Nobody in the immensely popular sport of stock car racing handles that turn better than Richard Petty, 39. In his 19-year career, Petty has driven in 726 races and won an astonishing 182 of them. In the World 600, he is aiming for 183. Petty—who is called "King Richard"—says, "In the long run I don't care about being known as a good driver, or the best driver, or the worst driver. All I want to be known as is the winner."
The race this year attracts more than 115,000 paying customers. They pour into the Charlotte, N.C. Motor Speedway parking lots and infield in pickup trucks, campers, Winnebagos and Air-streams. There is cold beer, oceans of cold beer, cold cuts and Miracle Whip for sandwiches. The temptation is to see these fans as caricatures, subjects for the pen of an artist like Ronald Searle. All red-necks? Not by a long shot. The President of the United States, for one, is a stock car enthusiast. They come from all parts of the nation, a great American brotherhood of the internal-combustion engine.
After two days of rain and worry about the weather, race day turns out fine and hot, the kind of Carolina day that was made for stock car racing. Elizabeth Taylor is the grand marshal. She and her husband, John Warner, roll around the track in a gold Cadillac convertible—just folks. Bands play, speeches are made. The swelling crowd waits, cheerfully impatient.
Then, finally, growling and snarling like angry dogs, the 40 cars form up for the start. They get the green flag at 12:30 p.m.
The depth of Petty's fame in the Southeastern United States is awe-inspiring. He is rated by many as the best racing driver in the world. (The versatile A.J. Foyt, who races Indy cars, stocks, midgets, sprints and practically anything else with wheels—and who recently won his fourth Indy 500—is Petty's only real competitor for that title.) Petty has logged more than 155,000 racing miles—he believes it's the world record. Much of that mileage has recently been chronicled in the kind of worshipful autobiography usually reserved for movie stars and rock celebrities. Published by Macmillan, it's called King of the Road.
Petty seems to fit perfectly into the frame Southerners like to place around their heroes. He is a good ole boy who doesn't put on airs. He has won the Daytona 500 five times and the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) championship six times, and yet his attitude toward fame is reassuring. "I never had the problem that a guy like Catfish Hunter had. Nothing like that was ever dumped on me all at once," he says, explaining that any success that has come his way traveled slowly. Petty doesn't get ahead of himself either on the track or in life. He takes it one race, one day, at a time.
With lifetime winnings of $2,646,598, he is hardly complaining about the financial side of his life. Though close-mouthed about arrangements with his STP sponsor, he says he needs to earn two or three times his winnings to keep the family business, Petty Enterprises, running. A workshop in a semi, which goes with him to the tracks, cost more than $100,000 to equip. He competes almost every week during NASCAR's 30-race season to keep himself and his crew sharp. After the considerable overhead is paid each year, Petty, his father and his brother divide what is left. "I make a good living," Petty says, "and I have some outside investments, but I'm no multimillionaire." The three Pettys run the business, but Richard is head honcho. "My daddy and my brother and me, we holler at each other a good bit, but we generally manage to agree sooner or later."
Petty Enterprises is located in Level Cross, N.C., a stoplight on a Route 220 road crossing about 15 miles south of Greensboro. Counting cousins, there are about 50 Petty relatives living in the area. "I grew up thinking that Level Cross must be the best place in the world," Richard says, "and nothing I've seen since has changed my mind." The Petty company occupies several buildings on the old home place, a shady expanse of greensward surrounding a large house built by Richard's grandfather. Lee and Elizabeth Petty, Richard's parents, still live there.
"Family" is the key word in this world—a cousin, Dale Inman, is Richard's crew chief, and brother Maurice builds the engines for the Petty cars. Other kin, both kissin' and more distant, fill out the Petty staff of 33.
A cousin, Brenda Williams, takes a visitor on a tour of the Petty complex. There is a feeling of visiting a shrine. Every year thousands of car buffs drop by. Many of them are young couples, some on wedding trips. They stand enthralled, gazing at the shelves filled with glittering trophies and other Petty memorabilia. If sufficiently aroused by it all, they can make a purchase of Petty-related merchandise: T-shirts, souvenir racing jackets, hats, books.
Within these buildings, the cars that Petty drives and sells are assembled from the ground up. Each costs $40,000. The technological sophistication of the shop is impressive. So is the friendliness of the people who work there.
At the end of the tour, Brenda points out a spanking new motorboat. "It's something Richard won somewheres. They're always giving him something. He lets any of us use it when we want to." Fringe benefit.
Richard Petty's father also raced cars for a living. Lee Petty, now 63, won the first Daytona 500 in 1959, was NASCAR champ three times and is still active in Petty Enterprises. "You got to remember," Richard says of his youth, "none of it was strange to me. My daddy was driving then, and at home they was always working on a car. Just like farm kids have their chores, I was expected to work on the cars after school." Richard spent eight months at a business school after high school graduation, but the race cars finally drew him back home. "I was a pretty good mechanic, and I thought that's what I'd be," he says, grinning. "Then I took a notion to do some driving myself. But my daddy, he made me wait till I was 21. That's when I broke in—in 1958."
Cale Yarborough, a friend and colleague of Petty's and winner of more than 46 NASCAR events, says, "Richard's a fine competitor. You always know he's gonna be coming on." Yarborough pauses to think. "Now, one thing—and this don't put no bad on Richard, you know—but people kind of forget Richard got a lot of those wins of his when he was running on them old short tracks." (There were many more races then, sometimes two or three a weekend.)
Stock car racing has, of course, changed drastically since Petty began. Before 1969, 40 races each year were run on short tracks, many of them dirt. Of the 30 events these days, only five are on the half-mile tracks, all modern, banked and paved.
Petty and his wife, Lynda, have built their own home a couple of miles down the road from his parents in Randleman (pop. 2,500), where Richard went to high school. He finished five years ahead of Lynda and they were married before she graduated. She once described their courtship: "Richard would pick me up for a date and half the time we'd just cruise around with no particular place to go until he saw a bunch of guys hanging around a gas station. He'd leave me in the car, and sometimes I'd sit there for an hour. It was humiliating!"
Today Lynda Petty is a bright, rather motherly lady with her head screwed on right. She and Richard have four children: Kyle, 17, Sharon, 16, Lisa, 12, and Rebecca, 4. She says of marriage and raising children, "You aren't going to be able to give love to your children unless you give it to each other." The whole family goes along to the races whenever possible, living in motels, picnicking at the tracks. Lynda is active in the Mount Lebanon Methodist Church, where she and her husband are members.
Richard sizes up their marriage with affection and insight. "Generally I'm home for three or four days at a time, and when it starts getting on Lynda's nerves to have me around, I'll be gone for three or four days at a race. If she's not with me, it makes me want to get home. If we were never apart we might go berserk."
At the World 600, Petty once again makes winning look easy. He starts next to the pole position and takes the lead after only a few laps. His 1974 Dodge (No. 43) runs beautifully.
The crew is cool and unworried, thorough professionals. During pit stops, Petty usually drinks milk. He has ulcers. He's also hard of hearing, an occupational hazard. Because of the intense heat in the cockpit, he wears a skullcap that circulates cool water over his head. He says it keeps him alert.
For the spectators, there is the noise, the color, the exhaust-polluted air to inhale and the blazing speeds. Most of all, there is the possibility that the afternoon will bring a spectacular accident. The cars run six inches apart, drivers jockeying for position, at more than 150 mph. Although Petty himself has survived some terrifying crashes (at Darlington in 1970 he flipped 12 times and dislocated a shoulder), fatalities on stock car tracks are rare. (The sturdy vehicle surrounds the driver, absorbing the shock of an accident, and he is strapped in and padded.) In 1975, however, Randy Owens, Lynda's brother and a member of Petty's pit crew, was killed when a faulty air-pressure tank exploded. The dangers are there. (Petty claims his only fear is of heights. "Why, I can't work on my roof without hanging onto the chimney.")
It is 4:51 at the Charlotte speedway when Petty gets the checkered flag. He has given up the lead only rarely during the afternoon, and at the finish he is running 31 seconds ahead of David Pearson, a friend and one of Petty's chief rivals for the last 18 years.
After Richard collects a kiss from Elizabeth Taylor, some silver hardware from the management and a magnum of champagne, a voice comes on the public-address system to announce Petty's winnings for the day: $69,300, a new record for a single race.
Petty loads his wife and children in the family Dodge van for the hour-and-a-half drive back home to Randleman. He talks about his trade. "I can't say as I concentrate all the time out there. Matter of fact, I set pretty easy most of the time. When you've been doing something as long as I've been doing this, your experience just lets you know whatever needs doing—and you do it."
Except for pit stops of severe brevity, the drivers in the World 600 stock car classic will be on the track for nearly five hours at temperatures up to 130°. It is a very long left turn.