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The golden reign of



50 years of Richard Petty

1 Won a record 200 races at NASCAR's highest level in 1,185 starts.

2 That figure would have been 201 if not for his parents. His father, Lee, a three-time champion and 54-race winner, protested his son's victory on June 14, 1959, at Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta, claiming Richard had run one lap too few. Lee Petty's scorer — his wife and Richard's mother, Elizabeth — discovered the error. Lee was credited with the victory, with Richard second.

3 Richard Petty's seven championships at NASCAR's top level are a record, tied by the late Dale Earnhardt.

4 Petty finished second in driver points a record six times.

5 Petty, born July 2, 1937, in Level Cross, N.C., made his NASCAR debut 50 years ago today by finishing sixth in a "convertible" race at Columbia (S.C.) Speedway. The 21-year-old earned $200 for finishing sixth in a '57 Chevrolet he retrofitted.

6 Petty made his Grand National (now Sprint Cup) debut six days later, crashing and finishing 17th in a 19-car field at Canadian Exposition Stadium, Toronto.

7 Petty won the first NASCAR race televised live nationally flag-to-flag, a Daytona 500 in 1979 credited with sparking national interest in the sport. But his coming from a lap down and in third place on the last lap to win had little to do with it. As Petty crossed the finish line, CBS producers cut away to a brawl between Cale Yarborough and Donnie and Bobby Allison. Donnie Allison and Yarborough, the leader and second-place driver, respectively, on the final lap, had wrecked each other on the backstretch and began tussling outside their cars.

8 Petty was the first NASCAR driver with a lifetime contract with a sponsor: STP.

9 Petty won a record seven Daytona 500s, the last in 1981.

10 Petty won the only NASCAR raced held in Tampa, Nov. 11, 1962 at Golden Gate Speedway. Zephyrhills' Buzzie Reutimann, father of current Sprint Cup driver David, finished 10th.

11Oversized black sunglasses, massive cowboy hats (often adorned with feathers) and a moustache have become his iconic image, but as a younger man Petty was clean-shaven and preferred baseball caps.

12Petty was the second generation of American major professional sports' only four-generation family. Son Kyle and grandson Adam raced at NASCAR's top level, but the family had little time to enjoy the moment after Adam qualified for his first Cup race, April 2, 2000 at Texas.

13 Adam Petty, who showed great promise and possessed the same gregarious, affable nature as his grandfather, was killed May 12, 2000, during a Nationwide series practice at Loudon, N.H. He was 19. Lee Petty had died on April 5 at age 86 several weeks after being hospitalized for a stomach aneurysm.

14 The small group of reporters who traveled the circuit in 1963, including George Cunningham, Benny Phillips and current NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter, coined both Petty's nickname and the "Silver Fox" for his foil, David Pearson. "I don't know what they would have done if my name was Joe," Petty said.

15 Pettyisms: "Know what I mean?" "Don't forget your raisin's" (as in, don't forget you roots), "Hey, buddy," "Keep it stirred up," often accompanied with a "hang, loose" thumb and pinkie gesture.

16 Petty and David Pearson were involved in one of the greatest finishes in the sport's history when they wrecked battling for the lead out of Turn 4 on the last lap of the 1976 Daytona 500. Both spun into the grass, Petty less than 200 feet from the finish line. Pearson, who hit the wall and slid onto the apron, restarted his car and drove through the grass to win as Petty was pushed to second place.

17 Petty has never been known to smoke or drink (nor accept alcohol sponsorship). But he chews tobacco.

18 In one of the most horrifying crashes in the televised era, Petty's No. 43 Pontiac went airborne out of Turn 4 in the 1988 Daytona 500, tumbling against the catch fence at least eight times before losing its front wheels and being plowed into by Brett Bodine. Petty raced the next weekend.

19 A dogged, vocal Republican, Petty is "close with the Bush bunch."

20 Petty's last career win therefore was especially memorable because Ronald Reagan — the first sitting president to visit a NASCAR race — greeted him in Victory Lane of the 1984 Firecracker (now Coke Zero) 400.

21 Petty has met six U.S. presidents beginning with Richard Nixon. He skipped Bill Clinton but compromised on Democrat Jimmy Carter.

22 Arguably the first modern race car driver not only because he did not work on his own equipment, but embraced his role in changing NASCAR's image from a rough-hewn collection of whiskey-runners to a legitimate sport. He was also the first driver to recognize and exploit the merchandising market.

23A portrait of Gen. Robert E. Lee hangs in his office.

24 The Pettys devised and mixed their own shade of light blue paint that became synonymous with their race cars.

25 Petty would often plop down on his pit box with a Coke and a pen after races and sign autographs until the line was gone. "Those are the people who put you where you're at," said Petty, who keeps several Sharpies in his jeans pockets.

26 He agreed to drive for new NASCAR owner Rick Hendrick in 1983, but STP squashed the deal.

27 Petty usually raced with a dampened shop rag in his mouth for moisture.

28 In the '60s, his uniform was often a white T-shirt and pants.

29 Though he says he appreciates what pioneer Janet Guthrie accomplished in racing, Petty has said he doesn't think women belong in NASCAR.

30 Became the first driver to earn $1-million in lifetime purses in 1971.

31Received the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the highest civilian honor bestowed — with Johnny Carson, Ella Fitzgerald, David Brinkley, Isaac Stern and I.M. Pei in 1992.

32 In 1996, Petty learned that bump-drafting and the slingshot are citable offenses away from Daytona and Talladega. He was charged with reckless driving and hit-and-run for bumping a car from behind on a highway, passing and driving off. He paid a $65 fine.

33 That same year he failed in a run for North Carolina secretary of state.

34 Petty won a record 27 races — including 10 consecutive — in 1967.

35 He shares the modern-era (1971-present) record for wins in a season (13) with Jeff Gordon. Petty did it in 1975.

36 Petty's last race was Nov. 15, 1992, at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Jeff Gordon, a future four-time champion, made his debut the same day. Petty was 55.

37 Petty Enterprises, which has not won since 1999 (John Andretti, Martinsville), recently sold a majority stake to private equity firm Boston Ventures to buttress its flagging operation.

38 Petty considered David Pearson, a three-time champion and second all time with 105 wins, his biggest competitor. "If you beat him, you pretty much had the rest of them covered," he said.

39 They did not consider themselves "rivals.''

Pearson: "We just run races. We hung around together. It ain't like it is today''

Petty: "He'd run and I'd run and we tried to beat each other, but as far as being obsessed with beating each other, if you talked to me and him, we never looked at it that way."

40 Really? Pearson, on he and Petty flying to a Daytona 500 50th anniversary media event on Mario Andretti's private plane last summer: "I beat him because I was sitting in front of him."

41 Petty was voted the sport's most popular driver nine times.

42 Thirty-five seasons, 200 wins, $8.5-million in purses; Kyle Busch, five seasons, 10 wins, $21.5-million.

43 Petty's legendary car number, the most successful in NASCAR history with 198 wins, 192 by Petty.

44 Petty won championships under five points systems.

45 Petty has appeared in eight motion pictures, voicing Strip "The King" Weathers in Cars and playing himself in the upcoming Swing Vote, helping a presidential candidate influence the vote of a good ol' boy whose ballot will decide the election. He also played himself in 43: The Richard Petty Story (1974) and had bit parts in Days of Thunder (1990), Stroker Ace (1983), Stockcar! (1977), Speedway (1968), Thunder in Dixie (1964).

46 Robbie Loomis, a title-winning crew chief with Jeff Gordon now in his second stint with Petty Enterprises (this time as an executive), said Petty prefers to "hammer you when you're up because that's when he can get through to you."

"We won in '96 at Phoenix with Bobby Hamilton. Huge deal for me, our first Cup win and I remember five minutes after we won he rubbed me on the head and said, 'Now, buddy, this is what I pay you for, not all them other weeks.' I'd worked for him since 1989," Loomis said, laughing. "It was like a dagger to the heart."

47 Petty's first win as a driver came Feb. 28, 1960, by six car lengths at Southern States Fairgrounds in Charlotte, N.C.

48 His motorcoach, which often tows a motorcycle, has marble floors and is decorated with American Indian art.

49 His victory May 13, 1967 at Darlington was his 55th, making him NASCAR's all-time wins leader, passing his father. He has held the mark ever since.

50 He therefore has been NASCAR's wins leader for 41 of its 59 years. Jeff Gordon, the active wins leader, would have to win at his current pace into his mid 50s to catch him. With that unlikely, Petty is "The King" for life.

50 years of Richard Petty 07/11/08 [Last modified: Friday, July 11, 2008 10:49pm]
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