Racing Beat: Still king

Even though he’s no longer racing, Richard Petty still has a huge place in the hearts of NASCAR fans.

It all began a half century ago when a son, determined to follow in his father’s footsteps, crawled into the cockpit of a stock car and decided to go racing. And race he did, winning 200 events, capturing 127 poles and finishing in the top 10 more than 700 times.

Perhaps the most memorable victory came on July 4, 1984. On lap 198 of the Firecracker 400 at Daytona International Speedway, Doug Heveron crashed, bringing out the caution flag and creating a sprint to the finish. Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough battled it out on what was basically the final lap to be contested at full speed, with Petty winning in what was close to a photo finish.

President Ronald Reagan was in attendance, the first sitting president to attend a NASCAR race. Reagan joined Petty in victory lane for the celebration.

Petty’s statistics were kingly, and now when a race fan refers to “The King,” no further explanation is needed.

“I ain’t never been nothing else,” Petty says. “And what was fortunate from my standpoint, the time I came along, the personalities I was around, the people that helped me and stuff, it was a gradual deal. It wasn’t a deal where you didn’t do anything one year and you come out and win 10 or 12 races next year or a championship or something like that. It grew and I grew up with NASCAR.”

Petty, now 71 years old, still sports the ever-present sunglasses and Charlie 1 Horse cowboy hat. Today he is a mostly behind-the-scenes owner of Petty Enterprises, but any time he appears in the garage area fans still gravitate toward him – even those who know him only from video clips and stories told by dads and granddads.

“Little kids will come up and say, ‘Hey, Mr. The King,’ so it makes you feel good that you’ve done something that they enjoyed,” Petty says.

With the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series on its way to Chicagoland Speedway in July, the sanctioning body decided to honor Petty and pay tribute to his first Cup start. Though he’s an icon in an American blue collar sport, Petty’s first Cup race actually took place in Canada on July 18, 1958, at the Canadian Exposition Stadium in Toronto.

“It wasn’t all bad,” Petty says. “I was running around there getting lapped and my dad [Hall of Famer Lee Petty] knocked me in the wall, so I wound up in the wall and he ended up winning the race.”

But young Richard got better. By the time he took his farewell ride at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1992, Petty had secured records that will never be sniffed in NASCAR competition. Aside from the 200 total checkered flags, he grabbed the Daytona 500 checker seven times. During the 1967 season, Petty won a staggering 27 events, including a 10-race streak. But was there ever a time he knew he was becoming the greatest driver the sport had ever seen?

“I never sat there and said, ‘Look what you’ve done’ or ‘look what you’ve been able to accomplish,’ because it was a deal that was just moving all the time,” he explains. “That one year we won 10 races in a row, we won one, won two, done that before, won three or four, and by the time you won the fifth or sixth race, you weren’t trying to add anymore, because as quick as that race was over, you’re saying, ‘Where are we going to run next, and what do we need to do to win that race?’ You didn’t really get involved in it until it was all over with, and then you look back on it.”

Characteristically humble, Petty says he was just one “lucky son of a gun to be born at the right place at the right time under the right circumstances with a little bit of talent and a lot of talented people around me to put me in a position to be where I’m at today.”

Petty’s final event also was the first Cup start for Jeff Gordon, meaning the Atlanta race symbolized a passing of the torch. And while his best years were behind him, Petty was still able to start all 29 races on the schedule that year.

But he knew when it was time to walk away. “If I’m going to run,” he says, “I’m going to run with the big boys or I’m not going to run.” Fortunately for Petty, there was nothing left to prove by the time he called it quits. For as long as NASCAR exists, he will remain the standard bearer of excellence.

Now Petty is trying to help his son, Kyle, make Petty Enterprises viable again, with Bobby Labonte serving as the point man for the team.

“I know I’m not the answer, but I hope I’m a piece of the puzzle,” Labonte says. “Not just one thing is going to bring you out of the hole or bring you back to life; it takes several things and some time. But I do feel like the ship is being steered in the right direction.”