Retrocon 2024

Racing Legend of the 80s, Richard Petty the “King of NASCAR”

President Reagan with Richard Petty and wife Lynda in 1984 via Wiki
By the time the 1980s began, Richard Petty was already an iconic figure in stock-car racing. Born in North Carolina in 1937, the son of three-time NASCAR Grand National champion driver Lee Petty, Richard spent his childhood growing up around cars. Life in the Petty household was surrounded by repairing, building and ultimately racing cars. He first sat behind the wheel of an old 1938 Ford pickup when he was just eight years old.

Four years later at age 12, Petty become his father’s crew chief alongside his younger brother Maurice Petty at the nascent of NASCAR. Richard’s father recognized his hunger for competition early on and encouraged him to pursue racing at every opportunity, which acted as a catalyst for what would be an illustrious career.

”Racing lesson number one: If you can get an advantage, take it.”

Fast-forward a decade, ten days after Richard turned 21 in the summer of 1958, he is lining up for his first NASCAR race. He finished the race in sixth place and didn’t cause too much of a stir in the stock-car racing scene until the National series went to Lakewood, Georgia in 1959. It marked the day Petty won his first race. But his father protested again the decision and hours later it was judged to be a scoring error on the officials’ part, which resulted in Lee Petty being awarded the win.

Richard Petty in 1984 via Wiki
Though he may not have got the win he wanted, the racing world was waking up to this captivating young racer. Kitted out in a Stetson, pipestem jeans, croc boots and jet-black sunglasses, he was the epitome of style. He was consistent in his image and was one of the first real superstars coming out of the sport.

Petty’s career spanned decades until he finally retired in 1992 with seven championships, the most in NASCAR history at the time. His career nearly came to an abrupt end in 1988 as he nearly lost his life at the Daytona 500. in one of the most spectacular crashes in racing history. After his car rolled 8 times, he remarkably walked away from the scene.

His track record stands for itself, with notable highlights such as; passing his father’s career wins at the age of 29, winning ten consecutive races and 27 in a single season, winning the 1973 and 1974 Daytona 500, or finishing his 35-year career with a staggering 200 wins. The driver below Petty on the win list has 105. 

So often a conversation among young sports enthusiasts, “who’s the best X of all time?” The eternal question; Messi or Maradona? Senna or Schumacher? But as modern fans desperately want to believe that the current drivers are the best ever, the sport is more competitive than ever and everything prior to 2004 was dull and nonsensical. One must remember, the times have changed. Nowadays, we have news outlets shoving buzz phrases like “best drivers in the world” and “most competitive time” down the public's throat their entire lives. 

Petty was the next generation of NASCAR driver back in 1984, he bridged the gap between the rugged, southern car fanatic and the more corporate, inauthentic branded-superstar we see today. But it’s important not to be misguided by the flashy exterior of Richard’s heyday. He was firstly a mechanic and race-car enthusiast, as much as he was a world-class, greatest-of-all-time contender, racing driver. 

He kept things close to home. After all, it was his family that raised him to be what he became. His brother worked closely with him and was a talented engine builder, which was hugely beneficial to Petty. Richard also had one of the best crew chiefs in history, his cousin Dale Inman. And of course, his father Lee. 

His own mechanical expertise was of great value to him. He knew what he wanted from the car and he knew how to maximize its performance. But modern NASCAR isn’t like the old days. In those days the vast majority of drivers knew their cars and were proficient mechanics. But Richard Petty is crowned “The King” because first and foremost, he was a phenomenal wheelman.

His legend lives on today, as we see him playing the role of “The King” in the hit movie franchise Cars. You can regularly find him smiling and shaking hands with fans at the meets. He’s a glowing representation for the sport and the legacy of the number 43 painted over the red, white and blue Pontiac Grand Prix will live on for generations. A testament to what he did for the sport is the presence of the unmistakable Richard Petty stock-car in the collections of the American History Museum. To me, Petty in his peak years is like the 70’s James Hunt, he epitomized what motor racing drivers should be all about.

Gone are the days of looking cool. Now “cool” seems to be defined by constantly running around, scrambling to catch the attention of the media with the focused intent of self-promotion. We know it benefits the media corporations to have the talking heads glorify the present-day stars, further increasing the necessity to watch what’s happening now. But it clouds our judgment about what once was, and what now is. 

Petty at 1985 Pocono 500 via Wiki
Lest we forget, the number 43 represents much more than just a racecar or driver, it’s a time-machine to the 1980s and prior decades when things were different in American motor racing.
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