Down the final stretch, in the waning weeks of his career, Richard Petty can hardly hear the crowds roaring their farewells. He is 55 years old and partly deaf. The engines have sung to him for too long—through 35 years and 200 major stock car racing wins and passage into blue-collar legend.
After Sunday's Mello Yello 500 in Charlotte, N.C., only three races remain in this, Petty's final season of driving. Three more races, and there will be rest for the lanky frame that has been damaged literally from head to foot—from concussions to broken toes, with all kinds of damage in between. In 1980 Petty drove with a broken neck, knowing that even a bump from another ear could kill him. But the most telling setback occurred in 1978, when 40% of his ulcer-ravaged stomach was surgically removed, likely the price of being too nice to too many people for too long.
"Sometimes," he says, "it's a blessing to be hard of hearing."
Petty has given every bit of himself to the sport he personally brought out of the backwoods and off the bootlegger trails. He is NASCAR's Arnold Palmer. When motor racing fans speak of the King, they don't mean Elvis.
"There arc no more Richard Pettys here," says his son, Kyle, 32, himself a 14-year veteran NASCAR driver. "Nobody to pick up where he'll leave off. And that going to be a major problem for the sport. It's not so much what he's won. Forget winning 200 races, seven championships, seven Daytona 500s [all records]. I'm talking about the Richard Petty who sits on a pit wall and signs autographs for four hours."
Petty has named his final rounds as a driver his Fan Appreciation Tour. Few figures in American sports have appreciated their fans as much as Petty has; few, if any, have reciprocated as thoroughly by mingling with the crowd. Petty does not tower over his followers so much as minister to them. He is of them and among them. One by one, hour by hour, day by day since 1958, he has not only shaken their hands and signed their picture postcards, but he has also talked to them—"talked to me just like I was somebody" as so many have said so often.
He talks to them in their vernacular. For the sake of his fans, he has cultivated the image of a good ol' boy, one he could have shaken decades ago had he wanted to do so. He says, "I can't talk good English," but in fact he doesn't choose to. "One of the first lessons my daddy [pioneer NASCAR driver Lee Petty] taught me was, Don't get above your upbringing," he says.
When Richard, sprung from a hamlet with the salt-of-the-earth name of Level Cross, N.C., says "I knowed," it is not out of ignorance but rather folksiness, the way Woody Guthrie sang, "I been havin' some hard travelin'/I thought you knowed."
"What helps with people," says Petty, "is when, even though you've won a lot of money and been to see several presidents—you know, done the things they would like to do—they can still talk to you on their terms. I talk football with them, religion with them, or I can talk about the kids back there in the swimming hole. It don't make any difference."
The final deluge of emotion for the King will come in Atlanta on the weekend of Nov. 14. The night before the last race of the season, Petty will appear before 75,000 of his closest followers in the new Georgia Dome, with the country-music group Alabama singing goodbye.
But Petty's biggest parting has already taken place. He has raced his last at Daytona International Speedway. The man and the track made each other famous. His seven victories in the Daytona 500 are as many as the second-and third-best achievers have managed together. The man and the event are synonymous; no one has ever gained so much attention for losing a race as Petty did at the Daytona 500 in 1976, when he and David Pearson crashed into each other with the checkered flag in sight.
He hasn't won on the NASCAR circuit since 1984, admitting that "the legend part is what has kept Richard Petty going." But that final victory provided the sort of material that seals lasting fame: It was Petty's 200th, and it came at his beloved Daytona, not in the 500 but in the Firecracker 400, on the Fourth of July, with President Ronald Reagan looking on.
For his final Daytona drive, this past July 4, Petty qualified on the front row and led the first five laps of the race but parked his car on the 84th lap because of sheer fatigue. So far in his final season, he has finished no higher than 15th.
In his twilight years partial deafness has blessed him with an inability to hear younger drivers' snide remarks that he is over the hill and ought to quit. Now that he is officially retiring, the young hot dogs are a little ashamed of themselves. Now they pay their tributes to the King. It makes them look good, look humble, and it keeps A.J. Foyt off their backs. Foyt, perhaps the staunchest admirer of Petty in the world, growled last year upon hearing of the sniping, "Richard Petty's won more races than 90 percent of these sonsabitches will ever go to!"
For the fans, the memories—and Petty's diligent acknowledgment of his faithful's adoration—are enough to keep him the King, despite eight years of not winning. For his farewell tour he has allowed himself a sanctuary, a luxury motor coach in which to rest at each track, because the fans and the media have multiplied so greatly.
"The greatest luxury of this bus is the bathroom," he says, emerging from the toilet. "I can go whenever I like. Out in the garage area, it takes half an hour to get from my race car to the rest room [through mobs of autograph seekers] and half an hour to get back." He could have hidden in a motor coach for the past 20 years, as younger drivers often do nowadays. But Petty remained among the people—smiling, signing, always smiling, always signing—one-hour trips to the bathroom and all.
He and his family have paid a price for his success and popularity. In 1967 Petty won 27 races (out of 48), a record that will be virtually impossible to break because NASCAR's Winston Cup tour now counts only 29 races. After that grinding '67 season, says Lynda, Petty's wife of 33 years, "we had plans to go to Panama to visit some friends. But at the last minute, Chrysler Corporation needed him to do something [Plymouths wore Petty's number 43 in those days; Pontiacs have since 1982]. I ended up flying with three children down to Miami and then to Panama, all of us really upset that he didn't get to go. Since then, I don't know how many times he has come to me and said, 'I hate to tell you this, but....' And I would take the children and go on. I couldn't disappoint them just because he couldn't go. We've learned to live that way."
Even the Pettys' avocations are public. Back home in North Carolina, Richard serves on the Randolph County Commission—salary $200 a month—and Lynda sits on the county school board. "He's never been a hunter or a fisherman or a golfer," says Lynda. "He docs have a tractor with a bush hog. He's cut roads all through these woods [their 500-acre spread in Level Cross]. He gets on his four-wheeler and rides those roads for hours, and nobody bothers him. That's the nearest thing to a hobby he has."
He will not even suggest that the weight of being the King may have had something to do with his ulcer surgery of '78. At the time, he says, "I wasn't eating right, wasn't sleeping right, wasn't doing anything right, and it all caught up with me. A lot of it could have been mental. I don't know. I can't separate those things."
That was the year his slip from the pinnacle began. He suffered through the first big losing streak of his career, going winless through all of '78. While other NASCAR teams went high-tech, refining aerodynamics and chassis with more sophisticated engineering and less hard-knocks savvy, Petty Enterprises remained complacent. "We'd been winning for 20 years and decided we wouldn't change," Petty says. "We should have led the way [in technology], but we didn't even follow." And so his dominance ebbed, but not the legend. In fact, his public image may have helped to hasten his downfall, for he was simply too busy with the public to spend time with his mechanics improving the team's race cars.
In 1986 Petty gave some telling advice to the young Bill Elliott, who was hurtling into stardom but was baffled by the limelight. "You've got to grin and bear it while you're there," Petty told him. "Then you can go out behind the building to cuss and throw up."
In 1989 came the lowest point of Petty's career. He was having trouble even qualifying for races. In April at Bristol International Raceway, a little hellhole in the hills of eastern Tennessee, rain was coming down in sheets, drowning his last chance to qualify for that weekend's race. He sat in a rented station wagon, head bowed, a hand over his eyes. Another icon, Pete Rose, was in the news, in trouble. "A compulsive gambler can't quit," Petty said of Rose. "Can't quit when he's winning, can't quit when he's losing. Sort of like me."
Then came a tapping at the window. Outside in the downpour stood three boys, aged 10 or so, with a pen and some soggy pieces of paper. Petty summoned his trademark grin and lowered the window. "How 'bout it, boys?" he said. They asked for his autograph. He found some dry paper in the car, signed and handed each boy a sheet. "How'd you do in qualifying?" one of the boys asked. There was a second of silence. Petty sighed. He resummoned the grin. "We're workin' on it." he said. The boys left exultant. Petty's weathered right hand returned to his eyes, and lie slumped deep into the seat. It was sinking in that there would probably never be a 201st victory.
Yet 200 is nearly twice the career total of David Pearson, the man with the second-most NASCAR wins, 105. Pearson, who retired in 1986, is the man Petty considered his toughest competitor through the years. The only major Petty record that appears threatened is his seven season championships. Dale Earnhardt, still in his prime at age 40, has won five but has only 53 career wins on the Winston Cup tour and an unpaved demeanor. Elliott, 37, the nearest Petty surrogate in terms of fan appeal, has only recently gotten the upper hand in his chronic battle with discomfort in the public eye.
Any NASCAR star will sign autographs nowadays—for $10,000 per session or on orders from a corporate sponsor. And the young guns sometimes hand out machine-printed autographs. But, says Petty, "everything that's supposed to be autographed, I sign." For 35 years he has signed his name, on average, 600 times a day. He signs in his office in the morning, on private and commercial planes, at public appearances, at home at night, right up until bedtime; he signs posters, souvenirs, letters, trading cards, toys. He personally signs every response to every letter in the full mailbag that arrives every day at his racing compound in Level Cross. He long ago mastered a handwriting technique that utilizes the muscles in his arm rather than his hand, so he won't get writer's cramp.
Big Jesse Sykes, who at 450 pounds is an unofficial Petty bodyguard and something of a sage in the garages, stuffs his catcher's-mitt hands into his overalls and remarks on the drivers of past and present. "You can't compare a man doin' it for money with a man that done it for love," he says. "Richard done it when there weren't no money."
In the years when NASCAR was just emerging from the dirt tracks, "we didn't have sponsors," says Petty. "We didn't have nobody to please. We didn't have nobody to tell us when to do right. We just done it. To begin with, it was an honor—still is. But a cat from Level Cross, never been nowhere, he goes down to South Carolina or up to New York and some-body wants his autograph. It was a big deal. Big honor. Once you got doing it, you didn't mind doing it. You seen how it pleased the people. It just happened. The good Lord just docs these things, and I don't know why, and the people don't know why."
"Nobody fills those shoes." says driver Darrell Waltrip, who seemed to think that he could when he exploded onto the NASCAR scene in the 1970s, young, articulate, brash and talented. Waltrip at first thought NASCAR needed a new, more polished hero—a Waltrip—to purge the sport of the good-ol'-boy stereotypes of Petty's generation. With avalanches of boos, the public let Waltrip know it liked the King and his realm just fine. And for years, every time the aggressive Waltrip so much as rubbed fenders with another driver, his roller-coaster image would take a plunge. Waltrip, now 45 and wiser, says, "The thing that has impressed me most through the years about Richard is his image. Through the good times and the bad times, that has never changed."
Incidents that would have engulfed Waltrip, or virtually any other driver, in controversy never seemed to dent the Petty mystique. Following a victory by Petty at Charlotte in 1983, his engine was found to have a larger-than-allowed displacement. NASCAR fined him $35,000 but let him keep the victory. Says Petty, "We were lucky enough that the people let it go—they didn't harp on it."
Petty has been involved in fender-banging feuds, most notably a running war with Bobby Allison in the early '70s. But he has never had the bad-guy label hung on him.
"Richard was made for this sport, or this sport was made for Richard—however you want to look at it," says Waltrip. "Particularly in the early years, it was as if Richard had written the script and NASCAR just helped him play it out. And anybody else who tried to come in, tried to get a leading role, had to be the bad guy."
For almost 20 years Pearson was the perennial other guy, though not so much the bad guy as simply not Petty. "I was bashful," says Pearson. "I'd hide from the media, and Richard would talk to them. I once saw him ask a TV reporter if he wanted an interview. I'd never have done such a thing. It hurt me in the long run. Richard did it the right way."
Aficionados will say that Pearson was a better driver than Petty—smoother and wilier. Says Petty, "Pearson could beat you on a short track, he could beat you on a superspeedway, he could beat you on a road course, he could beat you on a dirt track. It didn't hurt as bad to lose to Pearson as it did to lose to some of the others, because I knew how good he was."
"We finished one-two more than anybody else ever did," Pearson says. The Petty-Pearson quinella came in a remarkable 63 times between 1963 and '77. At the time of their last one-two finish (which Petty won, at Riverside, Calif., on June 12, 1977), they had finished one-two more than any other NASCAR driver had even won races. Allison, Cale Yarborough and Waltrip have since surpassed 63 wins each. Pearson finished with a 33-30 edge over Petty in races that they finished one-two, but of all those races, one stands out most keenly in Petty's mind.
It was the Daytona 500 in February 1976. On the final lap the two came flying side by side through the high-banked third turn, Pearson completing a classic "slingshot" drafting maneuver. But Petty counterpunched, regaining the lead through the fourth and final turn with an unprecedented sort of re-slingshot. As they entered the home stretch, Petty pinched Pearson into the outside retaining wall. Pearson collided with Petty but was able to keep his engine running. Petty, his car fishtailing from the impact with Pearson's, continued several hundred yards before hitting the wall. As Petty's Dodge sat smoking, immobile, Pearson drove his wrecked Mercury under the checkered flag at 10 mph to win the 500.
Of all the drivers from other forms of racing who came to run occasionally in NASCAR—from Jim Clark to Mario Andretti—Foyt is the one Petty would have loved to face on a regular basis. "If Foyt had run with us full-time," Petty says, "nobody might have ever heard of Richard Petty." He grins. "Then again, nobody might have ever heard of A.J. Foyt."
The two men chose separate paths, Foyt driving Indy Cars and Petty stock cars, but their careers were strangely parallel. A hot streak or a slump by one usually meant the same for the other. When things went sluggish for both, Foyt would come to run a NASCAR race. "I'd go to Richard and say, 'Goddammit, start winning again and get us going!' " says Foyt.
From Foyt's mouth, these are enormous words: "I kinda looked up to him."
Still does, Foyt says, "because I admire what he's done." Maybe it's because, above all, Foyt sensed a bedrock toughness in Petty. Foyt, the raging bull, has always worn his toughness on his sleeve. Petty has worn his in his hip pocket, seldom visible but always ready. In 1971 and '72 he and Allison engaged in their notorious feud, knocking each other's cars all over virtually every NASCAR track in America. Finally they held peace talks. "As far as I'm concerned, it's over," Petty told Allison, then a wiry welterweight of a man. "But if I hear one more word you've said in the media, I'm gonna beat the livin'——out of you."
Allison, the same age as Petty and a friend since the feud ended, was not able to choose the time of his retirement. A near-fatal brain injury, suffered in a crash at Pocono Raceway in 1988, made his decision for him. He has since recovered enough to lead a fairly normal life but not to race. "I guess I pity more than envy" Petty's having to make a decision to retire, Allison says. "He's earned the right to run until he's 90 if he wants to."
Foyt announced in 1991 that the Indy 500 that year would be his last, then changed his mind. He couldn't bring himself to quit. Petty says his decision is final. "He won't come back," says Kyle. "It's been too hard to get to this point to have to go through it again."
Petty will remain around racing as a car owner. "Even though he's a legend and he's done more for the sport than anyone could even sit down and think about, he'll still be just an owner," says Kyle, "not Richard Petty getting his 200th win or Richard Petty making his 1,500th start. Just an owner. He has to deal with that. He'll still be nice to people, but the Richard Petty y'all know will be dead. He'll be standing there in the pits, but you'll know he'd give everything he had, all 200 wins all seven championships, if he could go just one more time. Guys like Daddy and A.J., guys who have done this for so long, they look at quitting as terminal illness. They look at this year as the last few days of their lives."