FIFTY YEARS ago this month, on July 12, 1958, Richard Petty made his debut behind the wheel of a race car. He had just turned 21—his father, three-time NASCAR champion Lee Petty, wouldn't let him start driving until he was of age—10 days earlier. The young Petty entered a 1957 Oldsmobile convertible in a race at Columbia Speedway, a half-mile, flat, sandy dirt track in central South Carolina. There were maybe 4,000 people in attendance. Twenty-six years later, on July 4, 1984, the man in the number 43 car won his 200th (and last) race, the Firecracker 400 at Daytona International Speedway, in front of 80,000 fans, including President Ronald Reagan.
This is an article from the July 14, 2008 issue
The winningest driver in NASCAR history and seven-time Daytona 500 champ sat down with SI to talk about his early career and where racing has taken him.
SI: What do you remember about that first race in 1958?
PETTY: Three or four years before that, I had said, "Daddy, I'd like to drive a race car." He told me, "Come back when you're 21. You'll learn a lot between the time you're 18 and the time you're 21. You'll really grow up." So a week before my birthday I said, "O.K., I'm going to be 21 next week. Can I start driving?" He said, "There's [a car] over in the corner. Get it ready, and y'all go to Columbia." Then he went to Asheville, N.C., to run a hardtop race, and me and my cousin Dale Inman, who was my crew chief, hooked that car up behind a pickup and went to Columbia. I think I qualified 13th. I was a raw, raw rookie. I had run around a racetrack when the wheels were muddy and they wanted to dry them off. But as far as running a hot lap, in race conditions, that was my first time. They call these guys coming through now "rookies" when they're 21 years old, but they've been driving since they were five or six. I had never raced go-karts, midgets, not even bicycles. But I'd been watching races since I was 11.
I wound up sixth. I think I was three laps behind, which wasn't bad for your first race. We brought the car back, anyway.
SI: It was a convertible?
PETTY: We had cut the top off it. You'd bolt the top on it and run it one night, then take the top off and run it as a convertible the next.
SI: Did your father give you any advice before your first race?
PETTY: I think his words were, "Drive it where you think you got some control of it." One thing about race car driving, you can't tell people how to drive. When you go down in a corner, you know you're going to turn left. What can you say? It's all feel.
SI: What was your take?
PETTY: Maybe $150. It wouldn't pay for the gas now. It paid for the gas back then, because it was 20 cents a gallon.
SI: Six days later you made your Cup [then called the Grand National Series] debut.
PETTY: We put the top on the car and went to Toronto. Ran me clean out of the country to start my career.
SI: How'd it go?
PETTY: That didn't go too good. Daddy and Cotton Owens were racing for the lead halfway through the race. They came up to lap me, and Daddy thought I was in the way, so he hit me. I ran into the wall, tore it all up. I think I finished 17th. The only good thing was that Daddy won the race, so I could stand getting knocked out.
SI: How did it feel to get wrecked by your own father?
PETTY: Man, to a 21-year-old kid who had never done anything, all of it felt good.
SI: Even though it was one of the most successful teams in the sport, Petty Enterprises was still a small operation, with only five employees. Was it tough suddenly adding a second driver?
PETTY: It was a little bit of a strain. There was not a lot of money involved. The deal was, when I ran a convertible race, Daddy would run a hardtop one, because then you're running for two purses. You'd double the chance of taking some money home. That's the way he looked at it—strictly business.
SI: You and your younger brother, Maurice, were your father's pit crew for the first NASCAR race, at Charlotte in June 1949. What was that like?
PETTY: I was 11. My mother [Elizabeth], my father, my brother and myself rode over to the race in a great big ol' Buick. We pulled it into a Texaco station—I remember this, I don't know why—put it on a rack, greased the thing, changed the oil, took the muffler off, took the hubcaps off of it and put a number on it. Then it became a race car. I remember very little of the race except that my dad turned the car over and tore all four doors off of it. The thing was totaled, so we had to ride home with my uncle. Then next day Daddy came back with a flatbed truck, put the Buick up on there and brought it back home.
SI: NASCAR has come a long way from the days when you'd drive your race car to the track. What's the biggest change in the sport in the 50 years since you started racing?
PETTY: Money. And money buys technology. Now when we start with a car, it's a NASCAR car, it's not a Ford or a Chevrolet or a Dodge. It's a race car.
SI: What was your most memorable race?
PETTY: That is one hard question. You figure, I've done it 35 years, won all those races, lost all those races. But I'm going to have to say the 200th win, because I can remember that one; it wasn't but 24 years ago [laughs]. That was a very dramatic deal. Won it on the very last lap, Fourth of July, in front of the President of the United States, who had never been to a race. It was the crowning deal.
SI: Speaking of President Reagan, you gave a speech at the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit, where he was nominated. How did that go?
PETTY: I got up on the platform with Dorothy Hamill. She was a nice girl. We walked out there together, and there were thousands of people shouting and hollering. I hadn't ever read off a teleprompter before. [Convention organizers] said, Why don't you read this deal? I said, "Forget it," and got up there and said my stuff in my way. I just winged it.
SI: Did you ever imagine driving might one day lead you into politics?
PETTY: I did run for [North Carolina] secretary of state once [in 1996; he lost to Democrat Elaine Marshall], and I was a county commissioner [in Randolph County, N.C.] for 16 years. My wife was on the school board for 16 years. We were trying to contribute something not just to racing, but to the community. That's just us. We're not just one-dimensional.
SI: You've signed your name thousands of times, and every autograph you give is incredibly elaborate. Why such an ornate signature?
PETTY: My dad had gone to King's Business College [in Charlotte], and he wanted me to go there too. He said, "Look, we're in business. You can't just come out of high school and go run a business. You're going to have to learn to keep books, you're going to have to know some law." One of the first things they did was teach you to write so the teacher could read your books. And they had another class called Oriental Penmanship. And my dad, if you ever noticed his autograph, it had a little bit of the swing deal that he learned in school. So again, I followed my father.
SI: You're never seen without a cowboy hat now, but that hasn't always been the case. Why did you start wearing them?
PETTY: In 1980 [my son] Kyle had just started racing. My wife had an antique store [outside Level Cross, N.C.], and Kyle asked, "Can I have that corner?" He wanted to start the Kyle Petty Boot Barn, selling boots and Western stuff. The Charlie 1 Horse hat guy came by one day and told Kyle, "I'll give you a hat if you get your dad to wear it." I liked the hat, so I called him back and we cut a deal. Charlie 1 furnishes the hats—I'll wear them for extended periods of time, then we'll give them away for charity auctions. They usually start at $2,500. I sold two for $41,000 once.
SI: Who was the best driver you raced against?
PETTY: Probably David Pearson. He was the strongest competition over a period of time on all kinds of tracks. [Between 1963 and '77, Petty and Pearson finished one-two in 63 races, and Pearson is second behind Petty on NASCAR's alltime win list, with 105.] He was competition every week.
SI: What was your favorite track?
PETTY: Any of them I could win on [laughs]. Probably Daytona. That was probably the biggest push in Richard Petty's career.
SI: You won an awful lot of races at a time when a victory might pay $1,000. Looking back at how the sport has grown and purses have skyrocketed, would you rather have been 21 in 1958 or be 21 now?
PETTY: I was in the right place at the right time—for me, my circumstances, my personality and my ability. When I started, we lived on a dirt road. We lived out in the country, buddy. I didn't even know [about] electricity and running water until we got to racing and went up into Virginia and Pennsylvania. I'd say, Man, what's that? Racing exposed us to the real world, let's put it that way.
Ed Hinton on Richard Petty's racing career, at SI.com/WATN.