Petty for­ever King of NASCAR

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - MOTOR SPORTS/NBA -

Richard Petty heard some­one shout for the King as his golf cart sped past rows of RVs parked at the Po­cono Race­way in­field a few weeks ago.

Petty couldn’t ask his driver to hit the brakes for one fan, not with 100 or more wait­ing in line for him out­side the track in Penn­syl­va­nia.

All were ea­ger for a greet­ing and a bit of his per­fect pen­man­ship — with that loop­ing script in the R and P — on a piece of mem­o­ra­bilia, a sig­na­ture as much a part of his per­sona as his feath­ered cow­boy hats, dark glasses and cow­boy boots.

“Fi­nally, I’m go­ing to meet the man,” said 52-year-old Steve Mil­lett of Syra­cuse, N.Y. “It’s been 44 years of be­ing a fan.”

Mil­lett bought a ticket to at­tend his third NASCAR race sim­ply be­cause he wanted to meet the King. Mil­lett packed the camper for the three-hour drive, slipped on his Petty T-shirt and STP hat, and had Petty sign the hood of a model 1971 Dodge Charger. Mil­let just wanted to thank Petty for a life­time of mem­o­ries.

Petty, who had six col­ored Sharpies and a can of Skoal in his pocket, never stopped smil­ing and shook hands for ev­ery selfie and snap­shot. Yes, the blue hairs and gray­beards had old-school cam­eras for their au­di­ence with the King, per­fect for a race car owner who keeps tabs of his meet-and-greets on a pa­per sched­ule. One by one, they trudged to the front with a vari­a­tion of the sto­ries Petty has heard on re­peat for nearly 60 years.

“It pays the bills,” Petty said. “I’m just an old guy walk­ing around, hasn’t been in a race car in 25 years and peo­ple still want an autograph or a pic­ture. I guess it’s be­cause I’m that old.”

Petty waved good­bye af­ter an hour and grabbed a seat on the cart. On the way back to his mo­torhome, Petty di­rected his driver back to the area where he re­mem­bered that fan call­ing for him. Richard Keller had de­voted a shrine to Petty around his RV and was elated when the Hall of Fame driver signed his name next to a Tony Ste­wart ban­ner on the trailer wall.

The King is syn­ony­mous with NASCAR, and he has shown no in­cli­na­tion of cut­ting back on his ap­pear­ances as he ap­proached his 80th birth­day Satur­day. Few driv­ers in the sport — heck, few ath­letes in sports — can ri­val Petty in pop­u­lar­ity and ac­ces­si­bil­ity and the calls for the King never cease at tracks around the coun­try.

“I just won­der if my name is Joe what they would have called me,” Petty said. “King Joe don’t go over too good.”

BAD BREAKS, GOOD BRAKES

Richard Lee Petty, still strik­ingly slen­der, has no sage wis­dom on how to live to 80.

Around the garage, he walks with a full, healthy stride that be­lies the phys­i­cal anguish en­dured from a 35-year ca­reer rid­dled with in­juries. The last two of Petty’s seven Day­tona 500 vic­to­ries — 1979 and 1981 — came af­ter op­er­a­tions to re­move part of his stom­ach af­ter se­ri­ous ul­cer prob­lems. He had his gall­blad­der re­moved be­tween the 1985 and 1986 sea­sons.

Con­cus­sions? Sure, Petty suf­fered from a bunch of those. But who kept count back in the day when driv­ers hit 200 mph wear­ing not much more than an open face hel­met and a seat belt? Petty broke a leg, his fin­gers, his knees. Petty broke his neck in 1980 at Po­cono when the No. 43 ca­reered up a wall and was even­tu­ally struck on the driver’s side by an­other car. Petty went to the hos­pi­tal, the doc­tor looked at the X-rays, and asked in amaze­ment:

“‘When did you break your neck be­fore?’ ” Petty re­called, laugh­ing.

He shrugged. Who knows? There was the bro­ken left arm and shoul­der, seen dan­gling from the win­dow in a hor­rific 1970 crash at Dar­ling­ton, S.C., that caused him to pass out from pain and miss starts for the only time his ca­reer.

In 1988, at the age of 51, Petty was in­volved in a hor­ri­fy­ing crash dur­ing the Day­tona 500. His car hit the wall, flew into the air and bar­rel-rolled vi­o­lently be­fore it smashed the track and slid back into the wall.

“When things hap­pen, they hap­pen so fast,” Petty said, “you haven’t got time to get scared.”

If Petty feels ma­jor pains or has bouts of memory loss from a life­time of jar­ring hits, he hides it well. Tracks have feted Petty all year (Dover had a “Cake Boss” win­ner bake a $2,000 cake in the shape of the No. 43) and he’s shown up for ev­ery Q&A ses­sion and birth­day bash.

“All my joints is work­ing. All the bro­ken bones has healed back up,” Petty said.

Petty still dips tobacco. Who’s go­ing to tell him to quit? He en­joys his wine (mer­lot) and his steaks (rare) as red as they come. He snacks daily on pop­corn but es­chews cof­fee. The King is known to even sneak a pinch of raw meat off a ham­burger right be­fore it hits the grill. Like many in his gen­er­a­tion, he has no use for a cell­phone. And he sleeps. A lot. Petty is fresh and fo­cused for his fans be­cause he never skips a chance at a nap.

OIL STAINS FOR­EVER

The NASCAR circus stretches from early Fe­bru­ary to late Novem­ber with few days off in one of the more gru­el­ing sched­ules in sports. Plane. Race. Plane. Garage. Count­less ap­pear­ances for spon­sors, who all want a piece of Petty. He’s never slowed down — not even in the face of tragedy — and has no plans to ease up with Richard Petty Mo­tor­sports boast­ing only a hand­ful of check­ered flags.

Kyle Petty, his 57-year-old son and for­mer driver, said rac­ing is life for his fa­ther.

“If he couldn’t go to the race track, he would just sit down and wither away,” Kyle Petty said. “I hon­estly be­lieve that un­til the day they put him in the ground, he’s go­ing to be at a race track some­where.”

But the King wants to get the No. 43 com­pet­i­tive again.

Petty has never rekin­dled the dom­i­nant days in re­tire­ment run­ning RPM that that came so eas­ily be­hind the wheel. Petty, who made $7.5 mil­lion dur­ing his rac­ing ca­reer, doesn’t have the fund­ing to com­pete with heavy­weights Roger Penske, Rick Hen­drick or Joe Gibbs. Petty’s teams failed to win a race from 19992009 and his cars reached vic­tory lane three times this decade.

Petty’s dif­fi­culty with straight­en­ing out his team pale com­pared with the tragedies over the years. He was drag rac­ing in 1965 when his car veered off track and into the crowd, killing an 8-year-old boy.

Petty’s brother-in-law, 20-year-old Randy Owens, worked as part of his crew and was killed in the pits dur­ing a freak 1975 accident. Adam Petty, Kyle’s son and a fourth-gen­er­a­tion Petty driver, was killed in 2000 dur­ing prac­tice at New Hamp­shire.

“It’s not been all glory,” Richard Petty said. “We’ve had some re­ally, re­ally bad, low times. But you can’t live yes­ter­day over again. So you say, what can we do com­ing up? The liv­ing’s got to go on. My liv­ing has got to go on. I don’t know how you do it, you just do it.”

Petty has forged ahead alone since his wife, Lynda, died in 2004 of cancer. The Pet­tys were mar­ried for 55 years and had chil­dren Kyle, Lisa, Re­becca and Sharon. His days at the track help him cope with lone­li­ness as the days spent at the fam­ily re­treat in Wy­oming have dwin­dled.

MA­JES­TIC MEM­O­RIES

Petty’s fam­ily tree stretches across some 69 years of NASCAR his­tory.

In 1,184 starts, Petty had a record 200 vic­to­ries, 157 sec­ond-place fin­ishes, 712 top-10s and 123 poles. Petty won cham­pi­onships in 1964, 1967, 1971, 1972, 1974, 1975 and 1979, a to­tal matched by Dale Earn­hardt and Jim­mie John­son. He was a stock su­per­star who even starred as him­self in the 1972 movie “The Richard Petty Story.”

Petty’s 200th vic­tory came on July 4, 1984, at Day­tona in the Fire­cracker 400. It was a gala day, with Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan on hand to con­grat­u­late Petty, per­haps his finest hour in a ca­reer stuffed with cel­e­bra­tions.

“I ran 1,100 of ’em. How do you pick one?” he said. “But the magic one was the 200th one, though. But to win your 200th race in front of the pres­i­dent of the United States, on the last green flag lap. I al­ways told him, he put us on the front page and we put him in the sports page. No­body would be­lieve some­thing like that would hap­pen. But it hap­pened to us.”

And if he feels 80, it’s hard for Petty to say.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I ain’t never been this old.”

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