Garage Series: Before there were palaces
July 02, 2013, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
First in a series: NASCAR.com traces the evolution of race shops throughout the years. On Richard Petty's 76th birthday, we look back at the foundation laid for a NASCAR dynasty at Petty Enterprises.
LEVEL CROSS, N.C. -- Nothing about the room seems remarkable.
No more than 800 square feet, it is fashioned out of block and wood and cement with an occasional strand of wiring exposed here and there.
Situated beneath a low ceiling, the room feels surprisingly small. It is small.
Outside, the sun shines and the wind stirs and the final few brown remnants of last year's leaves swirl across the parking lot.
Inside, the cement floor is still cool to the touch on this early March morning.
And then you see it. Scratched into the hard surface of the floor near the entrance.
Suddenly, everything about the room seems remarkable.
History lives here.
• • •
“It was just a reaper shed,” explains Richard Petty, “with cedar poles holding the tin roof up; just an open building when they put the first race car in there. That’s all it was.”
Petty’s father, Lee, had discovered stock car racing. And soon after, walls went up around the shed.
And a couple of teenage brothers named Richard and Maurice were learning a new trade: How to mix and pour cement. The father and brothers are now members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
“We mixed it in a wheel barrow,” Richard Petty says. “We’d wheel it in and pour it out. And when one of us was pouring it, the other would run back out and be mixing it.”
The result of their effort is no less obvious more than 60 years later, with “a patch here, a patch there, another one over here,” he says.
“But, it beat the fire out of dirt. You could lay there on it and it was really nice.”
By the early 1950s Petty Engineering, the forerunner to Petty Enterprises, was underway. On a somewhat less-than-level cement floor in the unincorporated area known as Level Cross, N.C.
• • •
Racing was already a passion and a pastime for many long before there were race shops.
And there were race shops long before there was NASCAR.
The dapper Atlanta businessman Raymond Parks was fielding pristine entries out of a local garage long before stock car racing came to mean NASCAR racing.
Cotton Owens was building and racing winning Modified machines out of the Spartanburg, S.C., area years before NASCAR became an incorporated entity.
But the purpose-specific structures became a staple once stock-car racing took hold.
And just like everything else in the sport, they evolved.
From dirt floors to Italian marble tiles.
From wood and tin structures heated with 55-gallon drums of kerosene-soaked rags to climate-controlled structures spanning hundreds of thousands of square feet.
It isn’t as if they are no longer places where race cars are built and maintained. Work still goes on behind the curtain. The pursuit of speed is still the goal.
But the race shops of today might include viewing areas for fans, gift shops and museums and workout facilities and, yes, even the occasional theater.
“It used to be, when a sponsor gave you money, what did they give you that money for?” asks Kyle Petty, son of Richard and grandson of Lee Petty. “They gave you that money for the race car. To take a race car and go to the race track.
“Then it got to be show. Then you had to have a fancy shop because when that sponsor came in with all their bigwigs, they wanted a palace … they didn’t want you working out of a ‘shop.’
“It quit being a race shop just totally. The shop just became part of the circus, and they wanted a better tent.”
Crew chief and cousin Dale Inman makes a point to Richard Petty in the Petty Enterprises shop, circa 1986. Both men are members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Daddy didn’t like to pay taxes,” Richard Petty says of his father Lee. “So he invested the money from racing back into the business.”
It was a wise move. Cars built and maintained here helped propel drivers to 10 NASCAR championships and more than 250 wins. Lee Petty became the sport’s first three-time champ; Richard the first, and one of only two drivers, to win seven titles.
With success came expansion. Additions were made and new buildings rose up, 16 in all before the growth finally came to an end.
“It was sort of like a farmer,” Petty says. “You plow this field and the next year you need a bigger field so you just went over and cleaned the woods out and made another field. Every time we needed something, or tried to expand the business, we built another building.”
Roughly two-thirds of the teams of the day “were all doing the same thing, with the same thing,” Petty says. “When you go back that far … most of us got started in our own backyards.
“The deal then was the competition didn’t have anything better than we had. But you weren’t worried about that. All you worried about was what you had, so you could go and do as good as you could.”
Carl Kiekhaefer was the exception in the sport’s early days. The Mercury Marine founder had deep pockets and in 1955-56 fielded one of the first multi-car organizations in NASCAR.
Kiekhaefer’s cars were the first to be transported to the track in the back of enclosed trucks, the teams had ample supplies of tires and wheels, and research and development -- something unheard of at the time -- was carried out at the company’s research facility in Oshkosh, Wis.
(Charles Strang was Kiekhaefer’s chief engineer at Mercury Marine. Strang would later serve as NASCAR’s national commissioner.)
During his two-year stay in the sport, Kiekhaefer’s teams won two championships (with Tim Flock and Buck Baker) and 52 races.
• • •
The sign out front now reads ‘Petty’s Garage,’ and a handful of employees can still be seen drifting in and out of the plain white buildings.
But the pursuit of speed and victory has moved elsewhere.
Much like the majority of race teams competing in NASCAR, Richard Petty Motorsports, the latest installment of the Petty racing organization, operates within the NASCAR hub of Charlotte these days.
Here, competition has given way to restoration.
“As long as they can bring in enough money, enough business to pay the bills and everything, we’ll keep doing it,” Petty says of the legendary shop.
“We’ve had a little bit of everything; there’s a T Model (Ford) out here, a couple of race cars are being redone. There’s a ’51 Hudson over there that’s getting a Chrysler hemi put in it.”
One of the cars is the winning 1970 Daytona 500 Plymouth driven by Petty’s teammate, Pete Hamilton. The car is currently “owned by a guy in Florida,” according to Petty.
“These people find stuff somewhere and bring it here,” he says. “We put it back together for them and make it as authentic as we can. Somebody’s always wanting something, and we’ve got the talent and the machinery to do it.”
Richard Petty poses with the No. 43 in the Petty Enterprises shop, circa 1978.
The floors tell the story. To trace the growth of the most successful family in stock-car racing, one only has to look down. Lee Petty, patriarch of the Petty clan, left a lasting impression.
“We’d be working with the cement guys and say, ‘Man that really looks good,’ ” Richard Petty says. “We’d leave to go eat supper or something like that and he’d stay late. He’d wait until we would leave and then he would put his name in it.
“He had LP, and then there are some that you will see that say ALP (for After Lee Petty). They just kept doing it because that’s what he’d always done.”
The home place still sits next door and a few farms still dot the countryside here in this corner of Randolph County. It’s two miles out to the U.S. Route 220 Bypass and an eight-mile stretch of road named in Richard Petty’s honor.
“When Daddy started, most of the people up here worked in the mill and farmed, too,” Petty says. "Where these houses are now used to be big farms.
“Instead of going into the farming business, we grew a race car in the backyard.”
NASCAR.com writer Kenny Bruce is the president of the National Motorsports Press Association. For more of the Garage Series return to the Mobil 1 Technology Hub in the coming weeks.