|
|1965||Pettys and Chrysler boycott NASCAR for part of the season when it bans their hemi-engine; Richard wins a national drag racing event|
|1967||Passes his father, Lee, for most career wins|
|1967||Wins ten consecutive races and 27 for the season|
|1970||Helps develop window net for stock cars after nearly losing his life in crash in race at Darlington, South Carolina|
|1973-74||Wins Daytona 500 two years in a row|
|1983||Celebrates 25 years in professional racing|
|1984||Wins 200th and final career race at Firecracker 400 at Daytona|
|1986||Makes 1000th career start|
|1988||Nearly loses his life in crash at Daytona 500|
|1992||Makes Fan Appreciation Tour|
|1995||Makes debut as color commentator on televised racing events|
|1999||Petty Enterprises celebrates 50th anniversary|
Petty was just eight when an uncle let him drive an old 1938 Ford pickup for farm chores for the first time. In the meantime, he was learning what made a car run from his father, who besides being one of the great drivers of his day, was a master mechanic. He loved fixing cars almost as much as driving them fast and when folks asked what he planned to be when he grew up, he would answer: his father's mechanic car-builder. "They always looked at me like I was a little on the strange side, but it was the truth," he reported in King Richard I, "I wanted to see what made a car run; I didn't want to drive it." He was such a good mechanic that when he was just twelve years old, Lee made him his crew chief during races. Straight out of high school, Petty took a full-time job at his father's new racing company, Petty Engineering.
Joins the NASCAR Circuit
A day after he turned twenty-one, Petty let it be known that he was interested in racing. With an old Oldsmobile that Lee gave him, Petty drove in his first event in 1958, and followed the circuit across the country looking for his first win. Lee, in his own tight-lipped way, helped Petty learn the ropes. In his autobiography Petty reported the most important piece of advice that Lee gave him early on: "Richard, if you expect to make it in anything, you gotta put all you've got into it.… you have to work harder than the next guy if you expect to be a success." On the track, however, Lee treated his son in his usual take-no-prisoners racing fashion. In one early race, he forced Petty into the wall on a curve. In another, in 1959, Petty believed he had his first NASCAR victory—until Lee protested to a NASCAR official that Richard's laps had been miscounted. One lap short, Petty's victory was nullified and given to the second place finisher—Lee Petty.
In July 1959, when Petty finally won his first pro race at Columbia Speedway, his fabulous career was underway. He was named the NASCAR Grand National Rookie of the Year that same year. In 1960, he won his first Grand National event. In August 1960, for the first and only time, all three Pettys—Richard, Lee, and Maurice—took part in the same race, finishing second, third and eighth respectively. Petty won three races altogether that year, but finished in the Top ten thirty times, in the Top five sixteen times, and second in the NASCAR points standings. His years of watching his father and other racers up close was paying off. He knew how to drive strategically out on the track, and how other drivers used their cars. Petty was apparently an astonishingly relaxed driver. A physician who did a study of drivers' heart rates after driving hundreds of miles at dangerously high speeds with other drivers often only inches away, found that most exhibited wildly increased heartbeats. Petty's alone was virtually unaffected. The strain showed in other ways though. Years later ulcers ate away half of Petty's stomach, and the thunderous noise of the track had seriously impaired his hearing.
Between 1961 and 1964, Richard Petty came into his own as a driver. He won forty-five of the 262 NASCAR events in which he ran, finished in the Top five on a remarkable 147 occasions, and took home $317,536 in prize money. He recorded his first superspeedway win at the Daytona 500 in 1964 driving a Chrysler with a powerful 426-cubic-inch hemi-head engine. "The first time I cranked it," Petty told Bill Robinson of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, "I thought it was gonna suck the hood into the engine." He won that Daytona after leading 184 of the race's 200 laps, an achievement Bill Robinson called "the most lopsided achievement in big-track history in American racing." In response to the overwhelming superiority of Petty's automobile to others, NASCAR banned the use of hemi-head engines. The Pettys protested the ban by pulling out of NASCAR briefly in 1965. For the first part of the season, Petty participated only in drag racing. He returned to NASCAR later in the summer after a mechanical failure in one of his cars caused an accident in which a young boy was killed.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1959||NASCAR Grand National Rookie of the Year|
|1962, 1968, 1974-77||Most Popular Driver, Nascar|
|1964, 1966, 1971, 1973-74, 1979, 1981||Daytona 500 victory|
|1964, 1967, 1971-71, 1974-75, 1979||Winston Cup|
|1971||NASCAR Driver of the Year|
|1973||Inducted into North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame|
|1992||Awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Bush|
|1992||Inducted into Daytona's Stock Car Racing Hall of Fame|
|1997||Inducted into Motor Sports Hall of Fame|
The King's Last Lap
Lee didn't so much encourage Richard to drive as not stand in his way. As he lay in a hospital bed, with a punctured lung, fractured chest, and broken left thigh, he told Richard the family car was now his to ride. He wondered if his boy's blood bubbled the same as his.
By then, the speed-way era was in full swing. The debut of the 2.5-mile Daytona Speed-way was followed by 1.5-mile tracks in Charlotte and Atlanta. Racing was about two-hundred-mile-per-hour speeds. It needed a new, more calculating driver. Lee bluntly drove the bullrings. His son decided to try something different. He seduced the speedways.
Richard drove closer to the wall than anyone, which is like leaning into a Mike Tyson punch, except that the wall hits harder. But Richard got along well with the wall. He was economical, deliberative, patient. When he saw that your tires were getting bald after all your foolish banging, he'd come down off the high groove like the devil himself, and you'd be passed, son.
"When they start the next race," he says matter-of-factly, "I won more than all them put together. Next was David Pearson. Then Bobby Allison. Dale Earnhardt may have won seven championships, but he ain't won but seventy-four races. He ain't but an honorable mention. After that, there's guys who won ten. And I won two hundred." How did that two hundredth feel, coming on July 4, 1984, with fireworks and a personal embrace by President Ronald Reagan? "Just another day in the life of Richard Petty," he says.
Source: Shaun Assael. Esquire, March 1997, p. 102.
By 1967, bad crashes had long since driven both Lee and Maurice out of racing. It was Richard's greatest
year, however. He won twenty-seven of his forty-eight events, including ten consecutive wins, and his second NASCAR championship. His most unexpected victory that season came in Nashville Tennessee. He was in the lead until a blown tire caused him to crash. By the time his crew had him ready to go again he was ten laps behind the leaders. He made up ground doggedly, however, and ended up winning by five laps. Early in the 1967 season he scored his 55th career win, overtaking his father Lee as the NASCAR's all-time win leader. 1967 was also the year when Petty was given the nickname by which he is best known. "A bunch of reporters got together, sitting around drinking their Budweisers, and got to talkin'," he told Bruce Lowitt of the St. Petersburg Times. "If my name had been Dale or Kyle or Darrell, it wouldn't have sounded like much. I mean, King Dale? But Richard was just a natural to go with King. They just throwed it in there. They'd been trying to name me the Randleman Rocket, all kinds of names. Never took hold. But first time anybody saw King Richard, it stuck."
Petty continued to show why he was the King in the 1970s. He became the first NASCAR driver to pass $1 million in career earnings in 1971. That same year he won his third Daytona 500—the Super Bowl of NASCAR—and his fourth and fifth two years in a row in 1973 and 1974. He won the 500 again just before the decade ended in 1979. Petty's most memorable Daytona 500, however, was in 1976—when he finished second. Petty was leading the race until its final lap when he was passed by David Pearson. When Petty attempted to get past Pearson on the last of Daytona's high-banked turns, he careened into Pearson's car and both spun off the wall and down toward the finish line. "For a bizarre moment," wrote the Washington Post 's Dave Kindred, "it seemed Petty would win his game's biggest prize spinning backward under the checkered flag." His car stopped short, however, its engine dead while Pearson inched his car across the finish line at about ten miles per hour. Petty survived a number of other serious accidents in the course of his career. He looked to be dead at the Darlington Speedway after hitting the wall on a turn, then pinwheeling end over end into the pit wall. Fortunately he suffered no more than a dislocated shoulder, but after the Darlington wreck Petty helped develop the window net, that keeps drivers from flying out the window during crashes.
When Petty's son Kyle won his very first race in 1979 it seemed the torch was being passed to a new generation of Pettys. In the 1980s, Richard Petty won fewer races, two in 1980, three 1981, three in 1983, and two in 1984, including Petty's seventh Daytona 500 win and a win at the Firecracker 400, which would be the last of his career. In 1989 his record string of 513 consecutive starts that stretched back to 1969 ended when he missed a race at Richmond Virginia. He continued to take home purses throughout the eighties, however, winning $3.79 million between 1980 and his retirement in 1991, more than he won during his first twenty-eight years when he was having his heyday.
Those figures hint at the popularity that NASCAR racing had achieved by the 1980s, a popularity for which Richard Petty was almost single-handedly responsible. "Richard's been one of the people who's brought racing from when it wasn't a very respectable sport to where it is today," Junior Johnson , a former NASCAR star told Darrell Fry of the St. Petersburg Times. "He's contributed more to the sport than any other individual." As much as for his wins, Petty was famous for his friendliness to fans, remaining at tracks for hours after races to sign autographs and press the flesh. His feather-laden cowboy hats, wraparound sunglasses and fabulous smiles were still synonymous with stock car racing in 2002, thanks in part to his long-time commercial endorsements of STP. Just before the start of the 1992 NASCAR season Petty announced his retirement. He fittingly dubbed his final season the "Fan Appreciation Tour." Tens of thousands turned out across the country to see his last runs. He didn't win a single race, but it was clear he was still the most beloved driver on the circuit.
After he hung up his helmet, Petty devoted himself to running the family business, with its stable of drivers—which by the end of the 1990s included Petty's grandson Adam—Petty Enterprises, as well as overseeing The Richard Petty Driving Experience. The venture, founded in 1990, gave amateurs an opportunity to drive a stock car on a real NASCAR track. In February 1995 Petty made his TV debut as color commentator for a CBS broadcast of the Daytona 500.
Address: Petty Enterprise, 311 Branson Mill Rd., Randleman, NC 27317. Online: http://www.pettyracing.com/.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY PETTY:
SELECTED WRITINGS BY PETTY:
(With William Neely) King Richard I, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1986.
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, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1997.
Bisher, Furman. "'King' Richard's reign." Atlanta Journal and Constitution (November 15, 1992).
Cawthon, Raad. Richard's Last Ride: The Making Of A Legend." Atlanta Journal and Constitution (November 15, 1992).
Clark, Ian M. "Petty born to race. Petty family goes from glory to tragedy." Manchester Union Leader (May 13, 2000).
Coble, Don. "Hometown hero hasn't forgotten his roots." USA Today (November 13, 1992).
Fry, Darrell. "The King." St. Petersburg Times (November 15, 1992).
Glick. Shav. "For Richard Petty, it's been a long, fun ride." Houston Chronicle (November 15, 1992).
Hudgens, Dallas. "Minutes of Thunder." Washington Post (June 28, 1998).
Kindred, Dave. "It Will Take a Heap of Booze-Running to Top Petty." Washington Post (February 19, 1978).
Minter, Rick "'Not retired, just recycled'." Atlanta Journal and Constitution (November 12, 1993).
Perrone, Vinnie. "Petty Goes Out With Blaze, Kulwicki Gets Glory." Washington Post (November 16, 1992).
"Richard's Last Ride: A Special Thank You To Fans." Atlanta Journal and Constitution (November 15, 1992).
Robinson, Bill. "Richard's Last Ride: The Races He Has Won Remembering Richard." Atlanta Journal and Constitution (November 15, 1992).
Thomy, Al. "Petty's first victory snatched away by father." Atlanta Journal and Constitution (November 15, 1992).
Tuschak, Beth. "Farewell To The King." USA Today (November 13, 1992).
Tuschak, Beth. "Royal sendoff begins for Petty." USA Today (February 14, 1992).
Williams, Robert. "Richard Petty a Daytona Rookie—in TV Booth." Omaha World Herald (February 17, 1995).
Sketch by Gerald E. Brennan