Eldest son continues Maurice Petty’s legacy
June 13, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
The connection through time hit Timmy Petty the fullest when he was, of all things, balancing a crank shaft. It was a restoration project of the kind the Earnhardt Childress Racing Engines specialist does often on weekday evenings or Sunday afternoons at his shop in Level Cross, N.C., although this crank shaft in particular was special -- it had come out of a Plymouth Superbird that Pete Hamilton used to win the Daytona 500 for Petty Enterprises in 1970.
As he looked over the holes, mounts and counterweights, he suddenly felt cold chills. Here he was, bringing back to life the very same piece his father Maurice Petty had built so many years ago, in the very same modest facility where the recently-elected NASCAR Hall of Fame member had done it, and using some of the very same tools. Timmy Petty was so affected by the moment, he had to call his wife and share the news.
“You know, 40 years ago my dad was doing the same thing with this crank shaft,” said Timmy, the oldest of Maurice’s three sons. “It really kind of enlightened me a little bit, how cool that was.”
The Petty family’s racing operations may have changed names and relocated down to greater Charlotte, and the engine-building company known as Maurice Petty and Associates may have closed down years ago, but on certain days, there’s still life back in the shop that powered Richard Petty to so many of his victories. Maurice Petty’s legacy will live on in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, where he will slip on his membership jacket and be formally inducted on Jan. 29. But a large part of it still hums along with the dynamometer in the original Petty Enterprises building, where his eldest son continues his father’s work.
The operation has a new name now -- Timmy calls it Moonshine Speed Shop, since he does so much of the work at night, when he’s not traveling as an engine tuner on the No. 2 Nationwide Series team of driver Brian Scott. Another project involved a replica of his uncle Richard Petty’s Daytona 500 winner from 1964. Occasionally Timmy will run across a dual oil pump or another part so obscure, he’ll need his father’s help. At the moment he’s restoring a Hemi engine, which is the kind of thing sure to lure his dad back over to the shop.
“Anytime it has to do with a Chrysler Hemi, he is dead into it,” Timmy said. “I’ve worked on Ford flatheads for people, Chevrolet stuff. But the Hemi always puts a gleam in his eye. And some of the pictures I’ve seen of him and my uncle Richard in the past couple of weeks since the (Hall of Fame) announcement, I’ve seen something in him I haven’t seen in years, and it’s really a special moment.”
"I got a lot of good work habits from Lee. He pounded them into you, buddy. He stayed right on your ass all the time. So I sort of learned the hard way, so I figured they needed to learn the hard way. So it all real stems back to Mr. Lee on the work habits. And he was the one who really said, ‘If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.’ So I just passed it on."
Maurice clearly passed that passion down to his sons, something that can be seen in a photograph of a very young Timmy with brothers Mark and Ritchie, all decked out in red and blue STP uniforms identical to the one worn by their father. “Wasn’t three little guys any more proud,” he remembers. Today Timmy is 50, but the connection is still as strong as ever, evidenced by how often he makes the 40-mile trek from the Richard Childress Racing complex over to the Petty homestead, where he’ll perhaps have supper with his parents and then labor over restorations that are more love than they are work.
“He’s always been top of the line showing interest in doing different things, piddling with stuff. He’s real good,” Maurice Petty said. “He had a good teacher -- his momma.”
Clearly, though, dad had something to do with it. After all, Timmy works in the same room Maurice once did, the one in the back of the low-slung building that has Lee Petty’s initials scratched in the concrete out front. In some cases, he’s using the same equipment from the early 1960s. His grandfather Lee often worked in the shop with a pipe clenched between his teeth, a little Sir Walter Raleigh burning within the bowl. Timmy doesn’t smoke, but he keeps a pipe in the shop, and every now and then, he’ll light it so the smells of tobacco and oil mix together to make it feel that much more like home.
He’s worked in the industry essentially since he was 15 years old, going on the road with his father to Michigan right after he completed his final season of Pony League baseball. But Timmy’s travels on the NASCAR circuit began well before that, when he was just a kid on summer vacation, and he went everywhere the calendar allowed him to go. He remembers road trips, picnic lunches, his first job in racing: “Making sure the cooler was clean,” he said. He hung out with the Pearson and Allison and Wood kids, watching their fathers through the garage fence because minors weren’t allowed in back then, horsing around on high banks after races had ended.
Along the way they’d stop at Gettysburg or the Shenandoah Valley, and Timmy began to develop an appreciation for history -- particularly living history at places like Old Salem or Jamestown, where the old traditions were still maintained. And perhaps in a way, that’s what he was doing when he opened his own speed shop in the same place where his father Maurice once operated his. Timmy makes a little money off it, but not much. Regardless, this isn’t about profit. It’s about keeping alive the old traditions, about doing it the same way his dad and uncle and grandfather did, about maintaining those senses of pride, family, and history, mixing together like the aromas of oil and pipe smoke.
“My brothers, they come over and look at some of the stuff we’ve got, and they say, ‘You’re working out of a museum.’ Some of it’s definitely museum-quality stuff,” Timmy said. “But I like to keep it going. It’s my dad and my grandfather and uncle, something we’ve all been a part of. I guess it’s kind of selfish of me to do that, but I do like continuing our family’s heritage and traditions. That’s part of the reason why I do it.”
They tried to warn him -- the work would be exhausting, the travel would be relentless, he’d go hours without seeing his bed and days without seeing his family. NASCAR has never been an industry for the meek, and that was never more the case than before the age of private aircraft and personal motorhomes. Timmy Petty was 15 when he decided that he wanted the sport of his father, uncle and grandfather to be his as well. Lee and Maurice both tried to talk him out of it.
It only emboldened him more. “They tried to say, ‘Well, are you sure you don’t want to do something else with your life?’” Timmy remembered. “I know my grandfather, on both sides of my family, said, ‘Are you sure?’ They wanted to explain some of the hardships, what some of the strains on your family would be. And it is.”
Maurice wanted him to go to college. “This is hard work if you put your soul and mind into it,” he said. “Me and his momma both, all our children, we laid the deal out -- they could do this, they could do that. And it seemed like all of them wanted to be in racing, wanted to be around racing.”
So rather than go to Hawaii with his mother and brothers, he went to Michigan in the summer of 1978 for Petty Enterprises’ first race after switching mid-season from Dodge to Chevrolet. The King was in the midst of what would become his first winless campaign in 18 years, but to his nephew, it was all an indoctrination. There was no tinkering with the engine back then, just cleanup work and carrying things around. “If they needed anything hauled somewhere, I’d go,” he said.
That took on new meaning the next week when he got his driver’s license. He couldn’t understand why his father was smiling so much when he took him to the motor vehicle office over in Randleman -- “He was just grinning,” Timmy remembered -- until directly afterward, when Maurice charged his eldest son with driving the whole family down to Daytona that same evening for the summertime 400-miler.
Back then, though, that’s the way it was. Timmy can remember many Sundays at places like Pocono or Michigan, when they’d be up before dawn to be in the garage by 7 a.m., and then pack up and drive home overnight after the race. It would be 9 on Monday morning before they finally pulled into Level Cross, and Maurice would climb out of the truck, wash his face, and then head straight to the shop to go back to work.
“Later on, I got to experience some of that, too,” Timmy said. “And it took really living that to appreciate what all of them were doing.”
It was the machining of the engine parts, though, that he took to the most. Back then vendors weren’t nearly as prevalent as they are now, so teams milled many of their own pieces. There was something about that process that drew in Timmy Petty; no surprise given that one day he would come to love the smell of cast iron being cut off an engine block. He went to machinists’ school, and before long he was an engine man just like his father, fully vested in the family trade.
Timmy Petty helps induct his grandfather, Lee, into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2011.
It didn’t come easy -- while his father and grandfather had always seemed naturals at it, Timmy remembered, he struggled at first. This at a time when the Petty organization was among the best in NASCAR, with a high level of expectation and a low margin for error. “They definitely told you if you were doing something wrong,” he said. At the Petty shop the commitment to excellence was uncompromising, all of it beginning with a resolute work ethic handed down from the family’s patriarch.
“I got a lot of good work habits from Lee. He pounded them into you, buddy,” Maurice said. “He stayed right on your ass all the time. So I sort of learned the hard way, so I figured they needed to learn the hard way. So it all real stems back to Mr. Lee on the work habits. And he was the one who really said, ‘If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.’ So I just passed it on.”
The No. 43 car may have shown speed and flair and featured a driver who smiled for every camera and signed every autograph, but back in the engine shop the school of hard knocks was in session. “It’s either, you do it right, or you don’t do it at all. That’s how simple it was,” Maurice recalled. “… It’s like I told them, ‘I’ll show you one time. You make a mistake, I’ll give you a second chance. But the third chance, you’re out of here.’”
And yet, beneath it all was a process. “He taught me to use my five senses -- to smell it, taste it, breathe it, and just feel it,” Timmy said. “My dad has a natural ability to immerse himself, and he gets real passionate, and I do too. I feel like I do the same thing. He uses all his senses, and he’s very in tune with that, and taught me to be the same way kind of in a roundabout way. It wasn’t like he just drew you a map on how to get there. He led by example. … One of the things my dad instilled in me was a tremendous work ethic I still use today.”
Timmy Petty performs his duty as an engine tuner on the No. 2 NASCAR Nationwide Series team for Richard Childress Racing and driver Brian Scott (Harold Hinson).
He uses it to help Scott try and win races on the Nationwide Series, and in the little speed shop he inhabits on so many nights and Sunday afternoons. In both cases, he’s carrying on a family legacy. Timmy has worked in the Sprint Cup Series, was part of the Paul Menard team at RCR that won the Brickyard 400 two seasons ago. But not even professional heights like that can provide quite the sense of satisfaction he gets when he’s in his dad’s old shop, surrounded by his dad’s old tools, restoring old engines employing the same old techniques his dad used to build them.
“It’s definitely a pride thing knowing they did it, and how good they were at their craft, and me carrying it on. It’s definitely a sense of pride,” Timmy said. “I’m happy about going to work every day, because I’m at least carrying on a tradition to some degree. Even though I’m not in the family business anymore, I don’t know if that matters in the grand scheme of things.”
Maurice Petty works on a dynamometer at his Maurice Petty and Associates shop, which son Timmy has rechristened Moonshine Speed Shop as he keeps alive the family legacy.
The Petty way
The family business came to an end about a decade ago, when Maurice Petty and Associates fell victim to a flagging economy. In the early 2000s, the company was still providing some engines to a few Truck Series outfits and short-track teams, but as a small company -- involved in racing, no less -- it felt the downturn sooner than others. It took about six months for the venture to be shut down.
“Momma closed the pocketbook,” Maurice said. “The difficult thing was getting the money to stay afloat, and it just didn’t come around. But I was the type that was more interested in working than I was doing any P.R. I guess my shortfall was not being able to get out there and run my mouth and get sponsorship and stuff like that, make promises you can’t fulfill.”
His three sons suddenly needed to find work elsewhere. They had always lived for racing -- running some late model cars for which they built their own engines, even fielding Ritchie Petty in a handful of ARCA and NASCAR national-series events in the early 1990s. Ritchie would go on to manage his father’s property, Mark to work as a chassis specialist for the Red Horse Racing team in the Camping World Truck Series, Timmy to build engines over at RCR.
Maurice Petty is surrounded by his sons at his induction into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2011.
But he could never completely leave behind his father’s old shop, where at first he found himself at night finishing up work for the company’s last few remaining customers. A few nights became weekends and more nights. Within a year he had started up the Moonshine Speed Shop, occasionally working on the engine end of restoration projects associated with Petty’s Garage, a high-performance shop Richard Petty started in the old Petty Enterprises facility in 2008.
These are no quick fixes. They are often painstaking projects that take time -- and to Timmy, bring back memories. “When I do those things, I keep in mind and remember the guys who worked for my dad,” he said, “and try to put it all in perspective.”
Less a sentimentalist, Maurice sees Timmy’s extracurricular work as not necessarily an extension of the family tradition, but proof that his sons continue to do things the way they were taught. “All the boys, I told them, if it ain’t worth doing, don’t do it, period. I tried to inherit that into them by the time they were little fellers to now,” he said. “Even now, I try to remind them of that every once in a while, but I don’t have to. But I’m really proud of them all.”
And yet, the connections are impossible to miss. Maurice said much of the equipment operated over the years by Maurice Petty and Associates was left there when the company shut down, so he told Timmy to used whatever he needed. There are some pieces that date back to when Richard Petty was just beginning to win races on NASCAR’s top circuit. Others are more modern, like the computer attached to the dyno. “I don’t know how to work that damn computer,” Maurice told his boys when it was first installed. “But if I want to know something, I will come and ask y’all.”
These days Maurice’s mobility is limited -- he suffered polio as a child, which has led to some health issues later in life -- so he says he doesn’t get over to the old shop very often. But don’t be fooled, Timmy says. His dad still loves it, still watches the races, is still engaged with his sons who have their own roots in the industry. “He asks me about certain parts of the race like it was 20 years ago, or 30 years ago,” Timmy said. “He’s just that involved still to this day with what me and my brother do. It’s just a pleasure to have.”
Meanwhile there’s the work, like the restoration of the engine from Hamilton’s Daytona 500 winner, which is privately owned. Timmy has two children, 26-year-old son Ory and 23-year-old daughter Ashlynn, and he started the Moonshine Speed Shop in part to help fund their college educations. They’re both off forging their own life paths now, but it’s not unusual for them to tinker in the shop with their dad, taking in the smell of oil and grease and cleaners -- and maybe even a little Sir Walter Raleigh wafting from a pipe.
After all, this stuff is in their blood. Just as it’s a passion to their father, who spends his free time continuing the family tradition by working on old engines with old equipment in an old shop, the way Maurice and Lee taught him. The right way. The only way. The Petty way.
“To allow me the opportunity to do what I do, and still work on the Level Cross property, and do it with my dad and grandfather’s stuff -- it’s an honor,” Timmy said. “That’s the only way I can put it.”