Two weeks ago at Chicagoland Speedway, the Petty Enterprises cars of Bobby Labonte and Terry Labonte carried special paint schemes to commemorate the first race ever run by NASCAR’s winningest driver — the man most refer to simply as “The King.” It was on July 12, 1958 that a 21-year-old kid named Richard Petty, with “Squirrel Jr.” scrawled out on his fenders, made his debut at Columbia Speedway in Columbia, S.C., in NASCAR’s convertible division. King Richard finished sixth that day, taking home $800 for his efforts in what was a clean, respectable outing to begin his racing resume. That wouldn’t even buy you a set of Goodyear Eagles in today’s world; but back in 1958, it wasn’t all that bad for an afternoon’s work.
But little did anyone know there were plenty more respectable results ahead — and most of them coming with a far bigger paycheck. 50 years and 200 Cup Series wins later, that day served as a humble beginning to a career that would transcend eight American presidents, two major wars, and the transition of NASCAR from a regional underground pastime of moonshine runners to the forefront of corporate America — and the sporting world as a whole.
Petty was born on July 2, 1937 in North Carolina to parents Elizabeth and Lee. His father was himself a driver, in the midst of establishing one of the most impressive resumes of NASCAR’s golden era of the mid-to-late-50s. During that time, Lee Petty won 54 races, three championships, and nearly a quarter of a million dollars in the sport’s top-ranked Grand National division — which today is known as Sprint Cup. But as the elder Petty aged into his 40s, he knew his time on the racetrack was winding down; and as he looked for a long-term successor, it was only fitting that son Richard follow in his footsteps. For racing was not just the Pettys’ pastime — it had become their livelihood.
After a handful of starts in both Cup and convertibles at the end of the 1950s, Richard would quickly break through on NASCAR’s top level, winning his first race at the Southern State Fairgrounds in Charlotte, N.C., in 1960. Little more than a half-mile dirt oval, that old-school track was about as far removed as one could get from the asphalt “cookie cutters” you see today. In fact, it was the direct opposite of a track like Daytona International Speedway — the place that would later come to define the career of the man who helped shepherd NASCAR from bullrings and dirt tracks to what would become the cornerstone venue of professional auto racing in North America.
But it was at Daytona, in fact, where Richard was thrust into the spotlight in 1961. In a qualifying race that year, Lee Petty was involved in a devastating crash that involved both he and Johnny Beauchamp — the same driver he narrowly edged to win the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959. Lee emerged alive from the wreckage — but just barely. He had lost a lot of blood; his chest was crushed, and he had a punctured lung, broken leg, and other injuries too numerous to mention. The elder Petty wound up in a coma, and he would spend the next four months in the hospital recovering.
It was then that the torch was passed to Richard, as the fate of Petty Enterprises now rested in the capable hands of he and brother Maurice. Richard would turn the wheel, Maurice the wrenches, and — with a little help from the Chrysler Corporation — a dynasty was quickly in the making.
After finishing runner-up for the championship in 1962 and 1963, it would be the following year that witnessed King Richard emerging as the dominant driver in the Cup Series, beginning a reign that would last for the next two decades. Chrysler had debuted the 426 Hemi at Daytona for the ’64 season, and — when coupled with the inherently aerodynamic Plymouth it was shoehorned into — records, along with jaws, fell wide open along pit road. Petty won Daytona by well over a lap that February, and had a second lap on third by the time he hit the checkered flag.
That run began a season unlike any Petty Enterprises had ever had before. Nine wins, a career-high 37 top fives, and 43 top 10s won Richard the title with ease over ’61 champ Ned Jarrett. In fact, his Petty Blue No. 43 Plymouth was so dominant that season — he won almost $40,000 more than anyone else — that NASCAR banned the Hemi engine for 1965 and beyond.
Since Richard was a factory Chrysler driver, he did not compete for the better part of the following season due to NASCAR’s sudden restrictions. Instead, he opted to drag race in a Plymouth Barracuda, showing his talents were more diverse than the short tracks and superspeedways placed around the Southeast. Sadly, this marked one of the darker moments of his racing career, as Petty was involved in an accident at a drag strip in Georgia where a seven-year-old boy was killed.
Returning to the sport in earnest by 1966, it was actually the ’67 season that was the year Petty established records which will never be broken. Just check the stat lines of a performance unmatched: 27 wins — 10 of them coming consecutively — to go along with 5,537 laps led. Naturally, Petty won his second championship that season, handing Plymouth a manufacturer’s title in the process. It was this display of unparalleled dominance that earned him the nickname “The King.”
About this same time, the rest of the country had been seeing glimpses of NASCAR racing on ABC’s Wide World of Sports; and it was truly a sight to see, these machines that appeared to be little more than gutted street cars with big tires and no mufflers. These were race-prepared vehicles that were just as fabricated and engineered as today’s Cup fleet — only they just happened to carry a few more stock parts and pieces to go along for the ride. And as the visibility and the interest of the sport increased, Richard Petty became the face of national stock car racing. When the cameras flashed on, he was always seen with a mile-wide grin, speaking articulately, and willing to sign anyone’s autograph — creating one so intricate, it is impossible to reproduce, yet elegant enough to show a fan that their support did not go unnoticed or unappreciated.
So influential was the King during this era that a car was created by Plymouth just for him. In 1968, the boxy Plymouth Roadrunner was out to lunch on the big tracks, a brick compared to the Fords and Mercurys of the day. So for the ’69 season, Petty wanted to bring something other than a knife to the 200 mph gunfights taking place at Daytona and a new, larger 2.66-mile track in central Alabama called Talladega. Dodge had a Charger 500 and a new Daytona waiting in the wings — but Plymouth had nothing to give its star. As a result, Petty asked the company for a Dodge ride; but he was rebuked, told only that he was a Plymouth man, and that he would be driving nothing but a Plymouth once again.
Or so they thought.
Much to their surprise, Petty informed Plymouth that for 1969, he was now piloting none other than a Ford Torino No. 43. Turning his back on the manufacturer that he’d been with from the start, Petty then put his money where his mouth is; he won 10 times, and finished second in the championship standings to David Pearson. The message was tough, but it was also clear: Plymouth needed Petty, but not vice versa.
Desperate to get him back in the mix, Plymouth developed their version of the Dodge Daytona called the Superbird — a car that eventually sold over 1,900 units to the general public. The vehicle had a slightly different nose and rear window section than the Charger Daytona… but it was every bit as competitive. Petty’s teammate, Pete Hamilton, won at Talladega in 1970 driving the new machine, and Petty won 18 races himself, with the majority of the wins — ironically enough — coming on short tracks.
Already armed with well over 100 wins by that point in his career, Petty would continue this top level of performance through the 1970s and early ’80s, surviving a couple of fuel crises, a mutton-chop fad, a fu-man-chu, an ulcer, a broken neck and a nasty wreck at Darlington that nearly saw him crushed under his own car — an incident which served as a catalyst for what’s now known as the side window net.
And in the process, he continued to set records with ease. Petty won his seventh and final championship in 1979 over an up-and-comer named Darrell Waltrip, and took his seventh Daytona 500 in ’81 over longtime rival Bobby Allison. Petty’s 200th win would also occur at the track where his legend began in earnest 20 years earlier. On July 4, 1984, in a race to the yellow against Cale Yarborough — and with President Ronald Reagan on hand — Petty edged Yarborough by no more than a few inches to take the victory. It was one of NASCAR’s defining moments, and the exclamation point on a career that began on a small dirt track nearly a quarter-century prior.
But it would also be one of the last highlights of Petty’s on-track Cup experience. As the ’80s wore on, he would run competitively only sporadically; the times and technology had long since passed his once proud organization. By the end of the decade, it wasn’t the wins the King was after; he was simply hoping to make the field and finish within the top 20. But even that mountain became too tough to climb; and for the first time in his career, Petty would fail to qualify for a race at the 1989 Pontiac Excitement 400 in Richmond.
To add insult to injury, the man was driving a Pontiac.
In 1992, Petty finally launched his farewell tour. The late Bill France, Jr. introduced him as, “The gentleman representing the kingdom of Randleman, N.C.,” before turning the PA system over to the King to give the command to start engines for his final Daytona 500. He was swept up in a wreck that year near the halfway point of the race — ruining his chances for a win or a strong finish — but still came home 16th, with his familiar STP-emblazoned hood crinkled and secured only by bungee cords.
I remember that day well, as I attended the race with my father. He had never been to Daytona before and wanted to be there for Petty’s final start and, possibly, the best chance he had at winning No. 201. But that wasn’t my first encounter with NASCAR’s most accomplished driver, as we had the opportunity to meet him a few years earlier in 1987 at the now-defunct Hill’s Department Store chain grand opening. I was all of 10 years old at the time and he was bigger than life, but every bit as friendly, cordial, and welcoming as I had thought he would be — gathered from the three races a year we were able to watch, of course, as we did not have cable in my hometown when I was growing up.
Petty’s charm, of course, has also always been emblazoned within the fashion choices that make him the most recognizable face in the NASCAR garage. It’s a wardrobe no one else would even dare to copy: the Charlie Horse cowboy hat, the toothy grin, the boots, the big belt buckle festooned with “Seven-Time Cup Champion/Seven-Time Daytona 500 Winner,” and those black wraparound sunglasses that would make Dirty Harry envious. And to top it all off, he had the best-looking autograph that flowed with the ease and fluidity — and genuine warmth and appreciation — that has been extended to fans for the last 50 years.
But even with all of his accomplishments and accolades, Richard Petty remains a humble man who is as grateful to the fans as they are of him. Sure, Dale Earnhardt Sr. may have won seven championships and Jeff Gordon may still get there, but the King’s number of wins will never be equaled, what with the schedule and driver longevity being what it is today. To call him a just a driver would be belittling… but to call him a saint would probably just embarrass the man. So, I think I’ll just refer to him by that of what we all have grown to know him as: The King.