American race car driver
Lee Petty was a key figure in the early development of stock car racing and the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing Inc. (NASCAR). He contributed to the evolution of the sport from an illegal, back road event, to dirt tracks at local fairgrounds and other sites throughout the South and Midwest, to the latter-day super-speedways at Daytona, Florida, Charlotte, North Carolina, and other cities. By the time Petty retired—after sixteen years behind the wheel and 427 NASCAR starts—he had racked up fifty-five wins, an all-time high that stood until his son Richard Petty passed him on his way to 200 NASCAR victories, a record that still stands. Lee Petty was the first NASCAR driver to win three national championships; he finished fifth or better 231 times. Besides being one of the best drivers in NASCAR history, Lee Petty played a significant role in the transformation of stock car racing from a sport to a business, testified most clearly by the continuing success of the family firm he founded, Petty Enterprises.
Hard Times in the Rural South
Lee Petty was born in 1914 in rural North Carolina. His parents scraped out a living on the family farm and Petty grew up dirt poor. With the hard times of the Great Depression in the 1930s, Petty accepted whatever jobs were available in order to support his young wife, the former Elizabeth Toomes, and his two sons, Richard and Maurice. For a time he was a biscuit salesman and later he owned a small trucking company. Hard luck, however, was never far away. In 1943, after a freak wood stove
accident, the family house burned to the ground in front of the horrified eyes of his wife and sons. Petty and his family saw their way through the catastrophe and soon converted a trailer into a new house.
Petty was something of a natural athlete. He played minor league baseball as a young man, and in his retirement became a scratch golfer. His passion, however, was automobiles, driving them and working on them. He was constitutionally unable to leave a car alone and much to the chagrin of his wife, he was always tinkering with the family vehicle. He was "improving it," he told her.
In the 1930s and early 1940s stock car races were nothing more than illegal drag races held on back roads; the only prizes were whatever wagers one was able to win. By the time World War Two ended, informal but legal meets were being held on dirt tracks throughout the South. In 1948, when he was already in his mid-thirties, Lee entered—and won—a race in Danville Virginia in a 1937 Plymouth he and his brother Julie had rebuilt. He came in second in his next race, an event in Roanoke Virginia. From the very beginning he possessed the remarkable consistency that would be a hallmark of his racing career, finishing in the top five in more than half the races he entered.
Petty's success was due as much to his temperament as to his ability on the track. At a time when stock car racing was populated by men out for a good time, drivers who thought nothing of partying into the wee hours, before and after a race, Petty was different. Racing was much more than merely a hobby for him and he approached it with seriousness, calculation, and a singular determination to win. In his book King Richard I Petty's son Richard recalled his father telling him. "There ain't no second place, you win or you lose. That's the only two parts there are to racing." Petty had more than a fierce will to win. He also recognized that only the winners would be able to pay their way in 1940s racing, where expenses often ran into several thousand dollars while winner's purse rarely totaled more than $1000.
|1914||Born March 14 in North Carolina|
|1948||Wins first race|
|1949||Founds Petty Enterprises|
|1949||Helps organize NASCAR event at Charlotte North Carolina|
|1953||First driver to install a roll bar on his car|
|1954, 1958-1959||Wins NASCAR championship|
|1960||Wins last race when he protests would-be first time victory of Richard Petty|
|1961||Critically injured in qualifying heat for the Daytona 500|
|1964||Retires from stock car racing|
|1969||Inducted into National Motorsports Press Association's Hall of Fame|
|1990||Inducted into International Motorsports Hall of Fame|
|2000||Dies following stomach surgery|
A NASCAR Pioneer
When NASCAR was founded in December 1947, the purpose of the association was to promote stock car racing—races that used standard car makes rather than the special Formula One automobiles driven at other established races. The first NASCAR event was held on December 16, 1948 at the old Daytona Beach track, a course that made its way through the streets of the city before heading out onto the sands of the beach itself. Petty was there, but he was unable to win the race. Not long after, he and Julie took part in organizing the first NASCAR event in Charlotte North Carolina, held on June 19, 1949 with a purse of $6000. Leading up to the race, Petty did not have a car of his own, so he called an unsuspecting friend and asked to borrow his 1948 Buick Roadmaster for the weekend. His sons, Richard, age eleven, and Maurice, age ten, acted as his pit crew at Charlotte. Petty was well-placed near the front of the pack and was challenging to win when his radius bar broke. The car went into a barrel roll. When the dust cleared, Petty had suffered a minor cut on his face but the borrowed car was wrecked beyond repair. To make matters worse, the Petty family had no vehicle to drive home. The incident taught Petty two important lessons. First, he began towing his race car with another car so he would never again be stranded. Second, he learned to do whatever he had to do to win—but to always save the car. He had learned the hard way: If the car didn't finish the race, you can't win.
Petty finished up the eight-race 1949 season second in points only to Red Byron. After the first Charlotte race, Petty bought the first of several Plymouths he would race. Plymouths didn't have the horsepower of other makes, but they were highly dependable, maneuverable, and one of the lightest cars on the market. After he won his first race in a Plymouth at Heidelburg, Pennsylvania, the make became a trademark of Petty's for several years. He started winning in them regularly, to the dismay of drivers in more powerful cars, like Cadillacs. "He used to take those little old Plymouths and just outthink people," Mark Bechtel quoted Richard Petty in Sports Illustrated,. "When they got him in Oldsmobiles, he won races. He won championships. He was blowing people away." In 1953 he switched to Dodges, a car with twice the horsepower. He also installed a roll bar on his Dodge—the first one in NASCAR. Whatever he drove he won or came very close. Between 1949 and 1959, he finished no lower than fourth place in any NASCAR Grand National event and was the first driver ever to win three Grand National titles.
Petty impressed almost everyone who saw him drive. "There wasn't any better driver than Lee Petty in his day," legendary stock-car racer Junior Johnson told the Associated Press's Estes Thompson. "There might have been more colorful drivers, but when it came down to winning the race, he had as much as anyone I've ever seen." Glen Wood told Rea McLeroy of the Richmond Times Dispatch "He was one of the toughest competitors there was at that time." His desire to win could border on mania at times. At one race, Petty pulled out of a pit stop before he realized his son Richard was still on the hood wiping off the windshield. Already back on the track, Lee signaled his son to hold on. He did—for dear life—as his father roared around the track once and back into the pits to drop him off. Petty did whatever he thought necessary to win. Most infamously, he attached his door plates with bare bolt ends sticking out inches, designed to tear into opponents bodies or, better, their tires, reminding drivers and spectators of a 20th century version of the race in the film Ben Hur.
The First Daytona 500
In 1959 Petty entered the inaugural running of the Daytona 500, NASCAR's answer to the Indianapolis 500. The race was held on a brand new track, the highly banked Daytona International Speedway. The race was a nail-biter that ended in a three-way photo finish between Petty, Johnny Beauchamp and Joe Weatherly. NASCAR officials immediately declared Beauchamp the winner. Petty was infuriated, particularly after he heard that a dozen newsmen unanimously thought Petty had won. Petty remained in Daytona for three days after the conclusion of the 500, campaigning for the victory. Finally, after reviewing the photos for days, NASCAR changed its ruling and named Lee Petty the winner. The victory marked the highlight of Petty's career.
Two years later, Petty nearly lost his life in a qualifying race at Daytona. While attempting to avoid another driver who had gone into a spin Petty and Johnny Beauchamp hit each other. Lee's car was sent flying 150 feet over a wall and into a parking lot. Richard Petty witnessed the crash and described the aftermath in his autobiography: "There wasn't anything left of either car. There was blood everywhere, and they had just taken Daddy out of the car and were putting him in the back of an ambulance. He was lifeless." Petty suffered a crushed chest, punctured lung, fractured collarbone, and a broken leg, among other injuries. After days in a coma, Petty managed to pull through. He spent the next four months in a hospital bed.
Petty explained the accident, according to Sports Illustrated 's Mark Bechtel, by saying "It was a left turn, and we went straight." However, he was never the same afterwards. His son Richard noticed the difference the next time Lee drove. "It sure wasn't the Lee Petty of old," Richard wrote in his autobiography, "he didn't charge into the turns and he wasn't smooth. That's the part I noticed most." Petty drove in six more races, but his winning days were behind him, admitting in 1989 to the Sporting News 's Richard Sowers "That wreck in '61 took the desire out of me." His last win came in 1960 in Jacksonville Florida. He hung on until 1964, then retired after a race in Watkins Glen, New York, telling his sons it was not fun anymore.
Lee Petty always supported the racing ambitions of his son Richard, who began his career while Lee was still active. When the two drove against each other, Richard experienced first-hand what a hard-boiled competitor his father was. In one of Richard's very first races, Lee took his son into the wall in order to pass him. Richard thought he had recorded his first victory at a race in 1960—until a protest was filed claiming that Richard was actually a lap short at the finish. The protest, made by Lee Petty, was upheld and a new victor was named, also Lee Petty. "I would have protested even if it was my mother," Lee Petty said, according to Joseph Slano of the New York Times.. That race turned out to be his last win.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1950||Mechanic of the Year|
|1954, 1958-59||NASCAR champion|
|1959||Winner Daytona 500|
|1969||Inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association's Hall of Fame|
|1990||Inducted into International Motorsports Hall of Fame|
A Complicated Man
For some who knew him Lee Petty was uncommunicative, tight-fisted, and a dirty competitor. Others, however, found that he was also a gentleman. Driver Ned Jarrett was close behind Petty for ten laps with no way to get past in one race. Finally Jarrett bumped Petty's car. After the race Petty pulled Jarrett aside and advised him to learn some manners when driving. However a few days later, when the two met at another track and Petty learned Jarrett didn't have a car to race, he told him that if he had known he would have brought one for him. "I learned right then that I'd got the man's respect," Jarrett said, according to Estes Thompson of the Associated Press. Those who knew Petty in his hometown of Level Cross, North Carolina felt that success and fame never changed him. Petty lived out his life in the same home he built for his family after their house burned down.
In his retirement, Lee Petty continued as head of Petty Enterprises. In his later years he became a fanatic golfer, playing often four times a week. In February 2000 he underwent surgery for a stomach aneurysm. He never recovered. On April 5, 2000 he passed away at Moses Cone Hospital in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Related Biography: Racecar Driver Adam Petty
When seventeen-year-old Adam Petty, Lee Petty's great-grandson, drove his first race on April 11, 1998, he was writing the beginning of another chapter in the Petty family's book of records. It was the first time four generations of a single family had participated in a professional sport. From the start it was clear that he was cut from the same mold as his grandfather (Richard Petty) and great-grandfather. He won his first race just two months after his debut, the youngest winning driver ever in the American Speed Association, and won in his first Winston Cup race in 2000 before the assembled Petty clan. Three days later, Lee Petty passed away. Even as an amateur, Adam seemed to have a penchant for getting into wrecks. In May 2000, just five weeks after his great-grandfather's death, a bad crash ended Adam Petty's brief NASCAR career tragically. In a preliminary at the New Hampshire International Speedway, the 19-year-old lost control of his car and was killed when it hit the wall. The Petty dynasty had apparently come to an unexpected sudden end.
Lee Petty left behind a legacy that is unique in professional sports. In addition to being a pioneer of NASCAR and one of its greatest drivers, and to compiling a record of wins that is still number six on the all-time NASCAR list—doubly remarkable considering he didn't start racing until he was already thirty-five—he started a formidable racing dynasty. His son Richard is the all-time leader in wins, his grandson Kyle drove, and—until his tragic death at 19—so did his great-grandson Adam Petty. It was the first time that four generations from a single family participated in a professional sport. It is unlikely sport will witness the likes of Lee Petty or his family again.
Chapin, Kim. Fast As White Lightning. New York: Dial Press, 1981.
Petty, Richard, with William Neely. King Richard I. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1986.
Bechtel, Mark. "The Patriarch: Lee Petty 1914-2000.
#x201D; Sports Illustrated (April 17, 2000): 26.
McLaurin, Jim. "Lee Petty, First Winner of Daytona 500, Dies in Greensboro, NC." State (April 6, 2000): 26.
McLeroy, Rea. "Racing Pioneer Dies; Lee Petty turned Family Business into Dynasty." Richmond Times Dispatch (April 6, 2000): C-1.
Siano, Joseph. "Lee Petty, 86, Racing Family Patriarch Dies." New York Times (April 7, 2000): B12.
Sowers, Richard. "Patriarch of His Sport's First Family." Sporting News (July 24, 1989): 59.
Woods, Skip. "Kings of the Road—Four Generations of Pettys." Richmond Times Dispatch (February 15, 1998): E-1.
"Lee Petty March 14, 1914-April 5, 2000" http://www.pettyracing.com/www2/main/drivers/lee.shtml (January 5, 2003).
"Lee Petty Nascar Win Career: 1949-64" http://www.nascar.com/2002/kyn/history/drivers/02/02/lpetty/ (January 5, 2003).
Thompson, Estes. "Lee Petty, Racing Family Patriarch, Dies at 86." http://www.detnews.com/2000/sports/0004/06/20000406-31608.htm (April 6, 2000).
Sketch by Gerald E. Brennan