IT'S MINUTES BEFORE THE ACTION AT THE North Carolina Motor Speedway, near Rockingham, and down in the pits, driver No. 43 is looking deeply cool. As always. Not so nearby, track rats Faye Helms and Joe McKenzie are casting excited glances as they jockey for the position of biggest fan. Mckenzie, citing a motor-home plate that reads #l-43-FAN, claims (he lead, but Helms isn't yielding. Countering with a LUVARACE tag plus a full basement of No. 43 memorabilia, she announces herself top maniac.
The other 62,300 faithful who've gathered here for the third-to-last race of stock car great Richard Petty's yearlong Fan Appreciation Tour would beg to differ.
"He is the man!" a young woman shrieks. But in nickname and fact, Richard Petty has reigned for three decades as the king. He's the force that drove a regional obsession to national prominence, the Muhammad Ali of mach-racing.
Petty drove his first race at age 21. "I'd never practiced, but they told me to go out and run," he says. "When the race was over, I said, 'This is what I want to do.' " He was a legend long before he blasted to his record 200th NASCAR win in 1984 (next best is 105, set by rival David Pearson, now retired). But having broken some two dozen bones, he'd be the first to observe he's also merely mortal. He may be 6'2" but, he adds, "I started off probably taller than that."
So at 55, and 75 percent deaf from years of thunder, Petty is retiring. He'll race his last on Nov. 15. The night before, the full-throttle community, including son Kyle, 32, a third-generation driver (Richard's father, Lee, also raced stock cars), will toss him a blowout, musically speaking, with Alabama headlining a three-hour goodbye to be broadcast on the Nashville Network.
If Petty and country music go together, so do Petty and country living. He still resides in Level Cross, N.C., where he and wife Lynda, 50, the high school sweetheart he married 34 years ago, have raised four children (Kyle, Sharon, Lisa and Rebecca).
The last checkered flag will wave this Sunday, and then the King will be in his countinghouse at Petty Enterprises, overseeing sponsorship and marketing. "I'm not retiring," he says. "I'm just changing jobs."
Lynda has a slightly different reading. "When we go to Daytona Beach next February," she says, "and when that green flag drops and Richard Petty is standing in the pits, you might see a tear in his eye."
KATHERINE RUSSELL RICH
DON SIDER at Rockingham
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