Stock car racing has always been Richard Petty's business. But he always had an interest in the Indianapolis 500, too. He listened to it on the radio as a youngster, and watched it on television as an adult from the condo at Lowe's Motor Speedway while waiting for the start of the Coca-Cola 600.
Several of his NASCAR brethren drove at Indianapolis in the 1960s and 1970s: Bobby and Donnie Allison, Cale Yarborough and Lee Roy Yarbrough. But they only had to drive. It wasn't something Petty ever considered. He had the family-owned team to run, cars and engines to build, checks to write.
Petty first visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May 1965 at the invitation of A.J. Foyt.From the mid-1960s through the early 1990s, he showed up on qualifying weekends to promote longtime sponsor STP. Plus, Petty has become very familiar with the place since the arrival of the Brickyard 400 in 1994.
Despite all those trips to the track, Petty didn't actually see an Indy 500 in person until last year. Once there, it enthralled him -- and led to his decision to field a car in next month's race.
"It was everything you expected it to be from watching it on TV," Petty said. "I was impressed with that. A lot of times you build things up and once you go to them, you're kind of disappointed because maybe you set your standards too high for the event. But this one covered everything that I ever thought about."
John Andretti had been trying to get Petty to the race for years. He knew the experience would move the King toward coming to Indy as an owner. Having driven for Petty in Sprint Cup -- winning his final race for Petty Enterprises at Martinsville in 1999 -- Andretti wanted to drive for Petty in the Indy 500, too.
"It was so impressive just to be here and just see the beginning of the race with all the balloons, the whole deal," Petty said. "So, I think I got kind of caught up in it. That was one of John's initial deals. He figured if he could get me here, get me all excited in what I see, then maybe he could talk me into being involved. Basically, that's what happened."
The seeds had been sown, but it wasn't a done deal. Petty Enterprises still needed to be run, preparations still had to be made for two Cup races and the All-Star race in May. Then, over the next eight months, Petty's life underwent dramatic changes, opening a door for him to become Andretti's co-owner in the Indy 500 on May 24.
"We've changed things the last few years and I had an opportunity to be involved in something [the Indy 500] I hadn't been involved in before," Petty said. "It was something where I fell into the whole deal. Never did I think I'd have the opportunity to be part of the Indianapolis 500."
Petty Enterprises merged with Gillett Evernham to become Richard Petty Motorsports. Gillett welcomed the name change. Who wouldn't? Petty is an icon, a walking, talking, smiling, hat-wearing brand that stands for excellence and class.
With Gillett involved, Petty no longer has to oversee everything. He primarily works with the drivers and spends a lot of time with sponsors -- the lifeblood of any racing organization.
"I'm doing twice as many sponsor appearances," Petty said.
He has just enough time to be co-owner, with IndyCar regular Dreyer and Reinbold Racing. He's still in the No. 43, with that familiar "Petty Blue" and "Day-Glo Red" paint scheme, but it won't say STP. The primary sponsor is Window World, a North Carolina organization that is the largest replacement window company in the United States.
This will be Window World's first time at Indy, too, and it's no coincidence it's arriving on Petty's car.
Andretti, a nine-time starter in the Indy, had the company as his sponsor driving for Front Row Motorsports at Daytona. With Petty's help, he landed it for the 500, then put together the deal to run with Dreyer and Reinbold, owned by retired driver Robbie Buhl and Dennis Reinbold and in its 10th season in the IndyCar Series.
"When John approached me on this deal, then we got Window World, a bunch of North Wilkesboro boys, that made it much more icing on the cake, I guess," Petty said. "Then they wanted to paint it red and blue and put a big 43 on it. They just kept doing things and running at me. Finally, I said, 'Yeah, let's give it a try and see.' "
Andretti has driven in the past two 500s in last-minute deals. With Dreyer and Reinbold, he'll run the full month, an opportunity to prepare properly for the race by practicing in all types of conditions. Andretti was fifth in 1991 and eighth in 1992 before focusing on NASCAR in 1993. He knows how to drive at Indianapolis.
"I'm not going to start in the middle [of May]," Andretti said. "The reality is you have to do the whole month to be a contender. We're going to do it right from the get-go."
Petty expects to be at Indy for qualifying day and for some of the 500. He says he has responsibilities in Charlotte that night and how long he stays will depend on how Andretti is running.
"We're going to run up front and make him stay," Andretti said.
Petty agrees. "If he's leading, I ain't leaving," he said.
And if Andretti wins, Petty may never get to Charlotte that night.
"I've thought about that," Petty said. "Wouldn't that be great?"