Richard Petty claimed three victories during the 1983 NASCAR Winston Cup Series season. The last of those came in the Miller High Life 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. But it was different than all of the others. It was tainted.
It was obvious to many who joined Petty in his victory lane celebration that something was amiss. Tires on the right side of the car bore left-side serial numbers. NASCAR inspector Jim Baldwin spotted what was clearly a rules infraction.
Then during post-race inspection, Baldwin radioed officials in the control tower and told them, “I think we have a problem down here. We are going to need some help.”
It was determined that the engine in Petty’s car measured 381.983 cubic inches, well above the NASCAR-mandated 358 cubic inches.
Petty’s car was illegal, no question about it. And violation of required engine size was perhaps NASCAR’s most rigid rule – and it came with serious consequences.
NASCAR officials huddled for three hours. During that time, members of the media pondered Petty’s fate. Speculation was the seven-time Cup champion could be disqualified.
Disqualification was rare in NASCAR, no matter the offense. The sanctioning body routinely explained that it wanted its fans to go home knowing who won the race.
So, it was in Petty’s case.
Nevertheless, the punishment was severe. Petty was allowed to keep the victory, but he was fined $35,000 – a record amount at the time – and lost 104 of the 180 points he earned for the win.
It was clearly part of the media’s job to get reactions from Petty and anyone else who was involved.
Petty said, “We accept NASCAR’s penalty. I am only the driver, and I didn’t know anything about the tires or engine.”
Rest assured, the media had heard that many times over the years.
They turned to another obvious source. He was Petty’s brother, Maurice, who served as his engine builder and, some said, was the backbone of Petty Enterprises.
Getting Maurice to talk was never easy. Unlike his older brother, who was popular and recognized as perhaps the most open and accessible professional athlete in America, he was quiet, even taciturn. He seemed perfectly satisfied to labor in the background and let his work speak for itself.
It was said Maurice was something of a perfectionist who sought the best performances from Petty employees. Maybe that’s one reason why he was nicknamed “Chief.”
At the track, more than one Petty crewman said to me, “You’ll find out who’s in charge once Chief gets here.”
It made sense that Maurice, the engine builder and team leader, had knowledge of the illegal engine. It also made sense to any media member that he be questioned about it and the subsequent penalty.
That was not going to be easy. It has highly unlikely that he would accept a phone call. And at the track, the odds were long that he was going to stand still for an interview.
But something happened.
A week after the Charlotte race, Rockingham Speedway (then North Carolina Motor Speedway) in Rockingham, N.C., held a reception for its annual pit crew competition. It was attended by the media, NASCAR, track officials and a large handful of team crew members.
Maurice was another attendee.
It was surprising he was there. It was assumed that after Charlotte he would be more reserved than ever. That he would be sequestered in the confines of the Petty shops, shielded from the prying media.
Instead, there he was. He was not what anyone expected. He was smiling, laughing, shaking hands and chatting with people. By no means was he distant and sulking. Quite the contrary, he was more like his older brother.
I saw an opportunity. Now, Maurice and I had talked many, many times in the past and knew each other well. Despite that – and that the Pettys had taken a sizable amount of abuse and criticism from fans and media – I doubted I could have interviewed him about Charlotte.
But this was a different Maurice.
I went to him. He smiled. We shook hands.
Before I could ask a question, he said, “I did it. And I’m not sure I wouldn’t do it again under similar circumstances. What I don’t like is people calling my brother Richard a cheater. I am the one who cheated. Not him.”
He went on to say he was tired of Petty Enterprises losing to teams who were constantly flouting the rules. He decided to do something about it – he was going to play their game and tempt the consequences.
That was typical Maurice. He had always been the determined, hard-headed, strong-willed type. He had overcome polio when he was a child, which contributed to his habit of cocking his head to his right to view with his left eye.
“Look,” he said, his head tilted. “I may be looking for a job after this. But I’ll tell you this. Richard is my brother, and I would do anything for him, even if we weren’t on the same team. It’s as simple as that.”
The media is often cynical. Some would have suggested that Maurice followed family others and said what he did only to draw the spotlight from his brother and absolve him of any wrongdoing.
The Maurice Petty I knew was too proud, too headstrong and certainly too stubborn to do that.
So I wrote, “These, and other qualities, are such that, even in this time of adversity he has brought on himself, you cannot help but admire the man.”
Not long after that, Maurice and I ran into each other at a track.
He smiled, shook my hand and said, “Thank you. And you know what for.”