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Charlotte: close to the heart

Richard Petty, stock car racing's winningest driver, will retire after this season. He'll run in his last race Sunday in the Mello Yello 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. In this column, Petty reflects on his career and the changes at Charlotte over the past three decades.

I'll run my final race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday, and that's a good place to point to when you look at my career.

When I competed in the first race ever at Charlotte, in 1960, it had to be the junkiest speedway you'd ever seen. The construction workers were still putting the final touches on the track when we went out for practice. And the paving job hadn't cured, so we tore up the pavement in big chunks.

But now, Charlotte is the finest racing facility in the world. When I climb out of the STP Pontiac after my final lap at Charlotte, I'll head up to my condominium that overlooks Turn 1 and join my wife, Lynda, and the rest of my family.

If you had told me that there would be condos sitting outside Turn 1 when I first rolled into Charlotte, I'd have thought you were a candidate for a mental institution.

At the same time, if you had told me back then that I would win 200 races and seven Winston Cup championships, and met with presidents and fans around the world, I might have laced up that straitjacket for you.

The sport has taken off to heights that even the most optimistic person couldn't conceive.

This year, I've been on my "Fan Appreciation Tour." We've met literally hundreds of thousands of fans all over the country. But to me, that only seems appropriate. The fans made Richard Petty.

The people at STP recently did some figuring and developed a formula to determine how many autographs I've signed in my career. Based on what they've figured, I'll sign the 1-millionth autograph of my career during this week. I never really thought about it before and I'm glad. I probably would have wound up with writer's cramp.

Through the years, Charlotte has meant so much to me. I ran in that first race and Buddy Baker is the only other active driver able to claim that feat. I've had some real heartbreaks there during the years, coming close to winning, but it seems something always gets in the way. I called it my Charlotte jinx.

But I was fortunate to win the 600-mile race twice and the 500-mile race twice.

It also has been the site of some of my worst racing memories. In 1986, I was practicing for the 600-mile race and I hit the wall hard in Turn 3. The car finally came to a stop on pit row and I was knocked out cold. It was one of the toughest licks I've ever taken. And, of course, there was the controversy over my win in the 1984 500-mile race when I had a big motor.

But I like Charlotte and it's been good to me.

But it's the fans that have been the best. It's great to have this opportunity to simply say, thanks. Despite the ups and downs, the fans have always been there.

For Richard Petty, it's been a great ride.