Next stop President?

When Richard Petty started his NASCAR career, Mike Hawthorn was vying for the F1 World Championship. This year, he’ll finally retire from driving to concentrate on. . . well, who knows?

“When I first started racing, it was a real redneck situation. You did not dare bring your wife or girlfriend because half the people were drunk and the rest were fighting!”

Stock car racing has come a long way since then. So has the man in the familiar sunglasses and cowboy hat. “I didn’t initiate it for a trademark but that’s what happened. My eyes are real sensitive, so I wore sunglasses all the time. But I wore the same kind, wrap-arounds, where I can drive in the race car and I got side vision. The hat deal is that Pontiac wanted you to wear a hat, Goodyear wanted you to wear a hat, STP wanted you to wear a hat, everybody wanted you to wear one of their hats. I said to heck with that and just wore a cowboy hat. I don’t have to worry about talking to anybody wearing the wrong hat!”

Richard Petty was looking back over a long and illustrious career, the anecdotes coming thick and fast. “I’ve got no time for hobbies outside racing but I do collect watches. Pocket watches, double faced, single faced. I got about 500 of ’em. Some date from 1700. Russian watches, English watches, braille watches. I’ve also got belt buckles, guns, hats, a bunch of toy cars and trains. If I have a hobby then I guess it’s collecting. Anything I got three or four of I collect!”

He first drove in a NASCAR Grand National (now Winston Cup) race at Toronto in 1958. Mike Hawthorn was en route to being world champion and rear-engined F1 cars were still a twinkling in John Cooper’s eye. That outing ended when he was nudged out of the way and into a wall by one of the leaders as they lapped him. It was his father, Lee Petty. . . Daddy won and Richard was classified 17th, taking home $115 in prize money and the valuable experience that nothing comes easy in racing, not even from family. Nor was it the only lesson the triple NASCAR champion taught his son. Early in 1959, down in Georgia, Richard thought he had won his first race only for a protest to reveal he had been credited with one lap too many. The protester was then declared the winner. The complainants’s name? Lee Petty.

“They were paying $1500 to win the race and that was a bunch of money at that time,” Richard recalls in his distinctive Carolina drawl. “They were also paying a bonus if a current year model car won. He had a ’59 Plymouth and I had a ’57 Oldsmobile, so we got to take home an extra $500. If somebody else had won, I’d have probably kicked up a fuss, but it was my daddy so I didn’t say much!” Richard finally got to keep a victory in July after winning a convertible race in Columbia SC. Seven months later he won his first NASCAR Grand National event, on the dirt of the old Charlotte Fairgrounds. The date was February 28 1960, and Lotus was still three full months off winning its first ever World Championship Grand Prix race.

Stamping firmly on the lie that ‘good guys don’t make winners’ with his monogrammed snakeskin cowboy boots, the (not so) Petty score is now exactly 200, the last in an epic series watched over by then-President Reagan at Daytona on July 4 1984. In between, his successes include seven Daytona 500’s (Lee won the first such event, in 1959), one Southern 500 and seven NASCAR titles. He is personally credited with having discovered ‘drafting’, the art of slipstreaming. He has innovated safety procedures such as window nets and stronger roll-over cages. He has won nearly $7.5 million in prize money.

But all good things must come to an end and 1992 will be his last season behind the wheel. He’ll be 55. After that, Richard will revert to being a team owner, possibly for son Kyle, the third generation of racing Pettys and already a winner in his own right. Despite the decision, Richard’s competetive spirit remains undiminished. “I’m still ambitious. Age hasn’t stopped that. Pulling next to someone and running them down is what it’s all about. I still love racing.” Love. It is not a word often associated with motor sport. Fangio is much revered, AJ Foyt is highly respected, yet nobody is as loved as Richard Petty by the fans and sponsors, organisers and media alike. Pop culture? Call it what you will, but he gave motor racing a phenomenon never seen before and insiders and outsiders responded in kind. While NASCAR continues growing rich pitching Ford and General Motors devotees against each other, ‘Petty Appeal’ unites the two fiercely divided camps. At pre-race driver introductions nobody gets a bigger ovation. It may be fashionable to bad mouth heroes, but you will never get anybody saying anything acid about the man who drives the red and blue STP Pontiac 43.

And there’s more. In his 1990 Daytona 500 qualifying race, he started fifth but gradually worked his way into the lead. That he later fell back in the pack due to a set of replacement tyres ‘equalising’ was of no consequence. What is significant is that not only did the whole crowd rise to the occasion when he hit the front but also the entire pit lane too, even those deeply anxious about their own driver’s chances of making the main event. To a man, woman and child, everybody present rose as one to cheer the man they call ‘The King’. It was awesome.

“When I first started in this business, racing was not as popular as it is today. It was an honour for somebody to come by and ask for an autograph or have you pose for a picture,” he recalls. Now he is rarely free of them, especially outside Randolph County, North Carolina, where he was born, raised and continues to live. “Kyle used to play basketball and football. I’d go to home games, maybe sign two or three autographs, no big deal, but at an away game I never did get to see him play cos you’s so busy signing autographs, talking to people!”

To celebrate his 30th year as a racer, Richard opened up the team’s workshops at Level Cross, adjacent to the house his parents still live in. Over the next two days, 40,000 people came by, long queues building up in temperatures of 105 degrees. Richard sat on the front porch from sunrise to sunset throughout both days, never refusing a signature itself a work of art and always ready to oblige with a ready smile as fan after fan clicked the shutter. Tens of thousands of them.

Likewise, booked to make a brief appearance at a racing car show two years ago, he stayed four hours. While his laid-back manner is a blessing in such circumstances, he knows it is also the key to promoting not only himself but his team, his sponsors, his sport. He feels it is all part of the service.

“I’m a fairly conservative person, try to be easy going and what you see is what you get. That’s just the way it comes out. I didn’t plan anything. It’s just my nature.” Then comes the but. “But you’ve gotta figure that if we don’t get good publicity, we don’t get people in the grandstands, we don’t get sponsors like STP and other people interested in coming in. Then I don’t make a living in doing what I want to do. And what I want to do is racing. So if I take time to talk to the people then they’re going to advertise not only me but they’re gonna advertise racing. And that means they’re going to bring more people with them next time and . . .” So on and so forth.

Yet while there are many who could learn ‘a whole bunch’ from adopting a similar approach, notably in F1, it is not Richard’s nature to attack others publicly. Not that he does not have strong views on stock cars in particular or motor racing in general. So while back in the ’60s he may have run dragsters for a short time during a dispute with NASCAR, other than that he has never had any desire to widen his horizons beyond those with which he was born and raised.

“Not one iotum. I grew up in stock cars and as far as I was concerned stock cars was all, not F1, lndycars, airplanes. Anyway, I was not a pure driver. I was so involved in my own business (Petty Enterprises, the family racing team) that I couldn’t afford to go and be a driver for someone else, because that meant I’d need to get another driver for my business or it would just sit there on hold ’til I got back.”

“Most of the other guys have tried different forms of racing and none of them have really done that good.” Then, after a moment of quiet reflection. “They usually come home.” Not that he closes his eyes or mind to other racing forms. With his busy schedule allowing him only a few days at home on the farm each month, especially during a NASCAR racing season which runs from February to November, he is nevertheless an avid armchair sports fan, tuning in to baseball, American football and Grands Prix. Careful not to underestimate the skill needed to drive a F1 car, he also thinks that as a competition between the men who do so it leaves something to be desired.

“In Formula One racing, it is more a practice in engineering than driving. The driver is important but he’s less important in Formula One than in other forms of racing where the cars are more even to begin with. I think they spend so much money to out-engineer the other people that if you get a good driver in one of the good cars he dominates the rest.

“In NASCAR racing, everybody runs the same wheelbase, the same weight, basically the same chassis. They just put a different motor and a different body on the thing. So you’ve got a deal where you can separate the drivers a little bit better.”

And there is no doubt that he is going to miss driving his beloved stockers. Over the years he has started nearly 1200 events, all front line, all highly competitive, and completed over 250,000 racing miles. Testing and practice runs double the tally. Nobody else in the world comes remotely close in experience of driving competition machinery. “It’s the only time Richard Petty can do what he wants to do and be his own self. I can run fast if I want to run fast and if I want to slow up I slow up. I’ve got pit communications but can always turn them off. In the car, there is nobody wanting you to pay a bill or make an appearance, the only decisions you are making are those to get you round the race track, get you through traffic, or whatever. I have been around race cars since I was 10 years old. This is my life.”

For sure, there have been problems down the years. Some ’60s confrontations still smoulder. And it is said that NASCAR scrutineers were somewhat benevolent when applying the rule book to their number one draw card. But it is not as if everything has always gone Richard Petty’s way. As the races have come and gone since his last victory, the clamour for ‘just one more’ has grown. Four years ago, at Richmond, he finished first but was not credited with the win. The fans knew he won, the TV people knew he won, everybody but NASCAR knew he won. Despite the evidence of video tape, the organisers declared that Richard had completed one lap fewer than logged, dropping him to third. Shades of Georgia ’59! Not willing to be drawn publicly on reports that if he were to win another race then NASCAR wanted it to be at a ‘big’ track, Richard is his typical philosophical self about such things. “I guess I’ve won some races that way and I’ve lost some races that way. I guess that it all evens out.” It is that kind of diplomacy which could take him far. Since 1978 he has been an elected Commissioner for Randolph County, helping distribute local taxes and the like. Some folk suggest it is not beyond comprehension that one day probably still many years in the future he might run for congress or, whisper it, The White House. As one who says that he does not know what he would have done with himself if he was not in racing, he dismisses such queries with easy going grace. For now.

“The President? I don’t know that I’d want the job,” he says, as if echoing Bob Hope’s remark that he could not afford the pay cut it would entail. All joking apart, in fact it is not money but time, his concept of it compared to that of the corridors of power, which may well prove to be the deciding factor. “The deal is that County Commissioner is about as far as I can go and still do what I want to do, and that’s racing. Until I decide that I don’t want no more of the racing, or that I want to back away from racing a little bit, I wouldn’t have time to do any more than that. And I don’t know if that’s what I want to do 10 or 20 years down the road.

“Governments work so slow. You know what I mean? Everything I do is where the decision has gotta be made right now and you gotta do it right now. Driving a race car, changing motors, changing tyres, whatever you do to the race car has to be split-second decisions and when I drive then everything I do is definitely split-second decisions. Just ‘bam bam’ and you do it. Reflexes. The government deal is: ‘Okay, this is the way we are gonna do it’ and then you have to look in the law books to make sure that it’s legal to do it. Then you get all the people together to see that it is the way they want it and so. I don’t know, it just works so slow. As I get a little older, I could slow down and maybe they’ll catch up!”

Congressman Petty? President Petty? One day, maybe. Meanwhile, there is one final season of race car driving, the so-called ‘Fan Appreciation Tour’ to complete, preferably with a win. Then, hopefully, many years putting all his considerable charm and experience to good advantage in Winston Cup racing. But should Richard Petty ever make it to Washington DC, then remember where you read it first. After all, anybody who can sprinkle his conversation with lines like “I was chasing them cats down the back straightaway” and “He was madder than a wet hen” is bound to be a wow on Capitol Hill. KW