With his tall, slender frame, signature feathered cowboy hat and sunglasses; he is easily one of the most recognizable figures in the racing world. His accomplishments on the track will likely never be equaled and a worthy successor may never be found. There has only been one king in NASCAR and that king is Richard Petty.
His success in the Sprint Cup Series is unparalleled and includes the most wins (200) and the most poles (123). He is tied with Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson for the most championships (seven) and holds the record for most Daytona 500 wins with seven. In 1967 he set two records, the most wins in a season (27) and the most consecutive wins (10). His 1,185 starts set the bar for the most starts in the series.
Petty retired from driving in 1992 and assumed the role of car owner with Petty Enterprises. The organization won a total of 268 races before they merged with Gillett Evernham Motorsports in 2009 to form Richard Petty Motorsports. In 2010, Petty was inducted into the inaugural class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Petty’s legacy and influence, however, extend beyond mere statistics. It cannot be truly measured by numbers in a record book but rather is reflected in the lives he has touched.
In 2003, John Force (16-time NHRA Funny Car champion), was asked what kind of legacy he wanted to leave in drag racing.
“Hell, that’s an easy one to answer,” he said. “I want to be the guy that signed more autographs for the fans than anyone else. When I was first getting into this sport I watched Richard Petty. I watched the way he treated his fans. He would stand and sign autographs as long as people wanted them. I never saw him refuse to give a fan an autograph. I saw the love that his fans had for him and the way he seemed to really like them. I want to be like Petty except I that I want to sign even more autographs than he has. I want to take care of my fans the way he has.”
For some fans, it was Petty’s prowess on the track that inspired their allegiance. Jimmy Taylor shared this memory from August 1979 at Michigan International Speedway.
It was “20 laps to go,” he told me. “Petty is following Baker lap after lap. They take the white flag coming down the back stretch. Baker goes low to block the slingshot. Petty goes high instead, coming off turn four, side by side, screaming to the checkered, Petty wins by four feet! This 13-year-old boy cried like a baby with joy, the second greatest moment of my life besides my child’s birth.”
For Mike Neff, Senior Writer at Frontstretch.com, it was a chance encounter that left a lasting impression.
“In 2003 the fall Nationwide race at Charlotte was scheduled to run on Friday night but it was rained out,” he explained. “Saturday morning I packed up the kids and the wife and headed to the track. When we got there we stopped at the restroom for mom and the kids to take a break before we went to our seats. As I waited on them I saw Richard Petty leaning against the wall waiting for Lynda to come out of the restroom as well. I took the opportunity to shake his hand, having never met him before.
“The family comes out of the restroom and we head down to our cheap seats, three rows up from the track at the flag stand and settle in to watch the race. As the pace laps are going on, who comes to sit directly behind us, in the cheap seats, but Richard Petty. Couldn’t believe he was sitting in such crappy seats.
“Throughout the race people come by and talk, take pictures, get autographs, tell stories and just get their own little piece of the King. We did get to talk a little about racing during cautions and spent the whole race just being fans. It was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had at a race track.
“When the day ended I wished him well, he thanked me for spending the race with him and we went on our way. I can’t imagine Dale Jr. or Jimmie Johnson sitting four rows up at a Nationwide race and spending 75 percent of the time interacting with fans. There is a reason he’s called The King.”
Randy Claflin’s favorite story is about a special birthday present courtesy of Petty.
“In October of 1988, some of my family went to Florida on vacation,” he began. “On our way back home to Michigan, we stopped at the Petty Museum for my birthday. While watching a movie in the museum, I heard a race car start up. Soon you could hear it moving around the building I was in. I went running through the museum with my camera (an old 110 film camera) out the front door. Here is Richard driving one of his Pontiacs around the parking lot. When he saw me and my camera, he stopped so I could take a picture. I went over to him and introduced myself to him and he shook my hand. He wished me a Happy Birthday, started the car back up and drove off. I lost the picture long ago but the memory of a great birthday present will live forever.”
Terry Strange recounted a touching memory from Bristol about how a small gesture from Petty had a huge impact on a young boy.
“Many years ago, the infield at Bristol was grass, and racers, their families and some fans could drive their own vehicles inside to park. My wife and I were sitting in our car eating a sandwich before we pushed the cars out to line up pre-race. A lady driving a pickup with a disabled child in the back (in a wheelchair) drove into the infield. She couldn’t find a place the park, as all the spaces in our section were full. A yellow tape separated us from the press parking, which was half-full. I held the rope up and let the lady come through.
“She thanked me and said that her son loved Richard Petty and that his dream was to one day meet him. I had talked to him earlier,” Terry said, “and knew where his truck was parked. I walked over to his truck, where he was eating his own sandwich. I told him about the young man, he promptly put the sandwich down and told me to take him to the boy. As we walked across the infield to the truck, the boy lit up with a huge smile, Richard got up into the back of the truck and sat and talked with the youngster for quite a while. The boy’s mother cried. I waved and walked back to my car, then to work. I knew that afternoon why they call him The King.”
Many drivers look at signing autographs as an obligation. Today’s fans often have to jump through hoops just to be part of autograph sessions that are first come, first served and limited to a strict period of time. Petty is a different breed of driver and as Bob Waas discovered, “He is the real deal.”
Waas was an official from 1967-1977 at the now defunct, Islip Speedway in New York and his story dates back to July 5, 1967, when he drove the pace car for a NASCAR event.
“Back then when the Sprint Cup cars (Grand National) visited Islip they didn’t have their own pace car driver,” he revealed, “so they entrusted the local officials with the duty of driving the pace car.
“At the conclusion of the race, I had the pleasure of driving the winner around the track so he could wave to the fans. It was a convertible in case you were wondering. On this night Richard Petty won so I picked him up at the start/finish line and took him around the track a few times. They told me over the radio to bring him to the press box afterward so he could sign some autographs.
“I was standing next to Richard when he signed his first autograph and it seemed to take a very long time. I looked over his shoulder and noticed that his autograph had lots of swirls and circles and other lines that I think would be hard to duplicate. I said to Richard, ‘You’re not going to sign all of them like that are you?’ He gave me that dumbfounded look and said, ’Of course I am Bob, it’s my autograph!’ I replied, ‘But, look at all the people!’
By now the line had grown so long it went down the entire length of the stairs and wrapped around the corner. Richard said to me, ‘It’s okay, I’ll stay here all night to sign autographs for the fans.’”
Bob’s story doesn’t end there. A year later he was walking through the pits and passed by Petty and his brother Maurice who were sitting on the tailgate of their truck.
“I kept walking as I gave a wave in his direction while shouting out, ‘Hi Richard.’ When he replied, ‘Hi Bob,’ it floored me. All those miles traveled between stops at our little track and somehow, he remembered my name.”
These are only a few of the stories that came pouring in when I asked Petty fans to share some of their favorite moments. There were far too many to share them all but there was one sentiment expressed throughout. Richard Petty may be called The King because of his achievements on the track but it is his actions off the track that make him NASCAR royalty in the hearts of the fans.
John Force Quote from dragracingonline.com June 16, 2003
Special thanks to Randy Claflin, Mike Neff, Terry Strange, Jimmy Taylor and Bob Waas for their contributions.
Repost – Originally published July 2014.