King Richard's reign

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Richard Petty is rightfully known as the ‘king’, even if he is best known for the Daytona 500 he didn’t win
By Nigel Roebuck

It was not the way Richard Petty would have wished to take his leave of the sport he had so long graced. On November 15 1992, in his familiar number 43 STP Pontiac, Petty raced for the last time, in a 500-miler at the Atlanta Motor Speedway: on lap 96 he got caught up in someone else’s accident. There may have been a championship to be settled at this final race of the season, but everyone was there to witness the last time around for the man still known, 15 years on, as ‘The King’.

Damage to the car looked devastating, but a hauler got it back to the garage area, and crew chief Dale Inman and the boys went to work. It was important, everyone felt, that Richard was running at the end of this race, and eventually out came the Pontiac again, sans front bodywork, but mobile. When he took the flag, Petty was cheered to the rafters, but many were in tears. “The end of an era,” said the commentator, and he spoke no lie.

“I went out in a blaze,” Petty smiled. “I just forgot the glory part. When I hit Darrell Waltrip’s car, it broke the oil line, and caught on fire. I figured I’d better find me a fire truck, so I drove on round the track until I found one – and when I did, the guys just wanted autographs!”

Why was he retiring? “Well, I’m 55, so age has somethin’ to do with it.” A pause. “And not winnin’ races has somethin’ to do with it…”

For Petty’s numberless fans, the last years of his career were bitter-sweet. On the one hand, they loved to see him still doing his thing, but on the other they hated to see him in midfield, just another driver in an ever-more-corporate and expensive sport. At the end of 1971 STP did a deal with Petty to sponsor him ‘for life’, and at the time such a thing was unheard of in NASCAR circles. The money was good, and the guarantee even better, but as the years went by, and the costs escalated, Petty Enterprises became relatively one of the poorer teams, locked into an agreement overtaken by time.

Petty carried on because he still loved to drive, but he was aware that not everyone cared to see it. “If I’d looked at what the fans thought,” he said, “I’d have quit in 1986. You know, when I was born, I guess God said, ‘You’ve got 25 years of good luck’. I just tried to stretch it to 35…”

Atlanta in ’92 was the 1184th race of Petty’s NASCAR career, a number which falls into startling perspective when you consider that Michael Schumacher drove in 249 Grands Prix. His 200 victories (and seven NASCAR championships) mean that, statistically, he will never be matched, and many believe him to be the greatest stock car driver there has ever been. Certainly he remains the most revered, and also the most beloved, behaving with the fans in a way only Mario Andretti and Jackie Stewart would understand.

These days Daytona is a ‘restrictor plate’ race. Introduced some years ago, the plate has a hole of specified diameter which reduces the air flow into the carburettor (none of that fuel-injection nonsense in stock car racing) in an attempt to peg back ever-escalating speeds at the fastest superspeedways, and no one can doubt that it works.

In the mid-’80s the pole position lap at Daytona was around 210mph, but nowadays it is always around 190.

“The plate lets in just enough air for the motors to run 190,” said Petty sorrowfully. “Every time the speed sneaks up, they just put a smaller restrictor in and of course the insurance people have played their part – you mention 200, and they go crazy!

“It all changed after Bobby Allison had a big accident at Talladega in ’87. He got up in the wall and into the debris fence, which broke: it didn’t come in, but it broke. Now it didn’t hurt nobody, or nothin’, but NASCAR went to Panic City, sayin’, ‘Man, what if that thing had got into the crowd…’ They doubled and tripled up all the cables holding the fence – and they slowed the cars down.”

The restrictor plate utterly changed the nature of racing at the superspeedways. Previously you had power to spare, now you needed to be ‘wide open’ the whole time, and this led to huge groups of cars circulating in close formation, and no one daring to lift for fear of being overwhelmed. As a consequence, there have been some fearsome accidents in these circumstances, and while the speeds may be lower, many a driver has said he feels less safe than before.

As well as that, the restrictor plate has done away with the ‘slingshot pass’, once the calling card of NASCAR. “Nowadays,” said Petty, “you want to be in the lead on the last lap – because there ain’t nobody going to pass you. Back then, though, bein’ in front was the last place you wanted to be, because for sure someone was goin’ to draft you.

“It’s all a lot different now. See, these days NASCAR’s in show business – not racin’, OK? The new fans are eatin’ it up. The old race fans don’t like it, but the new ones don’t know anythin’ better – they never saw it when it was pure racin’. I guess it’s very similar in Formula 1, from everything I hear…”

These days NASCAR drivers come from all over the place, but back then they were all Southern boys, and ‘country’, too. Petty has lived all his life in the hamlet of Level Cross, North Carolina. “I’ve been all over the world, and seen a lot of things I liked, but I’ve never seen one place where I liked everything better. Wild horses couldn’t drag me to live in a city.”

Petty may have won an unrivalled seven Daytona 500s, but, as he will smilingly admit, he is likely best known for a race he didn’t win.

For the fans, the 1976 Daytona 500 was the race that had everything. Back then, the cars were still ‘unbridled’, as Petty calls them, with power to spare, and the closing laps came down to a fight with David Pearson, whom he regards as the greatest driver he ever encountered.

“Pearson was a pure driver – he had every bit as much car control as someone like Curtis Turner – but without the need to be fancy. He just got there quick, man! He was a winner, that was the thing.

“David was probably the most relaxed race driver there’s ever been – I mean, when we was runnin’ round under caution, he’d light a cigarette! You’d be runnin’ behind him and see this smoke and think maybe he blowed up – and then the cigarette would get thrown out! Mind you, that was only under caution – when he was racin’, he got serious…

“In the last few laps at Daytona that time, it came down to him and me, with each of us knowin’ what the other was goin’ to do. I was leadin’, and couldn’t get him to pass – back then, like I said, you did not want to lead into that last lap.

“So what I did, I cut back my revs. I’d run seventy-eight hundred, then the next lap seventy-seven hundred, seventy-six, seventy-five, like that. Now he’s sittin’ back there, not realisin’ that – he’s just in the draft? So when we got to the last lap, I just floor it – and he does, too, and on the backstretch he’s suddenly runnin’ 10mph faster than he had been. He passes me into three, but now that car doesn’t stick – it rides high up the wall, and when that happened I cut down underneath him, and thought I’d cleared him.

“On a big old track like that, when you come off a corner you want the car to be free: if you hold it down too low, it bogs down, and then the other guy has a chance to come back at you. So I thought I’d cleared him – just – and I was about 100 yards away from winning. But I hadn’t quite missed him, and we both lost it and, you know, when you lose a stock car, it stays lost…”

Pearson’s battered Mercury finally crept over the line to win the Daytona 500, while Petty’s crew pushed the remains of number 43 into second place.

He finished second, too, in what he considers the greatest drive of his life. Again it was the Daytona 500, in 1962, and the major opposition was the legendary Glenn ‘Fireball’ Roberts.

“Fireball,” said Petty, “qualified at 157mph, which was pole, and I qualified at 149-150. We ran the whole 500 miles, with me sittin’ right on his bumper, but we didn’t have any cautions in that race, and we averaged almost 153mph!

“That Pontiac of his made such a big hole in the air. You could almost knock it out of gear, and just ride along behind him! I always felt like I got the most out of a car that day than any other – we were so short of power, compared with him. If I’d ever lost the draft, man, I wouldn’t have seen him again. And in my mind that was the best day I ever had in a race car – just because we ran second in somethin’ that wasn’t even close. Sometimes you can lose, and feel good…”