They would feed you to Ralph Nader in bite-size chunks if you tried on the highway what the men on the opposite page are doing: racing bumper to bumper at Daytona at 175 mph. That being so, Daytona is a swell place for motorized Mittys. Safe in the grandstands or spacious infield of Bill France's International Speedway, one can swoop vicariously around the track's steep banks—so abrupt a man cannot walk up them—or crowd in behind another tiger to slipstream him ("draft" him, as they say) to give the ol' engine a breather, and at the end of 500 gutsy miles take the checker and a potful of money. Approximately 90,000 Mittys will have a fantasy foot on the throttle this Sunday during the ninth Daytona 500 as 44 pros race the latest Grand National stock cars for a purse of $200,000. Spectators also will see fast pit action and, more than likely, a sensational spin or two, of the sort shown on the following pages. And more than a few in the crowd will have a wager riding with Richard Petty (page 36), the laconic leadfoot of Level Cross.
CHAMP WITH A FEEL FOR THE RATTLESNAKE
The big blue transport had left Level Cross in the cold dark of early morning, but now the sun was up in the Carolinas, uncovering the peach trees and the smoke-streaming gray shacks that sat among them. Negro children, huddled by mailboxes, waited for their school buses. Men walking to work paused and waved at the cabin of the truck. They knew who was inside. How many times had they seen that truck, that car hitched to it? Why, that bright blue color is as much a part of the South as red-eye gravy and cornbread.
Richard Petty, you see, is a big man in the South. No one since Fireball Roberts, Junior Johnson and saddle-shoed Joe Weatherly has cast a larger shadow over the world of stock car racing than Petty. True, Curtis Turner is still active, but he is a legend from a time that is no more, the last link with the past, when drivers—who broke in on the "white lightning" trails of the Carolinas—piled each other up on Sunday afternoons in front of rotting stands filled with Coke bottles and farmers still in their church clothes.
Richard and his "Petty-blue" Plymouth reign in a different atmosphere, a deadly, abundant little world created by Detroit and populated by faceless people who talk only of engines and money. Richard ignores the legends and lore of the sport. "Why," he asks, "don't people just forget about all that?" The fact that some people believe the sport belongs to the wild and indecorous of the world embarrasses and annoys him even more. The orgiastic atmosphere twitching with girls in stretch pants and crashing with the thump and twang of rockabilly is found only in the assembly-line movies, all of which are artistically equal to, say, Werewolf in a Girls' Dormitory.
"I just go to the races," says Petty. "If there is any glamour in the sport I haven't found it."
Perhaps not, but Petty is always on top of the action in stock car racing's most glamorous event, the Daytona 500. Held on the International Speedway, a two-and-a-half-mile, steeply banked rattlesnake that was opened in 1959, when the sport was just beginning to explode, the race—which annually draws well over 80,000 people—is the sport's richest, fastest and most prestigious production. A victory at Daytona can set a driver up for the entire year.
This Sunday, Richard—his father, Lee, won the first race in 1959—will be after his third straight victory in the 500. He won in 1964, did not race at all in 1965 (the Chrysler Corporation was warring with NASCAR) and won again in 1966 with an average speed of 160.627 mph. Petty drives the track better than anyone else, mainly because he chooses such a high groove, usually running in the third lane instead of the first or second. Still, it takes a certain attitude to win the 500.
The winner at Daytona must be special on the inside. He must have a certain arrogance, a certain contempt for caution. Quite simply, you have to step out and take the Daytona 500, put your foot down on the floor, keep it there and never look back. Petty can do all of this, but only because it is the way to win at Daytona. Richard, not fascinated by speed or oblivious to fear, is not a natural brute behind the wheel.
His moves around a track are deft and beauteous. He is a charger, but a sensible one who avoids rough driving. Drivers, his pit men often say to him, can be found in any "beer joint on a Saturday night," but they know better. Petty has a "great touch" in the corners, he is a thinker, and, most important, he has the feel.
"Ever see a bartender pour whiskey without using a shot glass?" asks one of Petty's admirers. "Well, he can pour, and you ain't never gonna git more than what's comin' to ya. He has the feel. Richard, now, he's got the feel."
Other drivers, however, are reluctant to give Petty any special tag; indeed, praise for another driver is seldom heard. Each driver thinks he is distinctive. If, for instance, you ask one driver about another he will not respond positively or negatively. He will just say that Richard Petty handles a car well and that he does win races. To the competition, it would seem, Petty is just a Plymouth, a "tough one to beat." He is no different to some fans. He is a car, venerated or despised depending on the fan's allegiance to a particular Detroit product.
Nevertheless, there are fans who refuse to place the machine above the man, and Petty is an idol to many of these—whether he wins or loses. His personality, though likable, is certainly not the reason why he attracts loyalty. He is not colorful. He seldom says or does anything striking. He has a big-kid way about him, and a sense of humor found among the young in a small-town poolroom. At the same time he is a very approachable person, who communicates with his audience. Often he spends most of that anxious time before a race signing autographs and answering questions about the innards of his car.
Petty's appeal, it seems, is largely due to his stage presence, but it is not as obvious as that of the driver Tiny Lund. Lund is not a favorite with the fans just because he stands 6'4½", weighs 260 pounds and likes to catch small fish. Rather, it is because he is such an absurd sight when he climbs through the window of his car, and also because his size suggests brutishness.
Petty, on the other hand, has presence the way Joe DiMaggio had it. It is unobtrusive, but it is there. He is obviously a producer, a driver who, as one fan wrote him, "would try to win even if they were paying the most money for second place." Yet Richard does not think he deserves special recognition. He does not even believe himself to be an athlete, despite the physical punishment a driver's body takes during a race. "In a sense," he says, "I may be one, but I don't know."
If Petty seems to be more of a bookkeeper than a hero, it is because of his father, Lee, and the racing environment in which Richard was brought up. Racing was never anything special for Lee. There were never any heroes—just drivers with all the money, some of it and none of it. For a long time there was none of it—"the meals were light," says Richard—and then Lee managed to take some of the money. Now, with Richard driving, Lee (his critics say) has all of the money.
"Lee," said the late Bob Colvin, who was president of Darlington Raceway, "is a remarkable man. When he came into this sport in 1949 he didn't know a thing. He would just go around and keep asking the mechanics for their help. Now he's one of the real geniuses with an engine and a chassis."
"That was a long time ago," says Lee. "It ain't the same sport anymore."
"That's right," says Richard. "We're a better class of people now."
"Ain't no way they could be worse," smiles Lee.
"We're businessmen," says Richard.
The place where business begins for the Petty operation is in Level Cross, N.C. on 22 acres of ground. Here, in three houses, live Richard with his wife and three children, his mother and Lee, and brother Maurice and his family. Lee is the commander, Maurice is the engine specialist and Lee's wife is the bookkeeper. In the middle of the grounds is a mammoth garage, the focal point of the business, where the Pettys and six employees work from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week.
"Do you ever take Sundays off?" Richard is asked.
"What for?" he asks.
"Well, aren't you the star around here?"
"Heck, no," he replies. "I'm no hero. I'm just a worker."