As I’ve noted, before in this space, the first year I worked for a pit crew at Daytona was 1966, when Harry Hyde took the K&K Insurance Special there for the first time. It was a 1965 Dodge Charger, and the driver was Gordon Johncock.
One of the greatest things about that experience was meeting one of the true legends of NASCAR racing, and the friendship that ensued.
At the time, they had this little cafeteria in the infield right beside the Grand National garage area, and to tell the truth the food was pretty good. I got in the habit of eating breakfast in there. One morning when it was pretty crowded, I was at a two-seat table by myself, and I heard somebody say, “Can I sit here to eat?”
I looked up, and it was Lee Petty. Growing up around a local track and with USAC and ARCA hadn’t prepared me for this. I stuttered something like, “Mr. Petty, I think you can sit anywhere in this place you like.”
He smiled, sat down, and put me at ease immediately by saying he’d seen me working on Harry’s car, and wanted to know my background. I told him I was basically a newspaperman by profession, and a part-time racing official. I admitted that I didn’t know much about Grand National racing, but Harry and the rest of the crew were piling the knowledge on me as fast as I could take it.
When I got up to leave, he told me to come over to their garage whenever I had any questions about Chrysler products or Hemi engines that our own crew wouldn’t tell me.
The next morning, I was at the same table. Richard and Maurice Petty were sitting at a four-seat table in the corner. Mr. Petty (and I never called him anything else – it just seemed to fit) came over and sat down with me again. I pointed out that his two sons were over at another table. He said, “I’ll be hanging around with those two all day. I enjoy talking to you.” We had breakfast together every morning until I left the day after the 500.
When the checkered and red flags came down together on that 500, with it raining and two laps left to go, Richard was leading and Cale Yarborough was second. They had already been under yellow for several laps. We were out of it by that time—at 112 laps, the engine let go in spectacular fashion in the 71. Before leaving the track, I walked over to the Petty garage and offered my congratulations to Mr. Petty and Richard. Mr. Petty said he thought that was awfully nice of me.
Since then, I’ve always made it a point to at least wave to Richard whenever I see him, and even if he doesn’t remember me, he always waves back. He’s that kind of guy. All those stories about him staying for hours to sign autographs are true. One night at IRP, when he was the grand marshal for our Busch Series race, they called the drivers away from the autograph session to head for the drivers’ meeting. Richard told us he’d stay as long as we wanted him to do so, and as long as there was somebody wanting to meet him.
Once, when he came to the Busch race after he’d retired from driving, a police motorcycle escort brought him through the front gate, and asked me where we wanted him. I knew it was a sponsor commitment, and I used the golf cart to lead the limo down to the Cheerios hospitality area. I got off the golf cart and opened the door of the limo, and shook Richard’s hand as he got out, saying, “Gee, Richard, people would think you’re somebody important.”
He said, “Yeah, I guess. Nice to see you’re still here.”
A couple of years later at the truck race, he saw me go by in the pit area in the golf cart and yelled, “Hey, somebody important! Give me a ride down to the NASCAR trailer so I can sign in.” This is just another case of being so fortunate to meet so many people.
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