The chairman of the board...
The chairman of the board watches over Richard Petty Enterprises.
Richard Petty in his &821777...
Richard Petty in his &821777 Dodge. Petty finished second in points that year to Cale Yarborough.
Petty and family celebrate...
Petty and family celebrate in Victory Lane after the &821777 Daytona 500.
King Richard reaps the rewards...
King Richard reaps the rewards of victory after the ? World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Father and son talk strat...
Father and son talk strategy.
Celebrating his 200th victory...
Celebrating his 200th victory with President Ronald Reagan stands out as one of Petty&8217s greatest moments in his career.
A classic Petty pose seen...
A classic Petty pose seen here at the Southern 500 in Darlington in 1982.
Richard Petty needs no introduction--except as this month's host of Scrapbook: NASCAR Memories, '48-'99. The acknowledged king of big-time stock car racing, a hall-of-fame living legend, ended a record-filled 35-year Winston Cup driving career in 1992 and became a car owner, fielding famed #43 Pontiacs for John Andretti. Petty, 61, and his wife, Lynda, reside in beloved Level Cross, North Carolina, a few laps from Petty Enterprises, the all-time winningest Winston Cup stable in NASCAR history with 270 titles.
My 1,000th Winston Cup start was at Michigan Speedway in 1987 [June 28]. They had a party for my family and me the night before the race. My daughters, Sharon, Lisa, and Rebecca, were there, along with Kyle, who was racing. I thought the party was a big deal--until it was time to start the race.
I got to start my engine first on the command from my daughters in unison, "Daddy, start your engine." In all the excitement, I had forgotten to turn on the switch, but I got her cranked. Then the rest of the field fired up. I'm not an emotional person at all, but tears came to my eyes. It was great to know that the other drivers respected me enough to allow that ceremony to happen. To have your daughters recognize you before 65,000 fans and national TV was a little too much for me. [Petty finished 12th in the race; Kyle was Third in the Wood Brothers' Ford.]
Another big deal was in 1992 when I went to the White House to receive the Medal of Freedom from President Bush. This is the highest award a civilian can receive, something like the military’s Medal of Honor. Racing got me to the forefront, but the medal was over and beyond racing, taking in the other things that I have done. That’s what made me feel good. It was a big day for [my wife] Lynda and me. I probably wouldn’t have gone to the ceremony if Clinton had called me up there [Petty is a staunch Republican].
I grew up in a hurry in the real world after my daddy [Lee, a three-time Winston Cup champion with 55 victories] was seriously injured when his car sailed over the fence and out of Daytona Speedway in 1961. I duplicated the feat on the same day but wasn’t hurt. Daddy was in the hospital four months at Daytona and Mother [Elizabeth] stayed with him. My brother, Maurice, and I had to take over Petty Enterprises. We had wiped out the only two race cars we had. At that time, Mother paid all the bills and I paid little attention to money. Daddy ran the place. All of a sudden, a 23- and 22-year-old had to support the whole family. We had to keep the books, work on the cars, and buy parts, everything. It was a downer from the standpoint of Daddy’s injuries, but it turned out to be a valuable experience for me because it introduced me to the real world.
Thrill of Victory
A driver’s first victory sticks in his mind and I’m no different. I started driving in what is now NASCAR Winston Cup in 1958, but my first win didn’t count on my [record] 200 wins. It was a convertible race at Columbia [South Carolina] Speedway, a half-mile dirt, in 1959. I passed established star Jack Smith with two or three laps left for the victory. Actually winning on my own was a great feeling. It gave me the feel for winning. Those who haven’t won can’t know that feeling. I think winning made me try a lot harder than before.
That same year, I thought I had won my first Winston Cup race. I finished first ahead of Daddy on the track at Lakewood Speedway [June 14, 1959] in Atlanta, but Daddy protested. After a recheck of scorecards, he was declared the winner. He received $2,200 and I got $1,400, but I didn't care about the protest or the money because Second was the best I'd ever run and I was tickled about that. There was a lesson in the protest: Earn what you get. I remember that first win more than my first Winston Cup win at Charlotte Fairgrounds [February 28] in 1960.
Streaking to New York
Of course, our whole season of 1967, when we won 27 races [and 18 poles in 48 starts], highlighted by a streak of 10, is unforgettable. We were winning races and didn’t give the streak much thought. After we’d won 10 straight, Plymouth [Chrysler Corp.] took me to New York City for a press conference, one of the few times I’d been out of the South for a major media event and maybe the first one held in the Big Apple.
There was a bunch of people there, more reporters than I'd ever seen. That's the first time I realized the significance of the streak, that it was of national interest even though stock car racing was a regional sport. I was indeed impressed. In spite of Jeff Gordon and the others who have won four in a row, I think the two records in 1967 will stand for a while.
Vietnam and STP
I was invited to Vietnam in 1971 to visit our troops as the war wound down. Cale Yarborough had gone the year before. I joined a group in Saigon and stayed three weeks. We weren’t close to any fighting, but we went to places where battles had taken place. We’d show a racing movie and we’d sign autographs. We got to see a lot of people and do a lot of things. The one thing that all the GIs I met wanted to know was what was going on at home. I noticed there was an STP sticker on practically every jeep, truck, and helicopter I saw. Maybe that had some influence on my signing with STP as primary sponsor in 1972. It was a real honor to go over there. It made me appreciate so much more what our military was doing to protect our country, everything I had at home, and how fortunate we are.
Chief Hails King
Winning the 200th race in front of President Reagan and beating Cale on the last green-flag lap by a couple of feet was the highlight of my driving career, even though it was my last victory [July 4, 1984]. If I had won more, 200 still would be the big deal. As I said then, the President put racing on the front page and we put him on the sports page. You couldn’t have written a script for that.
And doing it at Daytona was important to me, considering that I had won seven Daytona 500s and three Pepsi 400s and Daddy had won the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959 before his accident essentially ended his career. Daytona has been a big plus for me.
One for Books
When I was seven, fire destroyed our house and everything we owned. A big stove located in the middle of the three rooms heated the house. Mother would start the fire in the stove each morning by pouring kerosene over wood. This time, live coals caused the stove to flame up and set the house on fire. Maurice and I got out and went to a car away from the house. I recall that my biggest worry was not the loss of the house and possessions but my school books. It’s not that I was the studious type. The concern was over losing somebody else’s property. That’s a vivid memory.
We moved in temporarily with my grandparents. This was during World War II and building supplies were rationed, but we qualified as a hardship case and were able to get some materials. Daddy had an 8-foot by 20-foot construction trailer he made into a kitchen. On the front he added a 10-foot by 20-foot room. One side was the living room and the other the bedroom. I remember that Daddy got olive drab bunk beds for Maurice and me at a military installation in Greensboro [North Carolina] with "U.S." stamped on the end of the beds. That fire gave me a greater appreciation for family and what we have.
Charlotte, at Last!
One of my good recollections is finally winning my first Winston Cup race, in fact, both races, at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1975 after trying for 15 years. Jim Paschal, Marvin Panch, and Buddy Baker had won races there in our cars, but not me, although I had always run decent. It became a personal challenge for me to conquer that place and it was a major accomplishment. [Petty charged from almost two laps down to lead 228 of the final 234 laps and beat Cale Yarborough by more than one lap in the World 600; he led the final 111 laps to edge David Pearson in the fall 500.]
Of course, 1975 was a very good year. We set the modern-era record with 13 victories and had 21 top fives in 30 starts. In 1971, we won 21 races but that was an afterthought after 1967. I'd have a few more records to shoot at if Winston Cup's modern era had started in 1971, when Winston joined NASCAR as the series sponsor, instead of 1972. Although 1975 was my third-best year in terms of wins, it was overshadowed by tragedy. Lynda's brother, Randy Owens, was killed when an air tank exploded in our pit at Talladega.
Even though I won a couple of races, including the 200th, driving for car owner Mike Curb in 1984 and 1985, having to shutdown Petty Enterprises, founded by Daddy in 1949, was a downer. Kyle’s racing career was coming along, and at the end of 1983 we didn’t have the money to run two cars out of our shops. I figured it would be easier for me to leave and get a deal than it would be for him. Kyle stayed for a year and then got a ride with the Wood Brothers, leaving Petty Enterprises idle in 1985. It was a major break for Kyle and for me. The move took the pressure off me to provide the best for Kyle and enabled me to get my stuff together to go back to Petty Enterprises. In 1986, I did. It was good to get home again, even if I didn’t win another race.
Two for Four
Before the Winston Cup schedule was downsized in 1972, we raced practically all the time, 40 to 50 races a year. My schedule didn’t always agree with the births of our four children, but Lynda always insisted I drive her to the hospital. I was two for four, which ain’t bad.
Lynda was in labor about 24 hours with Kyle and I was able to work on my race car during the wait. With Sharon, I had time to take Lynda to the hospital and then head for a race track. I was at a race in Hillsboro [North Carolina] when Lisa was born. After the race was over, I--covered in red dust--went straight to the hospital. I asked Lynda if we had a girl or boy. "I ain't telling you," she fumed. "If you want to know, go to the nursery and see." Obviously, she was hopping mad at me. I told her I had to race to pay for those kids. When Rebecca came along several years later, I took Lynda to the hospital and stayed for the duration. I think about this because Winston Cup has always been family-oriented. Kyle used to play games in the infield at race tracks with kids of other racers, the Woods, Pearsons, Jarretts, for instance. Now their kids are playing together.
Reflecting on the old days, the comradeship is what I miss most. Drivers used to sit around the garage and shoot the breeze. Reporters we all knew by name would join in. If they wanted to do an interview, they’d take out their notepad. Then they’d put the pad away and we’d continue to talk. We can’t do that now. The sport has gotten so big and there is so much going on that we’ve lost the personal relationship with drivers and media members. Now I don’t know many members of the press and sometimes it seems half of the drivers. Of all the sport has gained, comradeship is a good thing we’ve lost.