Commentary

Petty, STP changed sport forever

Updated: May 20, 2010, 3:43 PM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

Richard PettyManny Rubio/US PresswireSTP on the attire -- even the sunglasses -- became the signature look for Richard Petty and forever altered the way the sport is financed.

As Richard Petty steps to the podium on Sunday afternoon to formally accept his induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, we will be flooded with numbers. Seven championships, seven Daytona 500 victories, 200 wins, 27 wins in one season, 10 wins in a row, most poles, top-5s, top-10s, laps led …

If this was Cooperstown they'd need to engrave three or four of those tiny plaques to make room for all the lists.

But looking back, now 18 seasons after The King's final laps behind the wheel, his greatest lasting impact on motorsports may have had nothing to do with stat sheets. Instead, his legacy may lie not with numbers, but rather three letters.

STP.

"When Richard did the STP sponsorship deal it forever changed the business model in American motorsports," said Jack Roush, founder and owner of four-car NASCAR powerhouse Roush Fenway Racing. "At a time when a lot of people were panicking about money, not unlike today, he and that company presented a solution that changed the face of racing."

Not to mention one of the most iconic images in American sports history.

"We need to talk …"

Standing on the starting grid of Texas World Speedway for the 1971 NASCAR Grand National season finale, Richard Petty knew that he had already clinched his third championship. He also had a good feeling about that day's race, a feeling he would back up by leading 111 of 250 laps and earning his 140th career win, his 21st of the season.

But what he didn't know, along with a lot of other teams, was how or if he would be able to afford to race full time in 1972.

"All the factories were pulling out," Petty recalled now. "Ford was gone. Chrysler was leaving us. Chevy was starting to nose around, but nothing big. At the time, factory support from Detroit was what kept the doors open at the race shop. When that went away, so did the money. Suddenly, guys like Junior [Johnson] were barely hanging on. Cale [Yarborough] went Indy car racing. It was a mess. We had more money put back than most, but everyone was worried, including me."

NASCAR, in the process of transitioning from the rule of founder Bill France Sr. to that of his son, was making moves to help teams make it to the finish line and the bottom line. They shortened the schedule, increased purses and created the precursor to today's Winner's Circle program, which rewards top teams just for showing up. In addition, tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds had arrived to create the Winston Cup Series, but that was still in its infancy.

"At the time, sponsors were secondary," said Dale Inman, Petty's crew chief and cousin. "You might pick up a little money from a local business in the town where you were racing, but that might pay for gas money to get there and that was it. It didn't pay for parts and payroll and motel rooms."

So, standing there in chilly College Station, Texas, wrapped up in a Petty Enterprises jacket and leaning against his Petty Blue No. 43 Plymouth, Richard Petty was quietly racking his brain for revenue ideas. That's when Andy Granatelli, the demonstrative CEO of STP, walked up. The two chatted, wished each other luck and shook hands. The next day, back at the Petty race shop in Level Cross, N.C., Petty's phone rang. It was Granatelli.

"We need to talk …"

They call me Mister 500

Granatelli was a Texas native who looked like he'd walked straight off the poster for "Goodfellas." He and his brothers had been race mechanics and Andy eventually became a promoter. Soon he became the most recognizable non-driver in the Indianapolis 500's Gasoline Alley, fielding bright red STP-sponsored rides for the likes of Joe Leonard, Parnelli Jones (who raced a car powered by a jet turbine engine) and 1969 Indy 500 winner Mario Andretti. To many, the most memorable moment of Andretti's win was the giant kiss planted on him in Victory Lane … by Granatelli.

[+] EnlargeRichard Petty and Andy Granatelli
ISC Archives/Getty ImagesRichard Petty did a lot for Andy Granatelli and his company, STP, and Granatelli was always appreciative.

Granatelli became known as Mister 500. It was even the title of his autobiography.

Granatelli dined with sports stars and hung out with movie stars, a master of the art of self-promotion and, more importantly, promotion of his fuel additives. His Indy 500 pit crews were known for their gaudy coveralls covered in STP logos, not unlike pajamas. Now he wanted in on the most successful team in NASCAR history -- Petty Enterprises.

The King was "so excited I 'bout jumped out of my chair," but he played it cool. "He wanted us to come up to his office in Chicago to talk. I told him I thought I might be able to fit it into my schedule."

In January '72, Richard, brother/engine builder Maurice and Inman sent the race car and the team up the road for the season opener at the Riverside International Raceway in Southern California. Then they got on a plane and headed to the Windy City.

"It was real obvious real fast that Andy was anxious to get the deal done," Inman said. "He even agreed that Maurice wouldn't have to wear the coveralls."

Granatelli offered $250,000 for the year, huge money at the time, plus a $50,000 bonus for winning the championship … then came the hitch. Remembers Petty: "He said to me, 'And y'all will paint the car day-glo red.' He didn't say it like a question. It was 'You will do this.' So I stood up and said, 'See you later, we're out of here.'"

Petty had never raced a car that wasn't Petty Blue, a hue that was accidentally created by his father, Lee, when he mixed all the paint that he had -- half a bucket of blue and half a bucket of white -- and he sure wasn't going to start now. The issue got so prickly that Richard agreed to spend the night in Chicago to talk about it while Inman and Maurice flew on to Riverside to get ready for the race.

They eventually agreed to go half and half. STP Red and Petty Blue. Eventually some white trim was added. God bless America.

Not just a sticker

Two days later, Petty and Granatelli held a press conference in L.A.'s Ambassador Hotel. At the same instant that Granatelli had "The King" walk around the corner to be revealed as Granatelli's new driver, STP's at-track rep Ralph Salvino slapped a giant STP oval decal onto the hood of the No. 43 Plymouth.

"I'll never forget the reaction on people's faces in the garage," Inman said. "In that instant, the whole way that people thought about sponsorship in NASCAR changed. And it didn't hurt that we won the race and we had STP all over the L.A. Times that same weekend … or that we won the championship that fall."

One week later Petty received the formal contract in the mail. He read it over and noticed an added clause. "It said if we painted the car red we'd get another $50,000. I just smiled and crossed that part out."

Other teams had done some sponsor deals -- Bobby Allison signed on with Coca-Cola, the Wood Brothers brought on Puroloter -- but none of those deals were as splashy or as lucrative as Petty and STP, an agreement so large The King could run the full season without missing a beat.

Over the next three decades, the marriage became iconic. Petty and STP won 60 races and four Cup titles together. As live television coverage arrived, STP's exposure level went through the roof, and so did the amount of money involved. Soon every team in the garage was recruiting sponsorship and relying on that money, not winnings and appearance fees and certainly not factory backing, to keep running.

"There's no doubt that the STP deal led to the business model we have today," admitted Richard Childress, owner of three-team Richard Childress Racing. "You think about Dale [Earnhardt] with GM Goodwrench or Jeff Gordon with DuPont, that's the ideal partnership. That's what you take to potential sponsors and say, 'This is what we could be together.' Richard and STP created that."

Endless love

They still do, despite the fact STP hasn't been the full-time primary sponsor on the 43 car for nearly a decade now, running its last race on the hood at the 2000 season finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

[+] EnlargeRichard Petty
ISC Archives/Getty ImagesThe No. 43 STP car finished out front 60 times in NASCAR's top series and won four titles with Richard Petty behind the wheel.

"I don't know if people even realize that," Jon Paluga, STP's director of marketing and sales, said with a laugh. "We still have a personal services contract with Richard and he still does a lot of promotional work for us. Even if we didn't I think people would still see STP and The King as one in the same."

The company's marketing budget simply won't allow it to keep up with the monster that it created, a NASCAR sponsorship machine that has top-shelf Sprint Cup teams asking for upward of $25 million for primary sponsorship. But the brand is still very active at the grassroots "real racers" level of the sport, including partnerships with Tony Stewart and his World of Outlaws car, driven by Knoxville Nationals legend Donny Schatz.

"Our whole marketing strategy is still based around the spirit of guys like Richard Petty and Andy Granatelli," Paluga explained. "We have a campaign called 'Don't Be That Guy' that kind of rips on guys who don't know how to do stuff like checking their own oil. So many race car drivers today, you get the feeling they don't know a thing about their own race cars. The King and Smoke and Schatz are certainly not 'That Guy.'"

Red, white and Petty blue

Even now, STP reaps the benefits from that chat on the grid between The King and Mister 500 at Texas World Speedway.

Petty's STP Pontiac sits in the Smithsonian. Together, they have turned laps around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and wound through the hills of England for the Goodwood Festival of Speed. "I travel all over the world," Childress said. "And people who have never watched a race in their lives know of STP because of Richard and Richard because of STP."

On Saturday night, the field of cars in the NASCAR All-Star Challenge will be wrapped in special sponsor paint schemes, a practice perfected by Granatelli, STP and Petty.

The next morning, when the inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame class is inducted, the last remaining unseen section of the $150 million museum, the Hall of Honor, will be unveiled. The covers will be yanked off the race cars made famous by that first class. And Richard Petty's ride will be eternally emblazoned with that big red STP oval.

At the May 11 grand opening, the crowd had chills sent down their collective spines when they heard the sound of Petty's '72 Dodge as it drove through Uptown Charlotte and into the Hall of Fame Plaza. The Charger rolled in, the STP logo and the longtime STP slogan "THE RACER'S EDGE" popping under the flashbulbs.

The crowd went crazy.

"I might have gotten into the Hall of Fame without them," His Royal Fastness said with a smile from behind his trademark black shades, which bear a tiny STP logo on one lens. "But I can't imagine the two of us not riding in there together. One last ride into Victory Lane."

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.

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