09/02/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT
RICHARD PETTY PLUCKS A MEDAL from the massive trophy case lining the entry hall of his Randolph County, N.C, home. The driver known to fans as the King, for his 200 NASCAR races won over a storied 38-year career, studies it with pride. "This is one of our biggest deals here," he says. "Lynda," he calls out to his wife, "what is this one that President Bush gave us?" This one just happens to be the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, awarded to Petty in 1992 for his contributions to racing.
Petty, 58, brings that same inattention to detail to his current unlikely campaign for an unlikely job—secretary of state of his native North Carolina—which would be a demotion in the eyes of good ol' boys everywhere. He can't be bothered to bad-mouth his opponent. "I don't really care who the Democrat running is," declares Petty, who says he wants to use the office to "be a North Carolina PR man." Neither does he seem to know a great deal about the licensing and regulatory duties of the office he seeks—other than that the previous secretary resigned after an audit had showed misuse of state funds. "No, not really," he says when asked if he has specific ideas for the job. "I'd like to go in and look at the audit and stuff."
Petty, who counts among his qualifications 16 years as a county commissioner dealing with zoning disputes and tax rates, is no ordinary pol. But then, when you're a hero adored by every racing fan in the Tar Heel State and beyond, who needs extravagant political promises to draw voters to the polls? "He's like the Pied Piper," says Bill Cobey, Petty's campaign co-chair. "You walk down the street, and people just start coming out from everywhere to shake his hand, say hello and get his autograph." Nor does he need the money, considering that he already makes many times the secretary's annual salary of $87,000.
Petty, who never leaves home without a can of Skoal and a couple of felt-tip markers ("I carry my own, so I know they work"), is only too happy to oblige his fans. Once, he even autographed a live duck for admirers at the North Carolina State Fair. Still, polls show his robust early lead narrowing over his Democratic foe, former state senator Elaine Marshall, 50. One reason, critics claim, is that Petty has said he won't let the job interfere with his extensive business commitments or lucrative endorsements. "I've gotta make a living," says Petty. Ted Arrington, a political-science professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, says public office and endorsements don't mix: "I find the conflict of interest embarrassing."
But Petty has his own way of doing things. The oldest of two sons of Lee Petty, now 82, a Randelman, N.C., farmer and former racer himself, and his wife, Elizabeth, 79, Petty remembers his first turn at the wheel as a 6-year-old steering through hay fields. "They put the truck in low gear and it was my job to stand up in the seat and hold it straight," he says. Once he got the feel of the wheel, Petty never let go. A lanky speed demon who became known for his wraparound shades and cowboy hat, he entered his first stock-car race in Columbia, S.C, in 1958 and became the sport's most popular driver within four years.
Petty's private life revved up at about the same time. Always in a hurry, he eloped with then-17-year-old cheerleader Lynda Owens in 1959, bundling her into his car and driving across the border to be married in South Carolina, where the age requirements were lower. "We came back that same night, and he dropped me off at my parents and went home to his parents' house," says Lynda, explaining that they hadn't yet told their families. "There were no pictures or flowers or anything. He's not a romantic person."
Today, the Pettys live on the 500-acre wooded spread in Randelman, where they moved in 1975 with their four children—Kyle, now 35 and also a NASCAR driver; Sharon Farlow, 34; Lisa Luck, 31; and Rebecca Moffitt, 22. Kyle says his dad was always supportive but not always available: "I've seen Richard Petty sit up for hours signing autographs at the racetrack for his fans...and [later with us] be so tired he couldn't get out of bed."
Petty still professes that fierce attachment to his fans. But nothing, he says, pleases him more than playing with his nine grandkids, who all live within driving distance of Randelman. "I go home for a vacation," says Petty, who has made it clear that he would not move to the capital in Raleigh if he became secretary of state. "They still remember you there as a little kid, just one of the neighbors. I love that feeling. That's reality."
CHARLES FISHMAN in Randelman