Three days after Adam Petty became NASCAR's first
fourth-generation driver, the patriarch of the dynasty, his
great-grandfather Lee, died at age 86. But to remember Lee Petty
simply as the man who begat Richard (who won an astounding 200
races), who begat Kyle (who has driven on the top stock car
circuit for 22 years), who begat Adam, is to neglect the fact
that in his day Lee was the best driver around.
Lee drove the family Buick Roadmaster from Level Cross, N.C., to
Charlotte on June 19, 1949, to run in the inaugural NASCAR race.
His crewmen that day were his sons, 11-year-old Richard and
10-year-old Maurice. Team Petty finished 17th. Five years later,
in 1954, Lee won NASCAR's points championship, a title that was
his again in '58 and '59. "He used to take those little old
Plymouths and just outthink people," Richard has said. "When
they got him in Oldsmobiles [in 1957], he won races. He won
championships. He was blowing people away."
Richard began driving in '58, but, though his achievements
ultimately would dwarf his dad's, his initial ride was bumpy. In
his first Grand National race, Richard was put into the wall by
the eventual race winner: Lee. The next year the man who would
be King took his first checkered flag, at Atlanta's Lakewood
Speedway, but he had the victory taken away when the
second-place driver--dear old Dad again--pointed out that
Richard was actually a lap down.
Among Lee's 54 career wins was the 1959 Daytona 500, the first
race on the 2.5-mile superspeedway. His career was effectively
ended by a horrific crash on that track during a qualifying race
in '61. "It was a left turn, and we went straight," Lee said of
the incident, in which he jumped a wall and landed 150 feet
away, wheels up, in a parking lot. He spent four months in the
hospital with a punctured lung and broken collarbone, among
other injuries, and raced only sporadically after that. In
retirement he oversaw the family's racing business, Petty
Enterprises, and took up golf, whittling his handicap to scratch.
Lee had surgery for a stomach aneurysm in February, and his
worsening health kept Richard from making it to Texas Motor
Speedway to see Adam's debut. "The Petty family is a national
racing treasure," said three-time Winston Cup champ Darrell
Waltrip after Lee's death. "When you lose part of that treasure,
it's truly time to grieve."