Petty's talent and charisma helped NASCAR boom
"Richard was not arrogant -- outwardly. But he was very arrogant inwardly. You know that with that big smile he had, there were two big fangs hanging down. So you want to go after that guy. You want to beat him more than anybody else," says Darrell Waltrip about Richard Petty on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
He has not won a race since 1984. His last championship came in 1979. But Richard Petty's big sunglasses, cowboy hat and that No. 43 still loom large over stock-car racing.
The winner of seven Winston Cup championships (tied for the most with Dale Earnhardt) and a remarkable 200 NASCAR races was a man for the people, a charismatic presence the way Arnie was for golf and Babe was for baseball. From the fifties to the nineties, millions flocked to see the races because of him -- "The King."
"It was as if Richard had written the script," driver Darrell Waltrip said, "and NASCAR just helped him out."
The script had many milestones: First stock-car racer to exceed $1 million in earnings, first to repeat as winner of the Daytona 500, winner of 10 consecutive races, 356 top-five finishes and $7,755,409 in earnings.
Not bad for a guy who made only $760 his first year of racing.
Richard Lee Petty was born on July 2, 1937, in Randleman, N.C., the son of one of stock-car racing's early pioneers, Lee Petty, who in the fifties would win three Grand National championships.
Young Richard was bitten by the racing bug as a kid, and at 12 he became his father's crew chief. However, Lee would not let the future "King" compete until Richard was a legal adult. A day after turning 21 in 1958, he finished sixth in his first race, driving a convertible on a dirt track near Columbia, S.C.
The next eight events would come and go, and Petty failed to finish any of them. Then he thought he had his first win. The checkered flag was waved for him. He was on his way to victory lane before another driver protested, successfully claiming the checkered flag was waved on the wrong lap.
The driver? Lee Petty.
Not that Richard was looking for any charity. As he said, "I wanted to do it on my own."
When the Daytona International Speedway opened in 1959, Richard Petty did not look like the man who would practically own the track over the next 22 years. While his father was winning the inaugural Daytona 500, Richard was watching most of it, having blown his engine after only eight laps.
Still, the era of super speedways had dawned, and Petty thought: "If I was any good, I could grow along with the sport."
Petty was voted NASCAR's Rookie of the Year in 1959 and a year later finished second to Rex White in the Grand National (later Winston Cup) points race.
In 1962, Lee Petty was knocked out of racing by a near-fatal crash. It was Richard's turn to carry the Petty family name.
Two years later, he would begin his first run to a Grand National championship with his first victory in the Daytona 500. But by then, a lot of winning made Petty a target. Rival racing teams protested, saying the engines built for him by the Chrysler Corp. were too big.
NASCAR banned the monster engines in 1965, and Chrysler boycotted the season. Petty went into drag racing, but instead of finding redemption, he found tragedy.
On Feb. 28, on a track in Dallas, Ga., the suspension on his left front broke and Petty's car went into the crowd. An eight-year-old boy was killed. The incident left a deep scar on Petty, who years later said, "You still remember it and still worry about it, but life goes on."
Returning to his roots, Petty began his NASCAR comeback in 1966 by becoming the first driver to win a second Daytona 500.
Petty's bellwether year was 1967. Of the 48 races he started, he won 27, including 10 straight, and he finished in the top five in 11 others to gain his second Grand National championship.
Along the way, he broke his father's career record for victories with his 55th win in less than a decade on the circuit. That blue-and-red No. 43 had everyone in its rear-view mirror. Well, almost everyone.
A popular rival was emerging, and David Pearson's duels with Petty were big events coming into full bloom. Between 1963 and 1977, Petty and Pearson finished one-two 63 times, with Pearson holding a 33-30 edge.
Most fans seemed to be behind the ever-accessible Petty. "Anybody else who tried to come in, tried to get a leading role, had to be the bad guy," Waltrip said.
Petty was winning in seemingly every make of car there was - Oldsmobile, Plymouth, Ford, Dodge, Chevrolet, Buick and Pontiac.
In the seventies, Petty won five Winston Cups and four Daytona 500s, although the one that got away is the race everyone seems to remember. Petty and Pearson were running bumper to bumper on the last lap of the 1976 Daytona 500 when they collided. Petty got the worst of it, and Pearson limped across the finish line to win what may have been NASCAR's most memorable race.
In December 1978, Petty had 40 percent of his stomach removed because of ulcers. However, he came back two months later to win the Daytona 500 en route to his last Winston Cup.
With more and more races separating him from that last win, talk of retirement began to swirl. He finally got out of the driver's seat -- at 54 -- after a 29-race fan appreciation tour in 1992.
In 1995, Petty successfully underwent surgery for prostate cancer. A year later, the Republican Party, seeking to capitalize on "The King's" popularity, made him its candidate for North Carolina's Secretary of State. He lost. During the campaign, Democrats made much of the fact that Petty used NASCAR tactics on I-85 when, boxed in by a slow commuter, Petty tapped him from the rear.
His No. 43 car is an attraction in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. He is the subject of the popular Richard Petty Museum in his family's hometown of Level Cross, N.C.
Petty remains active as he still runs Petty Enterprises and serves as team owner for the racing team his father began and his son Kyle represents.
Maybe Richard Petty was right when he said: "One of these days, when they have a race and I don't show up, then everybody will know I've retired."