NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Frontstretch Five: Ways Lynda Petty’s Death Has An Impact

Welcome to the Frontstretch Five, a brand-new column for 2014! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers, and the storylines that drive NASCAR and produces a list of five people, places, things, and ideas that define the current state of our sport. In the latest edition, Amy has five ways that the death of racing’s Queen, Lynda Petty, impacts us all.

1. Another link to the past is gone

One of the things that makes NASCAR truly special is the fact that the heroes of the past are a part of the sport today. “King” Richard Petty is still one of the most visible personalities in the garage, more than two decades after he stepped out of the driver’s seat for the first time, but he’s not the only legend who is still an integral part of the community. If a driver or team member today wants to know how something worked, back in the day, he or she need only ask someone who was there.

Lynda Petty, one of NASCAR’s most beloved wives, passed away peacefully at her home on Tuesday afternoon.
Lynda Petty, one of NASCAR’s most beloved wives, passed away peacefully at her home on Tuesday afternoon.

Each time one of these links to the sport’s glory days is lost, so, too is an irreplaceable piece of the sport itself. Lynda Petty is responsible for some of the things we take for granted in NASCAR today. She helped unite the drivers’ wives for a worthy cause, and she kept the Petty ship on course so that her husband could concentrate on the family’s racing empire, once the biggest in NASCAR. Even within Petty Enterprises’ legendary doors, Lynda’s influence was apparent, becoming part-owner of the company in her husband’s twilight years. “I told him, if he didn’t do good,” she joked before the 1990 Daytona 500, “I was gonna go and sell it tomorrow.”

Now, another unique, well-respected voice within the sport is silenced, forever. Another side of NASCAR’s story can no longer be heard. That resonates deep in the racing community, because the past and the present and the future are so closely intertwined here.

2. We’re reminded of the King’s Mortality

The Petty empire was once storied and vast. Petty Enterprises was the team of its era that everyone wanted to beat. Lee Petty built the castle, but it was Richard who became The King. Lynda was beside him every step of the way, from the time they eloped when she was just 17. Married since 1958, she played a vital role in the family which in turn supported her husband’s career.

“We sort of sat down and said, ‘This is how it’s going to be,’” Petty said of their relationship. “‘I’m going to go out and I’m going to be gone but I’m going to make the living. You bring the kid. Make sure he’s fed. You do your part and you pay the bills. I’ll bring the money in and throw it on the table. You take care of everything.’ That’s the way it worked. She had her responsibilities and I had mine.”

And it worked. From feeding the family and the race team out of the back of her station wagon, to making sure the bills were paid on time, Lynda managed the family behind the scenes, enabling Richard to build his racing career. For years, the Petty family stood alone at the pinnacle of the sport of stock car racing. In many ways, they still do.

On NASCAR’s 50th anniversary in 1998, Kyle Petty, Richard’s son and himself a Cup racer, remarked that there had been a Petty in NASCAR for the first fifty years and he could see another 50 years with a Petty in every one of them. At the time, it seemed as though race fans would never know the sport without someone named Petty in a race car.

But in recent years, we’ve been reminded of the mortality of even the sport’s immortals. Lee Petty passed away in April of 2000, three days after seeing his great-grandson Adam make his NASCAR Sprint Cup debut. Then Adam, the first fourth-generation athlete in any major American sport, the driver who was expected to carry the Petty name long into the 21st Century, was killed in a practice crash at New Hampshire Motor Speedway at the age of 19. Lynda’s death this week means another Petty great is gone — and there is no heir apparent to keep the Petty name in the sport after “the King,” himself passes away. Petty Enterprises as we knew it is gone, and there hasn’t been a Petty entered to run a Sprint Cup race in six years.

On-track, the sport’s once-royal family is slowly fading into the past. Son Kyle in the broadcast booth just isn’t the same. Looking ahead, there is nobody left to take their place.

Perhaps there never will be.

3. She was a pioneer for women in the sport

Move over, Danica. What Lynda Petty did for women in the sport opened every door they would eventually walk through. When Richard and Lynda were first married, women were not allowed in the pits at NASCAR races. Period. End of story. It didn’t matter if they were the driver’s wife, and that didn’t sit well with Lynda Petty, who was an integral part of her husband’s team — heck, she fed them every week. Her constant presence around NASCAR and her hospitality to crew members of all race teams no doubt helped change that policy. Later on, when television cameras entered the pits, she was one of the first women you’d see on camera. Her southern charm resonated in short interviews supporting her husband while representing the family-oriented, cultural values NASCAR was trying to showcase towards a nation.

Her story as a wife in the sport was so impressive that she was given a role in the animated movie “Cars,” where Lynda is the voice for the wife of the race car known as “The King” — a role only she could play because it was her role in life. She wasn’t slated to have a speaking part, but the producers made sure she had a role, because she always had had one in the sport the movie was modeled after.

Later, Lynda Petty was listed as the owner of record for race teams, and she was also responsible for the original wives’ auxiliary, becoming a leader in the racing community for the organization. Their mission is to “enrich the lives of women, children and families through educational and wellness programs.”

The Auxiliary has, over the years, worked on many charitable endeavors, including raising money for needy children and families while providing educational opportunities. It has changed in recent years, but has continued to promote charitable work and programs geared toward promoting a healthy lifestyle and helping those in need.

She never drove a race car, but Lynda Petty opened doors in the sport that women today take for granted.

4. Her reach went beyond NASCAR

Her work with the Women’s Auxiliary was just the tip of the iceberg. Lynda found many ways to give back during her life. She served as a volunteer leader for both Boy and Girl Scouts, and served on the Randolph County (NC) School Board for 16 years, working to enrich the lives of children and improve their education. She also volunteered for the Red Cross and served on her county Hospice board, constantly seeking to help others in any way she could.

In some way, her work lives on, both in the lives she touched directly and in the numerous charitable endeavors of those who have followed in her footsteps in the NASCAR community. She was an integral part of Victory Junction Gang, the summer camp for ill children that was Adam Petty’s dream.

Adam’s brother, Austin, spoke about his great-grandmother’s charitable works, summing up the example she set through giving to others. “We have lost my grandmother, but my family and our Victory Junction family are grateful to have had her love and wisdom for so many years,” he said in a statement. “It was no secret that she was the cornerstone of the Petty family; a woman of humility and extraordinary strength. While we mourn her death, we also celebrate her life and the profound impact she had on those who knew her. The pride she had in her children, her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren was shared with us through her unconditional love. Her strong example of leadership outside of her home was most recently acknowledged by the Association of Fundraising Professionals when she, along with my grandfather, was honored with the Lifetime Achievement in Philanthropy Award for her personal commitment to seriously ill children and to our American troops. We honor my grandmother’s legacy of inspiration and enduring love at Victory Junction today and always.”

5. She wasn’t a race fan, but she understood the sport.

“The Queen” was more of a football fan than a race fan, by her own admission, but Lynda saw the sport from a vantage point few are privy to, and she was a part of it for longer than most people will be. That gave her a perspective on the way the sport has changed over the years.

In a USA Today interview in 2008, Lynda said she didn’t like the way money ruled the sport. “I don’t like what it’s become,” she said. “You’ve had people that’s come in with money — big money — and they pay these ungodly salaries to people who have a high school education and came out of a local body shop. When you look at what [Richard] made his whole career compared to what they’re making now, it’s mind-boggling.”

The money in the sport is mind-boggling. It’s the reason there are a few elite teams and then the rest. It’s the reason Petty Enterprises no longer exists except in race fans’ memories. It’s become more important in determining success than innovation, and Lynda saw that.

She also said the community feeling within the sport has changed over the years.

“People are not as friendly today,” she added. “They don’t come by and speak to you as much because everything is very competitive. It’s such a stab-you-in-the-back, dog-eat-dog world in the sport now. I can’t tell you how it breaks my heart.”

There was a time when fans loved the sport because they felt like they knew everyone in it, and most of those people were just like them — blue-collar folks who had worked hard to get to the top of the sport they loved. Fans could identify with drivers and teams, and Lynda Petty was a part of that blue-collar culture. Now, she’s a part of the past, right along with it.

Time, whether we like it or not, simply moves on. But several generations of NASCAR fans are left heartbroken, for many reasons, in its wake.

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