NASCAR’s ‘King’: Richard Petty remains a man of the people


DOVER — There’s a “King” who wears a cowboy hat in place of a crown, along with trademark wraparound sunglasses.

His scepter is the steering wheel of his No. 43 race car, which he drove for 34 record-breaking years on the NASCAR circuit.

Throughout his career, Richard Petty became a goodwill ambassador for the sport and a hero to race fans across the country, as he whooshed his autograph until the last person in line had a wish fulfilled.

Add in some legendary driving, and that’s how Mr. Petty earned the moniker “The King.”

This year, his family is marking its 75-year anniversary in NASCAR.

“The whole deal was it was just a family affair,” he said. “Daddy (Lee Petty) ran the business, and Dale (Inman, the crew chief) did all the work. We did it as a family because all of us loved racing, and we made a good living out of it. It was just like a farmer’s family. We were just farming race cars.”

Mr. Petty’s influence at Dover Motor Speedway should be celebrated, said the facility’s president Mike Tatoian.

“If there was a Hall of Fame of all Hall of Famers in all sports, Richard Petty would be in that Hall of Fame,” he said. “Richard Petty just resembles what is great about our sport.

“This is what I think is important. ... Not only what he accomplished as a race car driver — and still until this day, even now in his 80s … with the whole Petty family but especially with Richard — (but) what he has done from a fan’s perspective.”

Mr. Tatoian added, “The whole Petty family has done so much for our sport and obviously his success — being a seven-time winner (at Dover) and winning our very first race in 1969 — there’s just a ton of history of Richard and what he’s done for the sport, specifically for Dover, as well.”

Mr. Petty, 86, was a member of the inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame class in 2010.

His résumé easily backs that up, considering he drove to several records: 200 Cup Series victories, 124 pole positions, 27 wins in a season, the most consecutive wins (10) and the most Daytona 500 triumphs (seven), as well as 1,185 career starts.

Numbers like those have led the Pettys to become synonymous with NASCAR over the years. And vice versa.

So, local fans can catch a glimpse of the racing legend at noon Sunday at the Monster Monument, prior to the Cup Series race. He will be joined by Mr. Inman, who served as Mr. Petty’s crew chief for nearly three decades and set records for most wins (193) and most championships (eight) by a crew chief.

The duo will also be visiting the new “King’s Hat” statue, which honors Mr. Petty and his trademark cowboy hat. It’s adjacent to the Monster Monument and will host photo opportunities Sunday at 12:30 p.m.

The sculpture was produced in partnership with Legacy Motor Club, co-owned by NASCAR driver and Hall of Famer Jimmie Johnson. Tracks across the country are erecting the statues, all featuring the famous head covering.

“My dad’s cowboy hat is iconic and is a part of who Richard Petty is,” said Kyle Petty. “If you see that hat, you know it’s Richard Petty. It’s been his signature look for as long as any race fan can remember.

“This is a great way to celebrate our family’s heritage and a fun way for fans to honor and learn about our history within the sport.”

The design of each hat is unique to each facility and recognizes the Petty family’s racing legacy, which began when Lee entered the June 1949 race in Charlotte — the first event sanctioned by NASCAR.

“It’s always special to be recognized, and this does take it to the very top,” Richard said. “This is really for the fans to enjoy something unique to our family, our history and our contributions to the tracks and NASCAR.
“It took a lot of people, time and effort to make this happen, and our family is honored by that.”

About that first race at Dover

There probably aren’t many people still around who attended the first race at what was then Dover Downs International Speedway, its name paying homage to the harness track encircling the infield of the one-of-a-kind facility.

Mr. Petty, who won that inaugural race on Dover’s high-banked, 1-mile oval, said the race was July 6, just two days after the Firecracker 400 at Daytona International Speedway.

The race teams did not jump on charter jets back in 1969 like they do now. They had to tow their cars on an 890-mile journey up to Delaware’s capital — what Mr. Petty once dubbed “NASCAR’s invasion of the North.”

In fact, several drivers and top teams elected not to make the trip, including NASCAR legends Cale Yarborough and his Wood Brothers Racing team, Bobby Allison, Bobby Isaac and Buddy Baker.

The starting field that steamy day was filled with 32 cars, with several names not well known in NASCAR circles.

For that debut race, the start/finish line was on today’s backstretch, in front of the air-conditioned grandstand.

“What had happened, we had run at Daytona on July Fourth,” Mr. Petty said. “We brought the same car and everything from Daytona to Dover. I’d never seen the racetrack, never been on the racetrack. … We just went in and drove the racetrack.

“In fact, it was just a 300-mile race, but I don’t think they tested enough because there were a couple of good (drivers) I was running against that blew tires, so I was lucky I didn’t blow one, and I ended up winning the race.”

Pole sitter David Pearson and LeeRoy Yarbrough were those who crashed after blowing tires, which left the way clear for Mr. Petty to christen Dover with a win.

Driving his iconic “Petty Blue” No. 43 Ford, he finished more than six full laps ahead of runner-up Sonny Hutchins, in front of an estimated 22,000 fans.

The Petty Enterprises team collected $4,725 for its victory, after Mr. Petty led 150 laps — half the race — including the final 79 circuits.

Long live ‘The King’

Mr. Petty, a seven-time winner at Dover who has a grandstand named in his honor, said he has certain things he enjoys here.

One of them is visiting Sambo’s Tavern in Leipsic, for some seafood on the water. He also liked to stop by the Village Inn in Little Creek, now closed.

Retiring at the end of the 1992 Cup Series season, he totaled 46 races at Dover, with seven wins, 26 top-10 finishes and an average finishing position of 12.8.

He drove 18,919 miles at Dover Motor Speedway over his career — roughly seven trips across the United States — leading 2,206 of those laps.

What he remembers most about the Monster Mile is that it was physically demanding in his era because, in Dover’s first decade or so, drivers raced without power steering, and the events were 500 laps — or 500 miles.

“It was a tough racetrack. When we visited, it was always way up there (in temperature),” Mr. Petty said. “I remember one race when we were up there, I think every driver in the race got out and put (a relief driver) in. A lot of drivers were getting out, getting refreshed and getting back in somebody else’s car.

“It was just how hot it was and how long the race was.”

He also remembers that, after a driver won at Dover in the early years, he had to walk all the way to the top of the main grandstand for an interview.

“If you won, you got your second breath,” he said with a laugh.

These days, Mr. Petty remains busy in his role as an ambassador for the Legacy Motor Club Cup Series team.
He is also a leader in philanthropic efforts, instrumental in the development of Victory Junction and donating 84 acres of his land for the camp in 2004.

Mr. Petty is still extremely active with the facility, which gives chronically ill children life-changing camping experiences in a medically sound environment. He also is the co-founder of the Petty Family Foundation.

Regarding how much one man has impacted one sport, Mr. Tatoian shook his head.

“When you think of when the sport started and his dominance, … he is NASCAR,” he said. “I think that’s how the sport was built over 75 years ago. We’re excited and honored to have Richard Petty back at the track this weekend. We’re going to have a really cool, special-designed (cowboy) hat (statue), and he’ll get a chance to look at it. It will be a great opportunity for our fans to take some pictures of him in front of the hat.”

When Mr. Petty was asked how he would like to be recalled, he replied, “If they just remember me — good, bad or indifferent — that’s all it’s going to take. My biggest accomplishment would be just to be remembered.”

Staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at 302-741-8230 or
Follow @MikeFinneyDSN on X.

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