In NASCAR, Richard Petty is a king among men. His statistics are staggering, his understanding of the sport helped it grow and his relationship with the fans molded the way drivers would interact with their supporters for years to come.
Coming up through the ranks, anyone that wanted to be in NASCAR looked to Petty as the model driver and strove to come anywhere close to the numbers he put up in his career.
In inducting his famous father into the NASCAR Hall of Fame last Sunday, Kyle Petty said, “If we wanted to be a Cup driver, we knew who Richard Petty was and we knew what the mark was on the wall that we had to reach.”
While Petty knew how to win, he also understood how to lose. His 200 wins stand as a mark that will unlikely be touched, but it is interesting to note Petty lost 984 races. When things did not go his way or according to the plan, Petty did not spew profanities at his crew, he did not throw his helmet nor did he lose his temper on television.
“Richard Petty was the same win, lose, or draw,” Kyle Petty said in his speech at the Hall of Fame. “Richard Petty was the same Monday, Thursday, Sunday afternoon, whether he was standing in victory lane with a check and trophy or whether he was riding home with a beat-up racecar. He was the same. I think that even-keeled, that even temperament, is something that we’ve all aspired to do as we came along in his footsteps and shadows to be the driver that he was.”
Aside from his Hall of Fame driving career, outside the car Petty offers an example many of today’s competitors would be smart to follow. From drivers that throw fits when things go wrong, to others that take any chance to put down members of the media, today’s drivers are often so caught up in their fast-paced world of testing, corporate obligations and other demands that they forget how lucky they are to be involved in a sport like NASCAR and what a privilege it is to compete at that level.
At a time when grandstands are sparse and the poor economy is keeping fans at home, drivers are doing their part to reach out to fans. From ticket give-a-ways on social networking sites to hours-long autograph sessions, drivers are following in the King’s footsteps in terms of taking care of the fans.
“The fans is what it’s all about, guys,” Petty said in his acceptance speech on Sunday. “We wouldn’t be here without the fans. There wouldn’t be a Richard Petty. There wouldn’t be a NASCAR. But the press was telling the fans about NASCAR. The fans came. The fans developed a love, a real love, for it.”
Following the induction ceremony, Petty stressed the importance of the media and thanked them for helping deliver the sport to the fans and for building NASCAR along with the France family and the competitors. This comes as a refreshing thought at a time when some drivers treat their media availability as a chance to insult and bad mouth.
Much like his interaction with the fans, Petty is always willing to take a minute to speak with the media. Offering some of the best insight into the sport, Petty’s generosity speaks volumes of his character and love of the sport.
“So you knew that the best publicity was good publicity, OK, because you know the press can either make you or break you,” he said. “I’ve been one of the very, very few fortunate people that’s been through this long a career, and 99% of my press has been good, whether it was or not, it came out good in the paper. And I just always appreciated that.”
In his closing remarks before inducting his father into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Kyle Petty touched on something that has truly set his father apart from the other competitors in the garage. The younger Petty called his father the “biggest fan of the sport that ever lived.”
“I think that’s what made him a great racecar driver,” Kyle said. “He loves the sport. He carries a passion for this sport. He loves to drive. He loves to work on it. He loves the guys he raced against. He loved the fans. He loved everything about the sport.”
“On a Sunday afternoon in 2010, you can still find Richard Petty walking through the garage area, standing on top of a truck, watching the race,” he added. “He doesn’t have to be there. He wants to be there, just like all of you people out here, the people watching at home, he is a fan first and foremost. Bringing that passion to this sport has made him the legend that he is.”
There are some great guys in the NASCAR garage today, do not get me wrong. The courtesy and generosity of most go far beyond what most other athletes in the world of sports do. From charities, to autograph sessions, to pausing to say hello or wave to a fan, NASCAR drivers understand how important the fans are and how essential it is to give back. For that, they – and all of us – can thank Richard Petty.