Richard Petty is just a curly-haired, hard-charging small-town boy—and the woods are full of them in North Carolina. They are a breed: lean and flat-stomached, wearing wraparound sunglasses and driving cars hard. But not as hard as Richard Petty. He is a bit leaner, a bit tougher, and he is the unquestioned, alltime king of stock-car racing. When Petty led most of the way and won $20,560 in Atlanta's Dixie 500 last Sunday, he also became the first of the breed ever to hit $1 million in purses. Or, as they say in racing, come anywheres close to it.
The victory, highlighted by a fender-bashing duel between Petty and rival Bobby Allison in the last 28 laps, was the new millionaire's 13th Super Speedway win, another record all by itself. It also boosted Petty's 1971 earnings to $189,295—but the real feat was stock-car racing's first entry into seven figures.
"Twelve years ago," Petty observed collectedly when it was all over, "a million dollars was what you read about other people making. Well, we went right on past a million today." He grinned from the window of his 1971 blue Plymouth and added: "And we got a pretty good start on the second one."
Petty had qualified his car in the third starting spot, a position that earned him a scant $50 bonus. Let's see now: add up all the career winnings and what have we got? Well, he figured he was still $2,357 short of $1 million. Then the race got under way and every turn around the Atlanta International Speedway was like a finely tuned adding machine.
August 8, 1971
Mid-race, Petty was practically there on lap money alone. And at the end he added in the $18,650 for first place, lap money totaled $1,860—and there it was: he had earned $1,018,203.
So much for money. He pulled off his helmet and relaxed handsomely. Petty comes on with a steady, open look, with firmly focused eyes and straight white teeth like the headlights and grille of a car you can trust. Folks are always asking him which of his many records he takes the most pride in. Petty always drawls: "I guess in still bein' alive."
That figures. Petty's surviving to the prime age of 34 has been an important—and less than predictable—factor in his winning 74 more races and $330,788 more than any other man in the dashing history of his sport. One always thinks of Petty in terms of skill rather than old country death-defiance. The closest he has come to death, driving, was in May of 1970 when his Plymouth glanced off the concrete wall on the fourth turn at Darlington, flipped several times and crunched down on its roof. That experience left Petty with a cut on the forehead and a dislocated shoulder, but with no intimations of mortality. When he mentions his longevity record, he smiles about it the way a good dentist always does when he says he hasn't lost any patients yet.
Petty does say "everhow many" instead of "however many" and "they's" instead of "there's," and he hardly ever travels outside of North Carolina except to a race—but he doesn't chew tobacco and he never ran moonshine or fled a sheriff. He makes a good, sincere, professional impression at cocktail receptions for businessmen and press, himself sipping cola. "He'll smoke a Muriel cigar and he will wear sunglasses," says a reporter who has observed Petty closely for signs of departure from a good United Methodist upbringing, "but I've never seen him take a drink." Petty is a sober corporation executive.
"Winning that $1 million cost at least $3 million," says Richard, who with his father Lee and his brother Maurice is one of 30 employed by Petty Enterprises, Inc., "and that's just counting money I have touched."
That includes Petty money, then, and subsidy funds from Plymouth (and for one year, Ford), Goodyear, a clutch of other companies identified with auto racing and recently PepsiCo, which must have heard about Richard's drinking habits. The $3 million does not include free parts, tires, chassis and gear that sponsoring companies also have provided. Roaring around high-banked tracks at speeds up to nearly 200 mph in cars tenuously resembling the stock models available at your neighborhood dealer is a right sizable business.
The bulk of the family company's proceeds (it also builds bodies and motors for other drivers and sponsors a 1971 Dodge for Buddy Baker, who is some fancy driver himself) is plowed back into equipment and the expanding plant. Richard, like everybody else in the company, works for a salary, with a profit-sharing dividend at the end of the year. The most expensive thing he owns is his $25,000 house right there in Level Cross, where he lives with his wife and former high-school sweetheart Lynda and their three children. He never takes a vacation trip.
But do not think Petty is anything short of a superstar. Stock-car racing may not have caught on as big nationally as country music, but through the South it enjoys a more devoted grassroots following than any other sport except football. On hand for Petty's milestone ride last Sunday was Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, whose first act upon returning from World War II, it is said, was to load his family into the car and take them all down to watch the Daytona 500. Marty Robbins, the Grand Ole Opry singing favorite, was not only present but driving. He finished 13th in Bobby Allison's Dodge and said that racing a stock car "tickles my spine from my neck to my belt."
"Open-cockpit racing cars never caught on in the South," says Petty. "Not even midget racers. I guess it's just that people in the South were so poor, and those fancy race cars were so exotic that they didn't know what to make of 'em. People identify with stock cars. Like that Chevrolet of Junior Johnson's that Charlie Glotzbach raced in—lots of people would come out to see that because a lot of people drive Chevrolets in this part of the country."
Even in those rare periods when Petty can't drive—such as the six weeks following his crash at Darlington—he will show up at races and sign hundreds of autographs, devoting to each a good 15 seconds worth of looping, swirling penmanship. "If a lot of people don't know about Richard Petty, then Richard Petty is nothing," he says, "so I've had to become more of a man of the people."
Most top drivers pass up small events and concentrate on the big purses, but not Petty Enterprises. "If I let a race go by without racing in it," says Richard, "I feel like somebody's taking something away from me." He entered the Atlanta race on a streak of four straight wins—three in five days (July 14-18) in New York and New Jersey and the fourth in Nashville on July 24. The tracks ranged from one-fifth of a mile to 1½ miles, the purses from $1,500 to $6,760—barely enough to cover the expense of hauling car and crew so far up North and back. Not to mention the metropolitan bother of "getting tangled up in all those cloverleafs up there and paying 25¢ every time you cross a bridge," as Richard recently complained to a banquet audience.
But a Petty Enterprises driver likes to compete—which is one reason, he says, why he has never left NASCAR for USAC competition, as have Cale Yarborough and Lee Roy Yarbrough.
"We do some racing" says Petty. "Those Indy cars are so delicate that they can't touch each other. At the end of one of our races the cars are so banged up we strip all the sheet metal off and throw it away. It doesn't hurt the cars any—but we race each other."
By any objective standard Richard Petty is the king of all this action. In 13 years he has won 134 races and all that money. A man does not reach such status by embodying the spirit of Pickett's charge but rather by presenting a highly professional organization which takes such measures as walking every track before Richard drives on it, checking for hazardous patches.
Petty Enterprises doesn't necessarily herald a swing to smug, colorless technocracy in a great old popular sport, however. When Richard came upon a big newspaper picture of his friend Lee Roy Yarbrough's 1967 wreck at Indianapolis, it gave him an idea for a joke. "Nothing was showing in that picture but flames and two wheels," he says. "I took it and flopped it down in front of my wife and said, 'I've got a ride at Indy.' " He didn't really have one. But the notion gave Mrs. Petty a good old-fashioned turn, which tickled Richard no end.
A middle-aged lady fan came up to Richard just after the Dixie 500 and said, "Oh, I just wanted to know, how does it feel to be up there?"
Richard didn't say anything. He just hunkered gradually down from his 6'2" height until he was looking directly at her, nose to nose.