LEVEL CROSS, N.C. – It’s been 25 years since the King of stock car racing climbed out of his race car for the last time and Richard Petty turns 80 years old this weekend.
Sunday, to be exact.
“It doesn’t really seem that long,” Petty told NASCAR.com recently during an interview and tour of the Petty Museum and compound. “What makes it … that I know it’s been a long time is when I look at the cars today and see what kind of cars we drove. You see the safety features that we didn’t have or how the cars were built.
“It’s a new era, a completely different race car. Still got a number on it, still got Goodyear tires on it or whatever, but the cars are so much different.”
His driving career began in 1958, shortly after his 21st birthday. It ended 35 years later, in 1992.
“The safety features are the things that I see that’s been the improvement the last 15-20 years,” he said. “It’s just unreal that some of us have survived with the equipment we had. … I think that’s where I see my 25-year separation.
In between all those years were wins and records and wins and plaques and wins and proclamations and injuries and still more wins. Two hundred wins in all, a record likely never to be matched. Only two other drivers have equaled his seven championships — Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson.
But Richard Petty is more than records, wins and championships and consecutive starts and career starts and just about any other record you can find in the record book.
Richard Petty is a living, breathing, walking, talking piece of Americana. He is stock car racing history in the flesh.
He is at the race track nearly every single weekend. If the No. 43 is competing, the King is likely somewhere nearby. Perched atop the hauler. Headed to a sponsor appearance. Waving at the Goodyear tire busters and nodding to the workers by the Sunoco gas pumps.
His continued at-track involvement dulled any desire to return to competition long ago.
“Driving the race car was my hobby,” Petty said. “I worked on the car, did promotions, hauled the cars to the track in a truck. You did what everybody else was doing at that time.
“The big thing was every Sunday or Saturday night I could get in that race car and I could be Richard Petty. Any other time I was just with the crowd. But (in the car) you’re an individual, doing your own thing; you try to run fast but if you don’t then you try to do the best you can.
“But you’re in that car and you just become part of the car. The hobby deal was that got me away from the telephone, all the bills I need to be paying, whatever it is. I can completely concentrate on nothing except what I want to do. That was the good part.”
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It was a family affair from the very beginning, with father Lee competing in the very first NASCAR-sanctioned “Strictly Stock” event in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1949. Strictly Stock was the forerunner to what’s known today as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. And a Petty has been involved every year since.
Lee Petty went on to become NASCAR’s first three-time champion. When he was injured in a crash at Daytona in 1961, an incident that eventually led to his retirement from driving, Richard was already beginning to carve out his own racing career.
Richard’s brother Maurice became the organization’s engine builder and cousin Dale Inman eventually became crew chief. The three Pettys, along with Inman, are members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
RELATED: Dale Inman through the years
“We’re probably the only team in the world that’s got the whole team in the Hall of Fame; that’s a big deal,” Richard Petty said proudly.
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In 1992, Petty was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George H.W. Bush.
After his opening remarks, Bush noted that “I’m going to keep this relatively short today because afterwards Richard Petty and I are going to take a few laps … in the No. 43.”
President Ronald Reagan gave the command to start the engines for the Firecracker 400 at Daytona in 1984 from aboard Air Force One while en route to Daytona.
Reagan attended the race and had dinner on the grounds with drivers and officials afterward. The date was July 4 and the race winner was Petty, who had just scored his 200th and final NASCAR victory.
Someone once asked Petty what it was like to meet the various Presidents.
“Just another day in the life of Richard Petty,” he quipped.
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To this day, Petty and Inman enjoy a close relationship, often poking fun at one another.
Inman likes to remind Petty that while Petty has seven championship rings, Inman has eight (he scored an eighth title as a crew chief with Terry Labonte in 1984). Petty likes to tell others that had it not be for Inman, the King might have won 400 races instead of “only” 200.
“I was spotting for him one year at Talladega,” Inman said, “and I clicked the radio and said ‘mic check.’ Nothing.
“Clicked it again. “Mic check. Richard, you got me?’
“Finally, I clicked it a third time and said, ‘Richard, you’re going to have to put a little more effort into it and click the button. I can’t see you nod your damn head when you’re over there on the backstretch.'”
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He’s spent much of his life traveling from one place to another but Richard Petty maintains close ties to his hometown. The fire station just up the road from the Petty compound is Station No. 43, a nod to the legendary racer.
He and his family’s contributions to the community have been consistent throughout the years, unfailing but often out of the spotlight.
“The fire department, well we’ve got houses and businesses,” Petty says. “The schools – my wife was on the school board for 16 years and we had kids that went to the Randleman High School. …
“You get requests from people all over the world and all over the United States … and I guess my deal is charity begins at home. These people are the ones that I live with, they work with us, we go to church together, whatever it may be. If you’re going to help out in society I feel like you should do it as close to home as you can.”
That includes Victory Junction Gang Camp in Randleman, a summer camp for kids with various medical conditions. The camp was the idea of Adam Petty, Richard’s grandson, and was carried on by the family following Adam’s death on the race track in 2000.
“We do a lot of stuff with Victory Junction; that’s been a big, big portion of what we do,” Petty said. “(It) has become part of the Level Cross/Randleman community. Everybody I think is pretty proud they’ve got something like that in our area.”
RELATED: Take a tour of Victory Junction
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How would a 21-year-old Petty fare on the race track today?
“You know, if Richard Petty came along in this generation, he would be OK,” Petty said. “But you couldn’t take Richard Petty from 40 years ago, stick him in one of these cars and expect him to perform the way he did with the cars he had at that particular time.
“And it’d be the same way as taking the guys today and putting them back in a 25-, 30-year-old car. It’s completely different and they’d have to learn all over again.”
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The tall, lanky figure in the cowboy hat and sunglasses and oversized belt buckle still stands out when walking through the garage. He continues to draw a crowd, fans rushing forward, seeking the unmistakable autograph or a photo, whether it’s at the race track or somewhere else. Anywhere else.
“We went off to England, up to Scotland,” he said, “and I didn’t wear my cowboy hat. I bought one of the Scottish wool hats. We were standing there at some castle … and three or four people came up and got my autograph.”
It isn’t a complaint. It’s simply the way it’s been for most of his life.
“It wasn’t a deal where … nobody knew me and all of a sudden you were thrown in the limelight,” he said. “All my stuff has come a little at a time and as it did you accept it as the way things are going to be so you just go along with it.”
He stopped racing years ago. He just didn’t stop being Richard Petty.
He’s turning 80 and he hasn’t raced a car in 25 years but Richard Petty is still very much the King.