Petty returns to Indy as owner
INDIANAPOLIS -- Richard Petty got a full immersion into Indianapolis 500 competition on Saturday.
There were tricky winds, delays between qualifying rounds and all those tenuous moments his team debated whether to send John Andretti onto the track. The visit even came with a ruling more reminiscent of Petty's NASCAR days -- Justin Wilson's early penalty for failing post-qualifying inspection.
Maybe the seven-time Cup champion can't escape those stock-car roots after all, even when he's trying a new venture.
Still, The King of NASCAR seemed right at home on the classic 2.5-mile oval with his old friend, John Andretti, driving on Pole Day as an IndyCar owner.
"We finally, finally, got to come to the biggest race there is here," he said. "Just to be around the crowd, seeing the cars and stuff, I think what fascinated me about the Indy deal is the cars more than maybe the people or the circumstances."
It's not as if Petty is a newcomer to the track.
Petty's pilgrimage to Indy began when his father, Lee, brought his teenage son here in the mid-50s. Later in his career, Richard Petty returned to do autograph sessions and sponsorship appearances or to mingle with friends such as A.J. Foyt, who tried to coax him into driving a car. Last year, Petty even showed up as a spectator.
But this was a completely different environment.
For the first time in his long and illustrious racing career, Petty took a break from NASCAR's race day preparations in Darlington, S.C., to watch the familiar Petty blue-and-red No. 43 car with the unfamiliar open cockpit drive around the historic oval.
Petty was his usual self throughout the day in a racing community that welcomed his arrival.
He wore a white cowboy hat, a blue oxford shirt, a jacket and, of course, those trademark sunglasses. He cracked jokes and reflected on the old days, even telling a story about the time Foyt handed him a pair of shoes so he could get into a car. They were size 7 and Petty wears 11½.
"He says, 'You have to put these on,' " Petty recalled. "I said, 'No way, man, so I'm out of here.' That was about as close as I came to being in an IndyCar."
Still, it was hard not to notice how the track has changed over the years.
There's now part of a golf course on the track's infield. They added SAFER barriers to protect drivers. And those wooden garages Petty remembers so vividly, have been replaced by concrete buildings.
"The first time we really came to watch the qualifying and stuff, wasn't none of this modern stuff here," he said. "They still had the old garage areas and it was like -- I told them it was sort of like me going out behind the house, looked like a bunch of barns for horses and cows and stuff. Then you come back and you see all the deals of modernizing the racetrack. I guess time took care of everything."
Even turning Petty, finally, into an IndyCar competitor.
Until Saturday, the first of four days of qualifying, Petty's only competitive events here had come in NASCAR's Allstate 400 at the Brickyard.
He plans to return for the Indy 500 on May 24. Otherwise, this could be the first and only time Petty finds himself coming here with something at stake.
"This was sort of a one-shot deal, guys," he said.
But there is one thing that could keep Petty coming back.
"If we come up and win the race," Petty said, drawing laughter. "Circumstances can change. If we had a little success here, we'd be liable to get a little more interested."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press