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Richard Petty

[pet-ee]
Richard Lee Petty (born July 2, 1937) is a former NASCAR driver who raced in the Strictly Stock/Grand National Era and the Winston Cup Series. "The King", as he is nicknamed, is most well-known for winning the Nascar Championship seven times (Dale Earnhardt is the only other driver to accomplish this feat), winning a record 200 races during his career, winning the Daytona 500 a record seven times, and winning a record 27 races (ten of them consecutively) in the 1967 season alone. (A 1972 rule change eliminated races under in length, reducing the schedule to 30 [now 36] races.) Petty is widely considered the greatest NASCAR driver of all time. He also collected a record number of poles (127) and over 700 top-ten finishes in his 1,185 starts, including 513 consecutive starts from 1971-1989.

Petty is a second generation driver. His father, Lee Petty, won the first Daytona 500 in 1959 and was also a 3 time NASCAR champion. Richard's son, Kyle Petty, is also a well-known NASCAR driver. Richard's grandson, Adam Petty, was killed in an accident at New Hampshire International Speedway on May 12, 2000, five weeks after the death of Lee. Meanwhile, Adam's brother Austin works on day-to-day operations of the Victory Junction Gang Camp, a Hole in the Wall Gang camp established by the Pettys after Adam's death. Petty married his wife Lynda in 1958 and they have four children - Kyle Petty, Sharon Petty Farlow, Lisa Petty Luck and Rebecca Petty Moffit - and 12 grandchildren. The family still resides in Level Cross; They operate Petty Enterprises. The Richard Petty Museum is in nearby Randleman, North Carolina. Since January 7, 2008, Petty Enterprises has been the newest resident of Race City, U.S.A., moving their race team into the vacated Yates Racing facility in Mooresville, N.C. King Richard Petty frequently signs autographs for people and he remains a popular figure in the garage area.

Racing career

Petty was born in Level Cross, North Carolina, the son of Elizabeth (née Toomes) and Lee Arnold Petty, also a NASCAR driver. He began his NASCAR career on July 18, 1958, 16 days after his 21st birthday. His first race was at the Canadian National Exhibition Grounds in Toronto, Canada, and he finished 17th having completed 55 of 100 laps in an Oldsmobile. In 1959, Richard was named NASCAR Rookie of the Year, after he produced 9 top 10 finishes, including six Top 5 finishes.

The 1960s

In 1960, he finished 2nd in the NASCAR Grand National Points Race. In 1964, driving a potent Plymouth with a new Hemi engine, Richard Petty led 184 of the 200 laps to capture his first Daytona 500, en route to 9 victories, earning over $114,000 and his first Grand National championship. On February 27, 1966 Petty overcame a 2-lap deficit to win his second Daytona 500 when the race was stopped on lap 198 of 200 because of a thunderstorm. This made him the first driver to win the event twice.

In 1964 Richard became unhappy with the sport because other drivers were saying that his engines were bigger and they protested. Richard spent 1965 competing as a drag racer. His career there was cut short when he crashed his car at a race in Georgia, Injuring 7 people and killing an eight year old boy at the Southeastern Dragway, in Dallas, Georgia. 1967 was a milestone year. In that year, Petty won 27 of the 48 races he entered, including a record 10 wins in a row (between August 12 and October 1, 1967). He won his second Grand National Championship. One of the 27 victories was the Southern 500 at Darlington, which would be his only Southern 500 victory. His dominance in this season earned him the nickname "King Richard". He had previously been known as "the Randleman Rocket". In 1969 Petty switched brands to Ford, due to his belief the Plymouth was not competitive on super-speedways - he wanted a slippery Dodge Daytona but Chrysler executives insisted he stay with Plymouth. He would win 10 races and finish second in points. Won back in 1970 by the sleek new Plymouth Superbird with shark nose and goalpost wing, Petty returned to Plymouth for the 1970 season. This is probably his most famous car, and the car in which Petty is cast in the 2006 Pixar film Cars.

The 1970s

On February 14, 1971, Petty won his third Daytona 500, beating team mate, Buddy Baker, by one lap en route to another historic year, making him the first driver to win the event three times. He won 20 more races, became the first driver to earn more than $1 million in career earnings, and claimed his third Grand National Championship. In 1972, now with the familiar STP sponsor livery, Petty won his 4th Winston Cup Championship, thanks to his 28 top-10 finishes, including 25 top-5 finishes and 8 victories. On February 18, 1973, in a driver’s duel, Petty outlasted Baker to win his fourth Daytona 500 after Baker's engine gave out with six laps left. One year later, Petty won the Daytona "450" (shortened 20 laps {50mi/80km} due to the energy crisis) for the fifth time en route to his fifth Winston Cup Championship. Throughout Petty's career, but especially during his prime, Petty was known to stand for hours - backed against a fence, signing autographs to everyone who asked. Despite his massive popularity, Petty never begrudged the fans.

The year 1975 was another historic year for Petty, as he won the World 600 for the first time in his career, one of 13 victories en route to his sixth Winston Cup. The 13 victories is a modern (1972 to present) NASCAR record for victories in a season, and was tied in 1998 by Jeff Gordon. In 1976, Petty was involved in one of the most famous finishes in NASCAR history. Petty and David Pearson were racing on the last lap out of turn 4 in the Daytona 500. As Petty tried to pass Pearson, at the exit of turn 4, Petty's right rear bumper hit Pearson's left front bumper. Pearson and Petty both spun and hit the front stretch wall. Petty's car came to rest just yards from the finish line, but his engine stalled. Pearson's car had hit the front stretch wall and clipped another car, but his engine was running. Pearson was able to drive his car toward the finish line, while Petty's car would not restart. Pearson passed Petty on the infield grass and won the Daytona 500. Petty was given credit for second place. Oddly 1978 will stand out as the one year during his prime that Petty did not visit the winners circle. Petty could not get the new for 1978 Dodge Magnum to handle properly, even though much time, effort, and faith were spent massaging the cars. Unhappy with the seven top-5 finishes (including two second places) Petty climbed out of the Dodge and into a four year old used Chevy Monte Carlo after 17 races, breaking the hearts of his faithful, though partisanly Mopar fans. The switch to Chevy didn't produce any wins either however, in the remaining 1978 races. Petty would go on to rebound though, and went on a tear in 1979, winning the NASCAR championship for the seventh, and last time.

The twilight years

Petty won two more Daytona 500s in 1979 and 1981. In 1979, he snapped a 45-race drought, winning his sixth Daytona 500, the first to be televised live flag-to-flag; it would become notorious for a fistfight between competitors following the controversial finish. Petty won the race as the first and second place cars of Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough crashed on the last lap. Petty held off Darrell Waltrip and A.J. Foyt. The race is also regarded as being the genesis of the current surge in NASCAR's popularity. The East Coast was snowed in by a blizzard, giving CBS a captive audience. The win was part of Richard's seventh and last NASCAR Winston Cup Championship. Petty was able to hold off Waltrip to win the title in 1979.

For 1981, NASCAR dictated that all teams had to show up with the new downsized cars of 110" wheel-base, that Detroit had been building since 1979. Though Petty had been successful with the Chevrolet and Oldsmobile cars he had been running, he wanted to get back to his Mopar roots. His team built a stunning 1981 Dodge Mirada and took it to Daytona in January 1981 for high speed tests. The car could do no better than 186 miles per hour, however, about eight miles per hour slower that the GM cars. Petty gave up on returning to Dodge knowing that for the superspeedways the Mirada would not be competitive, and bought a Buick Regal for the Daytona race. In the 1981 Daytona 500, Petty used a "fuel only" for his last pit stop, with 25 laps to go, to outfox Bobby Allison and grab his seventh and final Daytona 500 win. This win marked a large change in Petty's racing team. Dale Inman, Petty's longtime crew chief, left the team after the Daytona victory (Inman would win an eighth championship as crew chief in 1984 with Terry Labonte).

On July 4, 1984, Petty won his 200th race at the Firecracker 400 at Daytona International Speedway. The race was memorable. On lap 198, Doug Heveron crashed, bringing out the yellow caution flag, essentially turning Lap 198 into the last lap as the two drivers battled to the start-finish line. Petty and Cale Yarborough diced it out on that lap, with Yarborough drafting and taking an early lead before Petty managed to cross the start/finish line only a fender-length ahead. (This is no longer possible because of the 2003 rule change freezing the field immediately upon caution. Furthermore, the green-white-checkered rule was created for if the yellow flag waves with two laps remaining, but not with one lap remaining.) President Ronald Reagan was in attendance, the first sitting president to attend a NASCAR race. Reagan celebrated the milestone with Petty and his family in victory lane.

Petty's last ride

In late 1991, Richard Petty announced he would retire after the 1992 season. Petty's final top ten finish came at the 1991 Budweiser at the Glen which was the same race JD McDuffie was killed in a fifth lap accident. Petty chose to run the entire 1992 season, not just selected events as other drivers have done before retirement. His year-long Fan Appreciation Tour took him around the country, participating in special events, awards ceremonies, and fan-related meetings. In his final year behind the wheel, he had two notable races.

At the 1992 Pepsi 400 on July 4, Petty qualified second. Before the start of the race, he was honored with a gift ceremony which included a visit from President George H. W. Bush. At the start, Petty led the first five laps, but dropped out on lap 84 due to fatigue.

Despite the tremendously busy appearance schedule, and mediocre race results, Petty managed to qualify for all 29 races in 1992. On his final visit to each track, Petty would lead the field on the pace lap to salute the fans. Petty's final race was the season-ending Hooter's 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The race was notable in that it was the first career start for Jeff Gordon, and it was the 2nd closest points championship in NASCAR history, with six drivers mathematically eligible to win the championship. A record 160,000 spectators attended the race, which went down to the final lap with Bill Elliott winning the race, and Alan Kulwicki winning the championship by 10 points over Elliott after Davey Allison dropped out early after a crash.

Facing the intense pressure, Petty barely managed to qualify at Atlanta, posting the 39th fastest speed out of 41 cars. He would not have been eligible for the provisional starting position, and had to qualify on speed. On the 94th lap, Petty became tangled up in an accident, and his car caught fire. Petty pulled the car off the track, and climbed out of the burning machine uninjured. His pit crew worked diligently all afternoon to get the car running again, and with two laps to go, Petty pulled out of the pits and was credited as running at the finish in his final race. He took his final checkered flag finishing in 35th position. After the race, Petty circled the track to salute the fans one final time in his trademark STP Pontiac.

The following year, he was back into a race car one more time. On August 18, 1993, NASCAR participated in a tire test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, in preparations for the 1994 Brickyard 400. Petty drove several laps around the track, and then donated his car to the Speedway's museum.

Petty would again step into a race car in 2003 on the week of the final race under the Winston banner at Homestead-Miami Speedway and took a solo lap honoring his seven Winston Cup Championships for Winston's salute to the champions.

In 2007 at the Pepsi 400 in Daytona, Richard Petty was behind the wheel of a Daytona car during the pace laps, leading the field for the first lap. The field split him and he followed behind the field for one more pace lap before he pulled it in. This was in tribute to Bill France Jr.

Petty as an owner

In later years of his career, Petty developed the career of crew chief Robbie Loomis, who was at the helm of Petty Enterprises as crew chief in the 1990s, and won three races -- the 1996 Checker Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix, the 1997 ACDelco 400 at North Carolina Speedway, both with Bobby Hamilton driving, and the 1999 Virginia 500 at Martinsville Speedway, with John Andretti driving.

Petty moved to the television broadcast booth for a few seasons immediatedly following his retirement, but his career in television did not last long. He remained as operating owner until his son Kyle Petty took over day-to-day operations a decade later.

Close calls

Of all the races he won, Petty is also remembered for three of the many incredible crashes that he survived:

  • In the 1970 Rebel 400 at Darlington, Petty was injured when his Plymouth Road Runner cut a tire and slammed hard into the wall separating the track from the pit area. The car flipped several times before coming to rest on its side. This accident injured Petty's shoulder, and helped Bobby Isaac to win the 1970 Grand National Championship. During the accident, Petty's head hit the track pavement several times, which led NASCAR to mandate the installation of the Petty-developed safety net that covers the driver's side window.
  • In a 1980 race at Pocono, Richard slammed the Turn 2 wall, nearly flipping the car. Petty barely escaped breaking his neck in the wreck and kept his injury hidden from NASCAR officials for the next races, knowing that another wreck could possibly kill him. Such an incident could never happen today, because of modern NASCAR rules requiring an official series medical liaison to clear a driver after a crash.
  • In the 1988 Daytona 500, Petty's spectacular crash on Lap 106 hurled parts all over the front stretch at the Daytona International Speedway. Incredibly, after so many flips, Petty walked away with no serious injuries, except for temporary sight loss due to excessive g-forces. The crash was similar to the accident suffered by Bobby Allison during the 1987 Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway in that both cars became airborne after turning sideways, and both cars damaged the spectator fencing (though Petty's crash did much less damage to the fencing). Petty's car became airborne despite the use of the carburetor restrictor plate, which was mandated by NASCAR for races at Talladega Superspeedway and Daytona International Speedway just prior to the start of the 1988 season.

Career awards

Life after racing

Richard Petty is currently a spokesman for Cheerios and for GlaxoSmithKline products Nicorette and Goody's Headache Powder. He has also recorded public service announcements for Civitan International, a nonprofit organization in which he was formerly a member. He is almost always seen wearing his trademark sunglasses and a Charlie One Horse hat. In 1996, he was the Republican nominee for North Carolina Secretary of State, but was defeated by State Senator Elaine Marshall in the general election. A major factor in that defeat was his being charged with hit-and-run and reckless driving when he bumped a car from behind that he was trying to pass on I-85. However, it was later found out that the "bump" could not have happened because the mark was lower than where his bumper would have been. He was cast as "The King" in Pixar's 2006 animated film Cars as his 1970 Plymouth Superbird with the number "43". A cereal "43's" was created with Petty information on the boxes.

Legacy

Accessibility was his hallmark. In a sport, and a sports world, where big stars may not have the time to sign autographs or sign everybody's autograph, Petty made a point of staying until everybody got one. His work on behalf of his sport and his accessibility to fans are seen as crucial elements of NASCAR's transformation from the dirt tracks of the 1950s to the superspeedways and multi-million dollar sponsorships of today.

Races won

Grand National/Winston Cup (200 career wins)

Teams

Movie appearances

  • In 2008 Richard Petty appeared as himself in the movie "Swing Vote." Driving in his famous blue #43 car. Letting Bud drive his car to Air Force One to meet the President.
  • Petty voiced The King in the 2006 Pixar animated movie Cars. His car, the Road Runner Superbird with distinctive "Petty" blue tint and number #43, is also the model for the car used in the movie. The King's crash at the end of the movie was also a re-creation of Petty's real-life Daytona 500 accident in 1988 with the exception that it was not caused by a deliberate crash as in the movie. The bit which Lightning McQueen assists him to the finish line is based on the 1976 incident, albeit by the pit crew. Petty's wife Lynda plays The King's wife, a station wagon, in the movie as well.
  • He appeared in the 1983 Burt Reynolds movie Stroker Ace.

Richard Petty appeared as himself in the 1972 video, a Victory Lane Production, released by Video Gems, distributed by United American Video in 1986, "43 - The Petty Story".

Richard Petty was briefly shown and mentioned at the beginning of the movie Days of Thunder

References

External links

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