News & Media

Caraviello: At 75, Richard Petty remains King

July 03, 2012, David Caraviello,

Legendary driver of the No. 43 set standards for excellence on and off the track

No one commands such attention simply by walking into a room. It's not just the hat, with those ostrich feathers emanating from a bauble centered above the brim. It's not just the sunglasses, which tend to reflect the bustle around him. It's not just his height, that 6-foot-2 frame which stands out notably in an era where drivers tend to be much shorter. It's not just the power of 200 race victories and seven premier-division championships, as much a part of the man as his chambray blue shirts.

"I don't think it's even just the stats, it's the impact that he made. As a kid, I didn't even watch NASCAR races ... but I knew who Richard Petty was. That's the kind of impact that he's made on people's lives. "


It's the total package, from the tip of his Stetson to the toe of his cowboy boots, usually with sleeves rolled up and a smile on his face and one hand wielding a Sharpie signing something for someone. Richard Petty turned 75 on Monday, but in many ways he's become timeless, an icon whose profile or silhouette is as synonymous with NASCAR as the sport's color-bar logo. The race team that bears his name has endured its ups and downs, to be certain, but Petty doesn't need to be associated with race cars to remain relevant. He achieves that simply by showing up. Age has not dampened the fact that he is still the King, the sport's foremost ambassador, a role model for younger competitors now as much as ever.

He still matters, a fact driven home with authority over Memorial Day weekend when the No. 43 he piloted all those years won the pole for the 600-miler at Charlotte. It was nothing more than a starting spot, but the memories and the good feelings that flowed forth at the sight of that number at the top of the scoring tower were palpable and genuine, and only a fraction of what we'd witness should that vehicle return to Victory Lane. There's something about Petty that strikes a chord with people, young and old, veteran fans and new ones, those who saw him race and those who only know him as he is now. The legacy, the dignity and class and grace, the willingness to sign something, or pose for a photo -- it transcends ages and generations, making Petty very much all things to all people, even if he's only being himself.

"I think Richard is an influence on all of us. What he accomplished in the sport will never be done again," said four-time series champion Jeff Gordon, who in the fall of 1992 ran his first Cup event at Atlanta on the same day Petty ran his last.

"I don't think it's even just the stats, it's the impact that he made. He's probably still, to this day, one of the most recognizable individuals in the garage area. As a kid, I didn't even watch NASCAR races. I watched IndyCar races, but I knew who Richard Petty was. That's the kind of impact that he's made on people's lives. When I came into this sport, to see his popularity and see how he handled himself with the fans definitely was a great positive influence on me. I actually did an interview last [month] talking about my first race, which was his last race, and just watching him work the crowd, going through the garage area, and I've never seen swarms of people. [Dale Earnhardt Jr.] is popular, but Richard on that last race, he had so many people around him and he was so gracious and handled himself so well that to me was a great example of how to handle yourself with the fans and on your last race."

It's been almost 20 years since Petty last stepped out of a race car, but that rather lengthy span of time hasn't diminished his presence in the sport. He's still very often there in the garage area, as approachable as ever. When he's not traveling or in Concord, N.C., at the Richard Petty Motorsports shop -- where competition director Sammy Johns runs day-to-day activities -- he's usually back on the homestead in Level Cross, where the old Petty Enterprises building has been converted into an endeavor called Petty's Garage. It's still the same old shop, with Lee Petty's initials scratched into the concrete outside, but now it's home to a business that restores old cars or builds street Mustangs or Dodges with that distinct Petty flair. The King, of course, is a daily presence.

Down in Concord, his race team is showing signs of renewed competitiveness. Aric Almirola may be suffering through ups and down during his first full campaign on the Sprint Cup circuit, but Marcos Ambrose has won two poles and finished 13th or better in each of his last five starts. Those gains may be modest, but they're also blessedly stable for a franchise that's endured too much upheaval in recent years, from tumultuous ownership changes to driver turnover to a crippling financial crisis. Richard Petty's cars may not win with nearly the frequency they once did -- Ambrose's victory last year at Watkins Glen was the first under a Petty name since 2009 -- but at the very least, over the past two seasons the organization has managed to rediscover its footing.

Richard Petty

Career Statistics

Surely in that regard, being associated with the King -- who has become something of a mentor to the young drivers his team has featured in recent seasons -- certainly helps. But Petty hasn't always held such a regal title. Monday marks his 75th birthday, while next week is the 54th anniversary of Petty's first NASCAR race, a convertible event in Columbia, S.C. Back then NASCAR set an age limit of 21, and on the day he met that requirement, Richard presented himself to his no-nonsense father Lee and declared himself ready to race. No matter that he had never competed on a track before. Lee pointed to a car in a corner of the Petty Enterprises shop, and told his son to cut the roof off it. Richard, crew chief Dale Inman, and engine man Red Miler jumped in a truck and headed south, and an iconic career was born.

Of course, it certainly didn't seem that way at the time. There was no cowboy hat, no cowboy boots, no STP on the side of the car. Petty -- who started wearing the cowboy hat because he had so many sponsors, he didn't want to offend anyone by wearing the wrong logo at the wrong time -- wore a ball cap and a pair of chopped-off Wellington boots. He kept a damp rag in his mouth to guard against the dust. The team even had the great Joe Weatherly on standby as a relief driver, just in case, since Petty had never competed before. If you want out of the car, Inman told Petty, pat the top of your head. Soon enough, Richard was pawing at his helmet. Weatherly suited up. Petty kept circling the track. Turned out he just had an itch.

Did he ever. Petty finished sixth that night in Columbia, and six days later made his first big-league start in Toronto. It took two years for the first victory, which came at Charlotte in 1960, but after that the floodgates opened and the triumphs poured fourth in a torrent -- eight wins, nine wins, 14 wins, 27 wins. He was smart, he was calculated, he was quotable, he was marketable. Little wonder it was Richard Petty who struck the first national sponsorship deal, with Andy Granatelli and STP. Little wonder it was Richard Petty who reporters flocked to after a race, whether he had won or not. He signed autographs by the dozens, by the hundreds, viewing each one as a small thank you to someone who had bought a ticket to watch him compete.

Much has changed in the time since. STP has cut back to a much more limited role, the No. 43 car hasn't won since John Andretti's triumph at Martinsville in 1999, the Petty team doesn't enjoy the advantage in funding and sponsorship it once did. But Richard Petty is still the same -- still grateful, still accessible, still the standard for all drivers who have followed him. And, even at 75, still the King.