Everything NASCAR starts with one name — Richard Petty.
He is the once, current, and future king of stock car racing, a man who established records that, no matter the talent of those who followed him and those yet to come, will never be broken.
More importantly, however, Petty, he of the piano-key smile, the cowboy hat, and the ever-present sunglasses, established a template for the ideal race car driver. Attending his father Lee's races as a kid, Petty quickly realized the importance of the race fan. And as he began his driving career, he made every effort to interact positively with as many fans as possible.
On many hot tough Saturday nights when he might have finished 10th in a field of 30 at some long-forgotten dirt track in the middle of Nowheresville, USA, Petty would sit and sign autographs until every interested fan had been accommodated. They all went home happy. And they were likely to return.
"It was amazing what he did," said Dale Inman, Petty's crew chief and cousin. "He did that so many times at so many places. There was always another fan waiting."
It is no overstatement to claim that the success of NASCAR in its early-growth years — from the start of the 1960s into the early 1970s — was built on Petty's strong back. There were other expert drivers, to be sure, but none carried the sizzle and pop of Petty and his winning smile. He became a cult hero.
By the late 1960s Petty had built a huge fan base, and his blue and red No. 43 race cars were among the most recognizable sights in the sports world — even among people who weren't racing fans. When Petty would travel and visit small towns, even without his racing garb, word would quickly spread that he was on Main Street, and crowds would gather.
At many NASCAR circuit stops, particularly in the 1960s when the schedule was much more crowded and teams hopscotched from one dirt track to another within a single week, the Petty Enterprises race car was a prohibitive favorite. The cars were immaculately prepared by Inman, the engines were expertly built by Maurice Petty (Richard's brother), and most in the field knew — barring mechanical collapse — that Petty would be the man to beat at race's end.
In a driving career that ran from 1958 to 1992, Petty basically wrote, designed, and numbered the NASCAR record book. He won 200 times, a Sprint Cup record that won't be touched in part because today's schedule — while still imposing with 36 races a year — can't compare with early NASCAR schedules that often had teams racing several times a week. Petty had many more chances to win — and he took a bunch of them. Inman has joked that if he had been a better crew chief, Petty would have won 400 times.
Second on the victory list is David Pearson with 105.
Despite the shine of Petty's career victory total, it is perhaps overshadowed by another of his records — 10 consecutive wins during the 1967 season, a mark that is about as likely to be duplicated in today's racing as a Ford is likely to be advertised by Chevrolet.
Petty's solid blue Plymouth was a ghost not to be caught during that remarkable year, one in which he posted 27 total wins. To think of one driver winning 10 straight races in today's NASCAR environment is to be labeled goofy. Petty's streak stretched from mid-August to early October that year, and it continues to get notice from drivers attempting to follow in his tire tracks today.
"The 10 in a row, that's tough," driver Ryan Newman said. "And he did it when it was pretty tough racing back in the day."
Among Petty's other NASCAR records are seven Daytona 500 victories, seven Sprint Cup championships (a record he shares with Dale Earnhardt Sr.), 1,185 starts, and 123 poles.
Twenty years after the end of his driving career, Petty, a first-round pick for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, remains the sport's grandest ambassador. He still appears at virtually every race, posing for photographs with fans, signing autographs, and simply being the King.
It's good to be the King.
Although he owns vacation homes and has any number of other interests — business and otherwise — calling for his time, Petty still wants to be at the track and be involved in garage-area goings-on. And the sport is the better for it.
A Family Affair
The Petty family of Level Cross, North Carolina, had a farm, and Lee Petty, the family patriarch, operated a small trucking company. But make no mistake — their business was racing.
Lee Petty, born into poverty in rural North Carolina in 1914, jumped into stock car racing at what now seems a ridiculously advanced age — 35 — and turned what might have appeared to be a lark into one of the most successful motorsports operations in the country.
He entered the first NASCAR Strictly Stock (now Sprint Cup) race in 1949 and created one of the fledgling sanctioning body's first spectacles by rolling his entry — a huge Buick Roadmaster — and mangling the car. It sparked the first caution period in the sport's history.
That was one of the few things the founder of Petty Enterprises did wrong in his racing and business career.
Petty started his team in an old reaper shed on his home/farm property and drove on to win 54 races (including the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959) and three national championships. He soon involved his sons, Richard (driving) and Maurice (building engines), in the operation. Richard elevated the family business to a new level.
Eventually, Lee faded into the background and began concentrating on his golf game. Richard and Maurice took over the operation as Richard began stacking up victories and championships.
Two more generations followed. Richard's son, Kyle, joined the ranks of winning Pettys, and Kyle's son, Adam, became the fourth generation of family drivers. Sadly, Adam's promise was never realized. He was killed in a crash during practice at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2000, rocking NASCAR's first family to its core.CHAPTER 2
1979 Daytona 500
The 1979 Daytona 500 has been labeled the "Race That Made NASCAR."
Its finish is remembered as one of the greatest in the sport's history — some say the greatest — the aftermath of that finish has been replayed thousands of times, especially when NASCAR feels the need for a publicity boost.
It started innocently enough.
Superspeedway ace Buddy Baker, who had won one of the 500's qualifiers, was considered the race favorite that February, but his engine gave up after only 38 laps. That opened the door for a number of contenders, including Donnie Allison, Darrell Waltrip, Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Benny Parsons, and Dale Earnhardt Sr., who was making his first start in the 500.
As the afternoon drama unfolded, the race was being beamed to a national television audience for the first time. CBS had decided to cover the race from start to finish, abandoning the practice of showing the closing portions of races, as had been the accepted approach in previous years. The networks generally feared they could not sustain interest in a race that could stretch significantly longer than three hours.
CBS executives could not have known that they had chosen the perfect 500 to cover from green flag to checkered. A heavy snowstorm blanketed much of the East Coast that weekend, giving broadcasters a captive audience for the race. Many viewers who had a casual interest at best in NASCAR tuned in because they had little else to do — and could go nowhere — on a miserable winter afternoon.
As the closing miles approached, it was clear that barring a mechanical failure or an accident, the race probably would be decided between Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough, two of the sport's best drivers. Petty, Waltrip, and A.J. Foyt also had strong cars, but they were about a half-lap behind Allison and Yarborough with several laps remaining.
Yarborough was running second to Allison entering the final lap, and he made his move to pass on the backstretch. Yarborough, whose car appeared to be slightly better than Allison's, charged to the inside, but Allison moved down to block. Yarborough, who knew that backing off to avoid the block would probably cost him the race, stayed on the throttle. The two cars hit, then Yarborough turned up into Allison again, sending both cars into the outside wall. As they lost speed, they spiraled down the track banking and onto the infield apron. The two favorites suddenly were sidelined.
Fans in the grandstands and in living rooms across the country quickly realized that someone else was going to win the race. And the man who inherited the lead was one of Daytona's best, although he hadn't won a NASCAR event anywhere in the past 45 races.
His name was Richard Petty.
As Yarborough and Allison sat in their battered vehicles and tried to come to grips with what had happened, Petty sprinted to the lead. Waltrip closed on his bumper as they entered the fourth turn for the final time, but he had no shot to pass. Petty took his sixth Daytona 500 checkered flag with Waltrip in his wake.
Meanwhile, back in the third-turn area, tempers were flaring. Bobby Allison, Donnie's brother and also a competitor in the race, had stopped at the crash site to check on him. Yarborough and Donnie were having a not-very-pleasant conversation about the accident, and Yarborough walked over to Bobby's car. They exchanged words, and Yarborough hit Bobby with his helmet. Bobby climbed out of his car, and he and Yarborough engaged in a brief scuffle before track workers separated them.
Network cameras carried a few moments of the tussle.
The fight was water-cooler fodder across the country for much of the following week, and NASCAR picked up the sort of publicity that millions of dollars couldn't buy.
Yarborough would go on to win the Daytona 500 in 1983 and 1984 before retiring in 1988. Donnie Allison never won the 500 and still lists that winter day as one of his biggest regrets in racing. Richard Petty won the race for the seventh and final time in 1981.
One of the most popular exhibits in the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina, recreates that day and one of the most dynamic finishes in the sport's history.
A Signal from the Restroom
Although the CBS broadcast of the 1979 Daytona 500 was the first telecast of a major NASCAR race from start to finish on national television, it was not the first NASCAR major-series event to be covered live from green flag to checkered.
That distinction belongs to the Greenville 200, a 100-mile race run at historic Greenville-Pickens Speedway in northwestern South Carolina on April 10, 1971.
ABC broadcast the race from beginning to end as part of its popular Wide World of Sports anthology program. This wasn't a case of ABC showing up with its cameras on a Saturday afternoon and sending the race across the country. Weeks of preparation — and no little amount of standards-twisting — went into the broadcast. No stones were left unturned.
"About a month before the race, a guy from ABC in New York called," said Pete Blackwell, the track's longtime operator. "They had talked to Bill France, and they were looking for a race they could get in on Wide World of Sports in an hour and a half. They had gone through results sheets and saw that we had finished a race in about an hour and 25 minutes. So the guy asked me if I thought we could do that again. I said, 'Sure,' although there was no way I could be sure."
Greenville-Pickens, originally a horse-racing facility (like some other stock car racing tracks), was one of NASCAR's bedrock speedways. Blackwell was a reliable promoter and track manager who could be counted on to host a good race.
The agreement was reached, and NASCAR officials, cooperating with ABC's desire to have the race fit into the 90-minute window for Wide World of Sports, cut the starting field from 30 cars to 26, thus theoretically reducing the possibility of caution flags and speeding up the race progress.
Workers erected scaffolding around the perimeter of the track for cameras, and a portable studio was set up near the first turn for announcers Jim McKay, who would become one of ABC's most famous sports journalists, and Chris Economaki, whose name would become synonymous with major motorsports events. Economaki made many other appearances on televised motorsports programs over the years and also became one of racing's greatest print journalists.
Perhaps the most important person on site that day, however, was a technician who was in charge of directing the feed from the track to ABC headquarters in New York City. Because of limited space at the track, he was stationed in one of the track's restrooms.
Bobby Isaac won the race in one hour and 16 minutes (there was only one caution flag), giving broadcasters extra time to fill at the end of the event. Fears of the race running long were unrealized.
The day was judged a success, and NASCAR's live television era had begun.CHAPTER 3
Founding: Smoke-Filled Room, Part One
It was the Christmas season in 1947, but several dozen men who had gathered near the Atlantic shore in Daytona Beach, Florida, weren't there for holiday activities.
All had been summoned to a series of meetings by racer and dreamer Bill France Sr. France, who had been involved in auto racing in one form or another since the 1930s (with the exception of the World War II years), was bringing together most of the people he considered important in the stock car motorsports world to talk some turkey.
France's somewhat grandiose concept of the gathering was to determine what he called "the outcome of stock car racing in the country today."
France, who dreamed no small dreams, saw the wild meanderings of the stock car racing world and wanted to bring all the loose ends together in a single ruling organization — one that he would control.
There were various small groups running ragtag racing series here and there. France was among the promoters trying to put down roots with a form of racing that would be accepted across the board as respectable and organized. He found out how hard that process was in 1946 when, while trying to promote one of his races in Charlotte, North Carolina, as a "national championship" event, he was told by local newspaper sports editor Wilton Garrison that he had to have a legitimate national-level organization with standards, rules, and point standings before mainstream media outlets would accept his winning drivers as "national champions."
Later that year, France formed the National Championship Stock Car Circuit, and he promoted races under its banner in 1946 and 1947.
With that first step taken, France called the December 1947 meetings in Daytona Beach to exchange ideas with other promoters, drivers, and mechanics and hopefully start an umbrella organization that would control much of stock car racing in the nation.
Perhaps not surprisingly, considering those in attendance, the meetings were held in a bar — the Ebony Room atop the Streamline Hotel located on Daytona's beachside highway. There was plenty to drink, and France arranged for a few local women to hang around and entertain those in attendance.
There was response from across the stock car racing landscape. Among those who answered France's summons were promoters Joe Littlejohn and Bill Tuthill, drivers Marshall Teague, Ed Samples, Buddy Shuman, and Red Byron, and ace mechanic Red Vogt.
Participants in the meeting were interviewed sporadically in the years that followed. They often disagreed about the number of men who attended, but it is likely that at least 22 and possibly as many as 35 attended one or more of the sessions over a four-day period. It's quite likely that several uninvited guests popped in and out of the sessions because the Streamline was a popular stopping point for those involved in racing on the beach.
Tuthill, a France confidant, ran the meetings, but France clearly was the central figure.
Among the drivers present was Sam Packard, who had moved south from Rhode Island to race on the Daytona beach-road course. He said the meeting included "Yankees, Southerners, and bootleggers. We all more or less knew each other. We had been running tracks together. We were all after the same thing."
Benny Kahn, longtime sports journalist in Daytona Beach, also attended the meetings. He described participants as "the owner of a small local filling station; a local race driver; a Providence, Rhode Island, motorcycle dealer; an Atlanta garage operator; a Spartanburg turnip farmer; a New Rochelle, New York, midget racetrack promoter; a moonshiner or two with anonymous addresses; and assorted hustlers."
Kahn probably was right on the money (although everyone in attendance probably was a hustler of one sort or another).
While France's primary goal was to establish an over-arcing organization to run stock car racing, many of the other participants probably were most concerned about bringing some monetary control to the sport. Many drivers had the experience of winning a race only to visit the track's payoff window and find the promoter missing, having raced out of town with the gate receipts.