He’s been retired for 17 years now, but Richard Petty is still the king of NASCAR. Petty’s 200 victories rank him in a class of his own, with almost twice as many as second-placed David Pearson (105) and four times the current NASCAR champion, Jimmie Johnson. Seven NASCAR championships also adorn the king’s crown, equalled only by the late Dale Earnhardt. And, of course, Petty is the only man to have won the Daytona 500 seven times.
“When you win, you win, no matter what the circumstances,” says Petty. “Three or four of them we just flat won, and there were two or three where we were just in the right place under the right circumstances to win the race. But then there were three or four others where we had the best car and something happened and we didn’t win.
“I look at it my whole career as it kinda averaged itself out. We had good and bad races. We had good and bad luck, and we wound up doing pretty good. That’s the way racing works and that’s the way life works, too.”
Petty, now 72, was one of the first men to master running the high groove at Daytona, up close to the wall all the way around the high-banked superspeedway.
“One of the things that got me in the habit of running real high at Daytona was in 1960 when we had a little Plymouth with pretty much a stock engine in it,” he recalls. “The Pontiac, Ford and Chevrolet guys had a lot of racing stuff under their hoods and our car didn’t have any horsepower. So you had to keep it wound up. If I ran low it would bog down. So I ran high and kept the rpm up, and I learned that’s what it took for me and my car to get around the race track the quickest.
“Later when we had as much or more horsepower as anybody else it was still, for me, the easiest and quickest way around the track. I also felt that if anything happened to the car, if you blew a tyre or something, you were so close to the wall that you didn’t have a chance to get a running start at it. So I always felt safer running high than I did low. It just became a habit.”
Petty scored his first Daytona 500 victory in 1964 with Chrysler’s new ‘hemi-head’ V8, before becoming the first two-time winner in 1966. There were no limits on horsepower in those days and power skyrocketed through the ’60s and ’70s.
“As the horsepower went up,” Petty notes, “Goodyear usually came with a little bit better tyre to make up the difference and we had another year’s experience of making the car handle. Daytona was a wide-open track most of the time, but only the winners could run wide open. The guys who ran fourth or fifth could maybe do that for a few laps, but then the tyres would go away. So it wound up being not only a horsepower track but also a handling track. If you could run wide open and they couldn’t, you could make it work to your advantage.”
Team-mate Pete Hamilton won at Daytona in 1970 before Petty claimed victory in 1971, ’73 and ’74. He scored his sixth victory in 1979 and added a final win two years later. As well as being fast, Petty’s cars were always beautifully prepared and presented.
“We took the time to do a little extra,” he says. “I think we started the trend that the more time you spend on the car the better it’s going to be. Back in those days we used to have only one car and we’d spend a whole winter working on getting it ready for Daytona. We’d put on the decals and then we’d put clear plastic on the outside. [I don’t know] whether it made it better or not, [but] it made it look good! I think at that time our crowd probably took more pride in their race cars than a lot of the competition.”
Without doubt, the king and his team established many of the standards on which NASCAR’s success was founded. They’re lucky to still have him fully committed to the sport.