Richard Petty NASCAR’s King Racing pioneer, driver, owner still putting fans first.
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
It’s been nearly 20 years since Richard Petty drove in his final race, at Atlanta Motor Speedway in the 1992 season finale, but he’s still out there spending his golden years as an ambassador for NASCAR. And that’s in addition to the duties he’s taken on as the head of Richard Petty Motorsports.
But that’s nothing new for NASCAR’s longtime King. Lately, he’s been making the media rounds as part of his induction this weekend into the inaugural class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. He also was the Grand Marshal for Sunday’s Autism Speaks 400 at Dover International Speedway.
In between all that, he took time to reflect on racing matters with members of the press at Dover.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the circuit’s all-time win leader with 200 Cup victories and seven championships said there are plenty of others in NASCAR’s past who could have been alongside him in the Hall’s first class of five.
“I am sure there were a lot of people that were more important to the overall deal with putting up money and taking gambles to make NASCAR what it is today,” he said, adding that the sacrifices and struggles of the pioneers aren’t fully appreciated by those who are reaping the benefits today.
“A lot of these drivers that are doing pretty well today don’t realize what some of the guys went through to get it to this point,” Petty said. “Bill France took a huge gamble and got people to follow along behind him. You had guys like Junior Johnson, Curtis Turner and Lee Petty that sacrificed a lot way back. To be chosen out of that crowd is just a heck of an honor.”
Another place that Petty stands ahead of his peers is in his dealings with fans. Throughout the years, he always seems to find time to sign autographs and visit with fans.
The late NASCAR journalist Bill Robinson often told a tale about the last race of the season in the early 70s, at a short track in Byron, Ga.
The race was long over. It was dark and beginning to rain. Still, Petty was there in the pits signing autographs. Robinson, then with The Atlanta Journal, finally asked Petty: “How much longer are you going to stay here?”
Petty’s reply: “Until they’re all taken care of.”
It’s a concept that many drivers today don’t grasp, and something that Petty often finds himself explaining.
“The deal is that for the first 15 or 20 years of NASCAR there were no sponsors,” he said. “The fans were the ones sponsoring because they bought the tickets, and when the race was over you would go pick up what money you had coming to you depending where you finished.
“Back then the fans were who you had to play to because they were the ones that were supporting it. It was a no-brainer to say we had to keep them on our side. We had to keep them buying tickets.
“I came through with the Allisons and the Pearsons and that crowd, who did the same thing. They realized that without the fans there wouldn’t be any racing. Without the fans there wouldn’t be a Richard Petty from the stock car part of it.”
And Petty pointed out that NASCAR wouldn’t be where it is today without mechanics like his brother Maurice, or his cousin Dale Inman or others like Smokey Yunick and Herb Nab. He hopes future Hall of Fame induction ceremonies will recognize men from the other side of the pit wall.
“I hope they look at people that sacrificed for the drivers,” he said. “We are different than football or baseball. You have your first baseman or quarterback and they stand alone. No driver stands alone. It is a team effort, so when you see Richard Petty in the Hall of Fame, Richard Petty just happened to be the one out front.”