One of the most legendary figures in motorsports history, Richard Petty (July 2, 1937) of Level Cross, North Carolina, is the first seven-time (1964, 1967, 1971-1972, 1974-1975 & 1979) NASCAR Cup Series Champion, the all-time record holder with 200 Cup Series wins and the winner of an all-time record of seven (1964, 1966, 1971, 1973-1975 & 1981) Daytona 500s.
But Petty’s interaction with the fans and the radio, television and print media also did a great deal for NASCAR and auto racing. Famous for spending countless hours signing his lavishly-scripted autograph and posing for pictures, he was always good for a noteworthy story.
His easy-going manner also made a great difference in how NASCAR Stock Car Racing was seen, developed and accepted. And all of this helped what had been previously thought of as a Southeastern regional pastime into becoming a sport and business of major national – and even international – consequences.
A member of his father’s pit crew almost from the start of Lee Petty’s racing career at the first NASCAR Strictly Stock race at the old three-quarter-mile dirt Charlotte (N.C.) Speedway in June 1949, Richard was anxious to race but his father – who is also an EMPA Hall of Fame member – told him that he had to wait until he was 21. However, when that day came, Richard was told that he could try his luck with a well-used white 1957 Oldsmobile convertible that sat over in the corner of the Petty Enterprises garage.
Richard and his cousin Dale Inman got the No. 42 ready and on July 12, 1958, it was taken to the half-mile dirt Columbia (S.C.) Speedway where the rookie driver started 15 th and finished sixth in a 200-lap event in the old NASCAR Convertible Division.
Then, just six days later on July 18, Richard made his first Cup Series start at the one-third-mile paved Canadian Exposition Stadium in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, where his father won the 100-lapper while Richard’s No. 141 Oldsmobile hardtop started seventh and completed 55 laps before he was sidelined by an accident and credited with finishing in 17 th position.
From those humble beginnings, NASCAR’s 1959 “Rookie of the Year” just filled the record books with outstanding accomplishments – such as winning 27 races in 1967, including 10 in a row, in his Petty Blue No. 43 Plymouth. And he became not only a major racing star but someone whose counsel was sought out by NASCAR’s top brass and fellow racers alike.
Named one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers, Richard collected a record 126 poles, a record 139 short-track wins and over 700 Top-10 finishes in 1,185 starts. And his last and most-publicized victory took place at Daytona International Speedway on July 4, 1984, when he won the Firecracker 400 in his Mike Curb-owned red and Petty Blue No. 43 STP Pontiac in front of Ronald Reagan, the first sitting President of the United States to witness a NASCAR race.
Richard retired from driving after the Hooters 500 at Atlanta (Ga.) Motor Speedway on November 15, 1992, to be a full-time car owner. And when Petty Enterprises was sold in 2008 due to lack of sponsorship he began a new business association called Richard Petty Motorsports in Mooresville, North Carolina, that now fields cars – including No. 43s – in the Cup Series.
Many things about Richard – whose son Kyle and grandson Adam were also Cup Series racers – made him famous: his iconic No. 43; the Petty Blue on almost all of his race cars; his trademark smile, moustache, sunglasses and cowboy hat & boots; long and successful associations with Plymouth and STP Oil Treatment; on-track battles with fellow EMPA Hall of Famers David Pearson & Bobby Allison; winning the first flag-to-flag TV coverage of the Daytona 500 in 1979; and, his spectacular front-stretch crash during the 1988 Daytona 500.
But if there had been no Richard Petty someone would have had to invent him as no one has done as much for or meant as much to Stock Car Racing as the man known as “The King.”
And, in this regard, it is also of historic note that Richard Petty became the first motorsports personality to be presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the nation’s highest civilian honor – when President George H. W. Bush did the honors in the East Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., on December 11, 1992.