They say he was born with a golden throttle under his right foot and a silver steering wheel in his hands. His very first act was to send his crib careening through the nursery in a perfect four-wheel drift while loosing a nascent Rebel yell. Shortly before his first birthday he learned to drive a pickup truck, whistling Dixie and wearing Day Glo red diapers. In the piney woods outside Level Cross, N.C., where the miracle occurred just 38 years ago last week, a fountain that had previously spouted Southern Comfort suddenly began leaking an oily substance that folks far and wide soon came to call STP. All of these things were taken as good omens. In such a manner is a king born among us.
Or so runs the legend.
For those who prefer the facts, Richard Lee Petty, 38, the king of contemporary stock-car racing, stands a mortal 6'2" and weighs in at a willowy 182 pounds. His face is dark and pitted with the pores endemic to those who deal with harsh sunlight, excoriating oil fumes and the 30-race annual circuit of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, Inc. Petty's demeanor in the presence of women and children is polite, almost chivalrous, as befits a happily married man with four kids of his own. He raises no hell—except when you try to pass him on a racetrack. On foot he is a veritable lamb.
This man, this paragon of lead-footed speed, survivor of horrendous crashes, winner of more car races than most of us have ever seen, can filter through a crowd with a grin and a howdy so smoothly that you hardly know he is there. But he is King Richard. Petty truly is a legend. He also may well be the best racing driver in the world.
July 13, 1975
Since July of 1958, when he first began racing, Richard Petty has won 172 NASCAR Grand National races. That is exactly double the number won by his closest stock-car competitor, David Pearson of Spartanburg, S.C. Within the next month Petty's earnings from these victories, accumulated over a 17-year period, will amount to $2 million. A. J. Foyt, now 40, winner of 52 U.S. Auto Club Championship Car races and $2.5 million over an 18-year career, also is a legend—and the only active driver who may conceivably be better than Petty. (Jackie Stewart, the skittering Scot who won the World Driving Championship three times, along with a record 27 Grand Prix, is retired; his career prize money, in any event, would be far less than Petty's or Foyt's, since European road racing pays off in less obvious forms.) It may be argued that USAC's Championship Car racing is tougher than NASCAR's Grand National equivalent, since the Indy cars are open wheeled and more dangerous, but racing is still racing: you get in a car, go out there and try to win. Richard Petty has accomplished that not-so-simple act more often, and with more success, than any other man in the history of motor sports. And he never did it better than last week at Daytona during the 17th running of the Firecracker 400.
Petty had never won the Firecracker. He had come home victorious five times in the Daytona 500, stock-car racing's biggest and richest event, where no other driver had been able to win more than once. Indeed, Petty had won the Grand National Championship an unprecedented five times. Yet during the 16 previous runnings of the July Fourth classic at the world's fastest beach, Petty had been no better than second—and that four times in a row in his last four efforts.
A certain psych was at work. Just as Foyt had found it extremely difficult to cope with his fourth possible victory at Indy earlier this year, Petty found the Firecracker potentially just another dud. All through the week preceding the race he lolled and drawled as usual, but behind the curved sunglasses and deep within the twang, there lurked the suspicion of another failure, a shade of fatalism.
"Pull up some oil and sit down." Petty gestured languidly toward a cardboard case of STP in the back of his trailer. He was crouched, Johnny Reb style, in a corner of the truck with a black, acrid el ropo smoldering in the side of his grin. It was raining outside, a slashing Florida sun-shower that thickened the humidity to the proportions of fresh-cooked hominy grits. All morning Petty had been opening presents—his birthday was the following day—and the celebratory air had lightened his mood. He was particularly delighted by a hand-scrawled set of boxes from a moonstruck girl named Elizabeth, who addressed him as "King Richard the Lion-Lover" and included in her natal offering a plaster lion, a set of Band-Aid cans wrapped as firecrackers, toy houses from a Monopoly set (no doubt an encouragement to buy her out one way or another) and a purple paper crown, gaudily elaborate with curlicues and crosses. Petty stuck the crown on an onlooker's head, then slapped his thigh.
"Looks like he et the margarine," he chortled to no one in particular. Then he pulled out a penknife and resumed carving something vaguely wooden, even more vaguely abstract-expressionist in nature. Occasionally he spat out into the rain. It was as if he had taken a master's degree in laconics from Li'l Abner University. But it was for real.
What was his strategy for the upcoming race, this event that seemed to deny him victory year after year?
"Keep shovin'," he said.
Why had he never raced in other venues like Indy or Grand Prix, which would have broadened his acceptance as a world-class racer, one of the internationally great ones?
"The Indy money never appealed to me that much. This is where I grew up. There's different games within the same game, so to speak. Joe Namath and Catfish Hunter, they both throw balls. I reckon if they started early enough, Namath could be throwing baseballs and Hunter footballs. But they didn't. And they probably wouldn't be near as good as they are if they did, or somethin'."
Petty lit another cigar and stuck a long, thin finger into the rain. He allowed as how it wouldn't dry out for a while.
"There's this about stock-car racin'," he said. "We didn't none of us get this handed to us on a platter. Not like these football stars who got started in college and then got these fat pro contracts. Here you start little and grow. I was lucky in a way that the first stars of NASCAR were all nearing the end of their careers when I came up—Junior Johnson and Fred Lorenzen and Fireball Roberts and Curtis Turner. And my daddy Lee. And I was lucky that my daddy Lee had got the Petty name out there where it was already recognized. And I was lucky that the superspeedways like this here Daytona was just gettin' built when I come along—so's if I was any good I could grow along with the sport." Nothing more than that—no hyperbole-laden statistics about how he grew. Just the thanks to the sport for letting it happen.
The rain had blown away by now, and steam rose amid the almost-visible vibrations of the blatting engines in the garage area. You stand back and look at Richard Lee Petty. He is tall and skinny. Slump-shouldered, he moves loose like a hound with worms, with a hound's bright flash of teeth in a grin that is not exactly humorous. You realize, at this glance anyway, that he does not seem so healthy. He is hard of hearing—a race driver's occupational disease, like black lung in coal miners—and he squints even behind his sunglasses. Rumor has it that Petty inhaled fire in an early crash and did to his lungs with one suck what some of us have taken years to do with cigarettes. But he denies it. "Tain't so. You'll never meet a driver who's got hurt less by what he does than me. Oh, I've got hurt ridin' motorcycles and Go-karts for fun. But when it's serious, I don't get hurt." But the rumor persists among other racing people: he is prone to severe headaches; he takes a lot of oxygen after long, hard, hot races. What are those pills he gobbles, two at a time with a Coke, during the heavy, pounding afternoons? Aspirin? Petty shrugs and grins. He's hard of hearing, after all.
Qualifying is over. Donnie Allison won the pole position in his Chevy at 186.737 mph, blowing the doors off everyone, including Buddy Baker, a favorite here, whose Ford could squeeze out only 184 and change. As for King Richard, he chose to qualify his car with a racing setup, disdaining the pole, and ended up in the unlucky 13th position on the starting grid, a bit farther down the line than he had hoped. "In a race like this, it's better to be ready for the real thing than to go scootin' off for the pole and then have to set up the car all over," he said. For all that devil-may-care attitude, though, he was glum. His speed had been a dismal 180.032.
Right now, though, Petty had other things on his mind. "Come on along," he said. "I gotta go across the street to the gas station. There's a Petty fan club over there holding a car wash. The money goes for the family of my brother-in-law who was killed at Talladega awhile back." The brother-in-law, Randy Owens, 20, had been a member of the Petty pit crew. During an unscheduled pit stop to repair burning brakes in Petty's car, Owens had been blown up by a faulty pressurized water tank. It was one of the rare deaths in stock-car racing, and its freakiness made it all the more ugly.
Moving out of the speedway, he was accosted by hundreds of fans. He greeted them all alike, with the same bright, crooked grin, the same elaborate, rolling autograph. He moved through them with an ease rarely seen among professional athletes of greater visibility, waving off the waves in a manner that might be envied by an Aaron or a Nicklaus, even an Evel Knievel. At the car wash Petty just walked up and started washing cars. Nobody squealed. They said hi, smiled, and kept on working, as if he were a brother, not their king. He pretended he was going to squirt them with the hose. Everyone laughed. It was like that scene in James Agee's book A Death in the Family, where the father goes out to sprinkle the lawn. It was that full of easy summer affection.
"It's amazing how you move through them so easily, with no fanfare and no nonsense. How do you manage to do it?"
"Just keep movin'." And he grinned hugely.
The King kept moving that night, during a sundown walk along the beach with his family. His wife Lynda is a short, pretty no-nonsense woman with a hard voice and a soft disposition. Kyle, 15, is as tall as his father and nearly as noncommittal. Was he interested in racing? Nope. Grin. The middle daughters, Sharon and Lisa, are plump and spunky. The baby, Rebecca, just two years old, primped and squeaked and made faces until her mommy had to carry her; then she grinned proudly, with teeth nearly as big as her daddy's. The surf crashed in, long and white, echoing the passing campers and motorcycles. Fans stopped to greet The King. A large, excited black man ran up.
"I've got second sight," he told Richard. "I'm clairvoyant. If you believe, if you truly believe, you can win this race."
"Ah buhleeve!" said King Richard.
"I really don't know what the family did before stock-car racing was invented," Petty said. "They farmed, I guess, did a little bit of everything. They had a couple of trucks and hauled a lot of things. Sand, dirt, people, wood. Like that. I've got an aunt who sort of prunes the family tree. She knows. My mother likes to say that the Pettys are like bananas—they come in bunches. I don't really study that much on family history, busy with racin' and things. Don't do much beside racin'. There's a five-acre pond on our hundred acres, full of fish, but I don't fish a l√¨ck. There's good huntin' too, but I don't hunt. I keep movin'."
Keep movin'. When you stop later and think about it, Petty's movements during the race itself were, well, almost reptilian. Perhaps like the movements of a snake about to feed—not some hideous, nasty rattler or cottonmouth or puff adder, but rather a benevolent snake, a blue racer, maybe, or better yet, a king snake. Slow in the cool dawn preceding the event, purposeful during the warming of the day, then deadly quick, excited, all aglitter, crushing at the showdown.
During the early going, Petty displayed no great speed. All of that commodity seemed to be in the hands of Baker, Foyt, Cale Yarborough and David Pearson. It was Pearson who appeared the most menacing; he had won the last three Firecrackers, although last year he managed to beat Petty by only half a car length. Petty could not stay with the leaders during the first hot sprint. Indeed, he pitted a bit early—on the 29th lap—and took on new tires all around. "The car started vibratin'," he explained later, "so I come in and we changed all four. We figured once we could stop the vibratin' maybe everything else'd fold right in."
Petty helped it fold properly by picking up good drafts from other, harder-charging cars during the early laps. He rode in the wake of Dave Marcis, the promising journeyman from Wausau, Wis., and later, Donnie Allison. Gradually he moved up from 13th place to fifth—so sleekly, so smoothly that even the hypervocal announcer was surprised suddenly to find Petty there. By the 60th of the race's 160 laps Richard was working his way into striking range. At the halfway point, a two-car spinout in the fourth turn of the steeply banked, 2½-mile track brought Foyt into the pits for two costly stops. Shortly after the caution period ended, A. J. pitted once more with a cracked windshield that ultimately put him out of competition. Petty now lay fourth, only some five seconds behind the triple-drafting leaders—Baker, Pearson and Yarborough.
Then it was Yarborough's turn to falter. A cracked oil pan brought streamers of smoke from his car, and a warning from the stewards that the dripping oil had better be stopped pronto or Caleb would be black flagged. He dropped out soon afterward. That left Baker, Pearson and Petty on the same lap.
Now the crowd's attention shifted to Marcis who, though a lap down on the leaders, was driving a whippetlike race to unlap himself. Petty used the young charger's enthusiasm to his own advantage for a brief while, drafting him to keep in range of the faster Baker and Pearson cars. There were only about 20 laps to go now, and one pit stop for fuel would be necessary for all three contenders. That pit stop loomed larger than the race itself. Just as the time ripened, Pearson's Purolator Mercury began to smoke—burned piston, no doubt. Petty pitted with a vengeance, taking on fuel and then smoking his tires on the way out. He knew Pearson was finished, he knew that his own tire situation was better than Baker's—and Baker was his only roadblock.
For three or four laps Petty tested Baker's tires. He found he could not run with his opponent in the straightaways but could beat him handily through the corners. With just a dozen laps remaining, King Richard assumed his Fourth of July throne with a mad dash through Turn One. Using traffic to good advantage, he quickly opened up a 10-car-length lead.
The crowd was on its feet, hands clenched, throats straining—Richard, Richard, Richard! It was almost too much to believe—a strategic race of such brilliance, such cool, all of it climaxed by such a savage instinct for the checkered flag.
"I usually run a bit faster than the crowd," Petty said later, "but this time the crowd was runnin' faster'n me. I had to think good, and luckily the car was running real good through the corners. I could run flat out in there and Buddy couldn't. It was slick. I'd put on left-side rubber to grab in the grease during the last yellow, and it paid off. Once I got into the corner in front of Buddy, I was O.K.—he only got sideways. Still, if Pearson had been in there it would've been tough, maybe impossible. A three-car draft, I wouldn't have had all those options."
The victory gave Petty an almost insuperable lead in his pursuit of a sixth Grand National Championship—no other driver has won more than three. With eight victories in the first 16 races of the 30-race series he can now afford to sit out the next few races and still have a surefire chance of victory. But of course he won't sit out a single lap if he can help it. Having broken his jinxes at Atlanta, Charlotte and now, finally, the Firecracker, Petty will probably snake on ahead to that next championship. Oh, perhaps some rare slowdown might strike him between now and then, but it seems unlikely. That golden throttle, that silver steering wheel, that legendary childhood—it keeps him movin', sure enough.