One of NASCAR’s pioneers and patriarch of the only family to have four generations compete in major-league racing, Lee Petty (March 14, 1914 – April 5, 2000) of Level Cross, North Carolina, was the first three-time (1954 & 1958-1959) NASCAR Cup Series champion, the first winner of the Daytona 500 in 1959 and one of the sport’s first superstars.
A truck farmer, Petty took up auto racing at age 35 on June 19, 1949, when he competed in NASCAR’s first Strictly Stock event at the old three-quarter-mile dirt Charlotte (N.C.) Speedway. This 200-lap race featured 33 cars – most driven to the race – and Petty’s No. 38 1946 Buick started ninth and was credited with finishing 17th when he flipped it after 105 laps.
A pretty-decent athlete, Petty liked the competition and felt he could race for a living. So he converted a reaper shed next to his house into a rudimentary racing garage and became a regular with a lightweight 1949 Plymouth numbered 42; digits he picked from a license plate.
One of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers and tops on short tracks, he won his first race by five laps on October 2, 1949, in a 200-lapper on the old half-mile dirt Heidelberg (Pa.) Raceway.
The Heidelberg track was also the site of a first in NASCAR history as on July 10, 1960, Lee and his son Richard – a fellow EMPA Hall of Famer – were the first father and son to finish 1-2 in a race when they did so there in a 188-lapper.
Lee’s “big track wins” include: a 250-miler on September 14, 1952, at the old one-mile dirt Langhorne (Pa.) Speedway in his No. 42 1951 Plymouth; a 160-miler from the pole in his No. 42 Chrysler on the old 4.1-mile Daytona Beach-Road Course on February 21, 1954; and, a combined Grand National/Convertible 150-mile race in his No. 42 Plymouth sedan at the old one-mile dirt Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 14, 1959.
He also had two victories at Daytona International Speedway. The inaugural Daytona 500 on February 22, 1959 – that took three days to determine as still and movie photography was checked to see if his white No. 42 Oldsmobile or Johnny Beauchamp’s No. 73 Ford Thunderbird crossed the finish line first – and the Cannonball Compact Car 150 on the 3.1-mile infield road course on February 19, 1961, that he won in his No. 44 1960 Plymouth Valiant.
On February 24, 1961, Petty and Beauchamp tangled and then sailed over the 2.5-mile track’s Turn 4 outside guard rail on the last lap of the second Daytona 100-mile qualifier. While Beauchamp was treated at the hospital and released, Petty’s punctured lung, left-chest fractures, fractured thigh, broken collar bone and various internal injuries kept him there until June 17.
Now in the Petty-blue No. 41 Plymouth, he returned to racing on April 22, 1962, at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway and started and finished fifth. And in five more races he was fourth on July 13, 1963, at the quarter-mile Bowman-Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and, sixth on July 21, 1963, on Bridgehampton (N.Y.) Raceway’s 2.35-mile road course.
The three-time champion’s final race was on July 19, 1964, at the 2.3-mile road course at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International where he started 20th and ran nine laps before dropping out with handling problems and being credited with finishing in 22nd position.
Overall, Lee Petty ran in 427 NASCAR Cup races and had 54 wins, 231 Top-5s and 332 Top-10s, and his average finish of 7.6 is the best ever for a full-time series driver. In 28 NASCAR Convertible races (1957-1959) he had two wins, 14 Top-5s, 21 Top-10s and one pole.
Retired from driving, Lee Petty worked at the expanded Petty Enterprises next to his home where his son Richard drove the team’s iconic No. 43s, son Maurice was engine builder and nephew Dale Inman was crew chief. As time went by the founder of Petty Enterprises played more golf or practiced it on the putting green in front of his house but he lived to see grandson Kyle and great-grandson Adam follow his “tire tracks” in NASCAR’s Cup Series.