Richard Petty

Richard Petty

2/7/1937

Richard Lee Petty was born in Level Cross, North Carolina, and is a renowned former NASCAR Winston Cup Series driver. He is most well-known for winning the NASCAR Championship seven times (Dale Earnhardt is the only other driver to accomplish this feat, but with 76 victories and a lone Daytona 500), winning a record 200 races during his career, winning the Daytona 500 a record seven times, and winning a record 27 races (ten of them consecutively) in the 1967 season alone. (A 1972 rule change eliminated races under 250 miles in length, reducing the schedule to 30 [now 36] races.) Petty is arguably the greatest NASCAR driver of all time.

He also collected a record number of poles (127) and over 700 top-ten finishes in his 1,185 starts, including 513 consecutive starts from 1971-1989. He also won seven Daytona 500s and nine Most Popular Driver awards.

Petty is a second generation driver. His father, Lee Petty, won the first Daytona 500 in 1959 and was also a NASCAR champion. Richard's son, Kyle Petty, is also a well-known NASCAR driver. Tragically, Richard's grandson, Adam Petty, was killed in an accident at New Hampshire International Speedway on May 12, 2000.

Richard Petty began his NASCAR career on July 18, 1958, 16 days after his 21st birthday. His first race was in Toronto, Canada, and he finished 17th in an Oldsmobile. In 1959, Richard was named NASCAR Rookie of the Year, after he produced 9 top 10 finishes, including six Top 5 finishes.

Petty famous Road Runner Superbird, on display at the Richard Petty Museum, courtesy of flickr contributorIn 1960, he finished 2nd in the NASCAR Grand National Points Race.

In 1964, driving a potent Plymouth with a new Hemi engine, Richard Petty led 184 of the 200 laps to capture his first Daytona 500, en route to 9 victories, earning over $114,000 and his first Grand National championship. On February 27, 1966 Petty overcame a 2-lap deficit to win his second Daytona 500 when the race was stopped on lap 198 of 200 because of a thunderstorm. This made him the first driver to win the event twice.

1967 was a milestone year. In that year, Petty won 27 of the 48 races he entered, including a record 10 wins in a row (between August 12 and October 1, 1967). He won his second Grand National Championship. One of the 27 victories was the Southern 500 at Darlington, which would be his only Southern 500 victory. His dominance in this season earned him the nickname "King Richard". In 1969 Petty switched brands to Ford, due to his belief the Plymouth was not competitive on super-speedways. He would win 10 races and finish second in points. Won back by the sleek new Plymouth Superbird with shark nose and goalpost wing, Petty returned to Plymouth for the 1970 season. This is probably his most famous car, and the car in which Petty is cast in the 2006 Pixar film Cars.

Petty won his third Daytona 500, beating team mate, Buddy Baker, by one lap en route to another historic year, making him the first driver to win the event three times. He won 20 more races, became the first driver to earn more than $1 million in career earnings, and claimed his third Grand National Championship.

In 1972, now with the familiar STP sponsor livery, Petty won his 4th Winston Cup Championship, thanks to his 28 top-10 finishes, including 25 top-5 finishes and 8 victories.

On February 18, 1973, in a driver’s duel, Petty outlasted Baker to win his fourth Daytona 500 after Baker's engine gave out with six laps left. One year later, Petty won the Daytona "450" (shortened 20 laps {50mi/80km} due to the energy crisis) for the fifth time en route to his fifth Winston Cup Championship.

The year 1975 was another historic year for Petty, as he won the World 600 for the first time in his career, one of 13 victories en route to his sixth Winston Cup. The 13 victories is a modern (1972 to present) NASCAR record for victories in a season, and was tied in 1998 by Jeff Gordon.

In 1976, Petty was involved in one of the most famous finishes in NASCAR history. Petty and David Pearson were racing on the last lap out of turn 4 in the Daytona 500. As Petty tried to pass Pearson, at the exit of turn 4, Petty's right rear bumper hit Pearson left front bumper. Pearson and Petty both spun and hit the front stretch wall. Petty's car came to rest just yards from the finish line, but his engine stalled. Pearson's car had hit the front stretch wall and clipped another car, but his engine was running. Pearson was able to drive his car toward the finish line, while Petty's car would not restart. Pearson passed Petty on the infield grass and won the Daytona 500. Petty was given credit for second place.

In 1979, he snapped a 45-race drought, winning his sixth Daytona 500, the first to be televised live flag-to-flag; it would become notorious for a fistfight between competitors following the controversial finish. Petty won the race as the first and second place cars of Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough crashed on the last lap. Petty held off A. J. Foyt and Darrell Waltrip. Foyt had backed off because of his familiarity with USAC rules which states that racing stops once the yellow flag waves. The NASCAR rule at the time stated that drivers should race back to the start-finish line (the rule was changed in 2003). The race is also regarded as being the genesis of the current surge in NASCAR's popularity. The East Coast was snowed in by a blizzard, giving CBS a captive audience. The win was part of Richard's seventh and last NASCAR Winston Cup Championship. Petty was able to hold off Waltrip to win the title in 1979.

In the 1981 Daytona 500, Petty used a "fuel only" his last pit stop with 25 laps to go to outfox Bobby Allison and grab his seventh and final Daytona 500 win. This win marked a large change in Petty's racing team. Dale Inman, Petty's longtime crew chief, left the team after the Daytona victory (Inman would win an eighth championship as crew chief in 1984 with Terry Labonte).

On July 4, 1984, Petty's 200th win was at the Firecracker 400 at Daytona International Speedway. The race was memorable. In lap 198, a rookie driver crashed, bringing out the yellow caution flag, essentially turning Lap 198 into the last lap. The last two laps would be run under caution (This scenario is no longer possible under the July 2004 green-white-checkered rule change). Petty and Cale Yarborough diced it out on that lap, with Yarborough drafting and taking an early lead before Petty managed to cross the start/finish line only a fender-length ahead. President Ronald Reagan was in attendance, the first sitting president to attend a NASCAR race. Reagan celebrated the milestone with Petty and his family in victory lane.

In 1992, Richard Petty retired from NASCAR, but not before he had two last great moments. In the first one, he led the Firecracker 400 for the first five laps (after qualifying 2nd) before he dropped out on lap 84 due to fatigue.

The second was in his final race at season finale in Atlanta. Petty's career was honored when he paced the field on a pace lap. Petty raced for the only time against Jeff Gordon, who was making his first Winston Cup start. The 1992 championship was decided by 10 points in the slimmest margin in NASCAR history (until the new "Chase for the Cup" was introduced). Second place finisher the late Alan Kulwicki won the championship by leading the most laps (one more than race winner Bill Elliott). The resulting 10-point swing in points proved to be the difference.

In later years of his career, Petty developed the career of crew chief Robbie Loomis, who was at the helm of Petty Enterprises as crew chief in the 1990's, and won three races -- the 1996 Checker Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix, the 1997 Subway 400 at Rockingham, both with Bobby Hamilton driving, and the 1999 Virginia 500 at Martinsville, with John Andretti driving.

Of all the races he won, Petty is also remembered for three of the many incredible crashes that he survived:

In the 1970 Rebel 400 at Darlington, Petty was injured when his Plymouth Roadrunner cut a tire and slammed hard into the wall separating the track from the pit area. The car flipped several times before coming to rest on its side. This accident injured Petty's shoulder, and helped Bobby Isaac to win the 1970 Grand National Championship. During the accident, Petty's head hit the track pavement several times, which led NASCAR to mandate the installation of the Petty-developed safety net that covers the driver's side window.
 
In a 1980 race at Pocono, Richard slammed the Turn 2 wall, nearly flipping the car. Petty nearly broke his neck in the wreck and kept his injury hidden from NASCAR officials for the next races, knowing that another wreck could possibly kill him. Such an incident could never happen today, because of modern NASCAR rules requiring an official series medical liaison to clear a driver after a crash.
In the 1988 Daytona 500, Petty's spectacular crash on Lap 106 hurled parts all over the front stretch at the Daytona International Speedway. Incredibly, after so many flips, Petty walked away with no serious injuries. The crash was similar to the accident suffered by Bobby Allison during the 1987 Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway in that both cars became airborne after turning sideways, and both cars damaged the spectator fencing (though Petty's crash did much less damage to the fencing). Petty's car became airborne despite the use of the carburetor restrictor plate, which was mandated by NASCAR for races at Talladega Superspeedway and Daytona International Speedway just prior to the start of the 1988 season.

Richard Petty is currently a spokesman for Cheerios and GlaxoSmithKline with both Nicorette and Goody's Headache Powder. He is almost always seen wearing his trademark sunglasses and a Charlie One Horse hat. In 1996, he was the Republican nominee for North Carolina Secretary of State, but was defeated by State Senator Elaine Marshall in the general election. He is cast as "The King" in the Cars (film) as a 1970 Plymouth Superbird with the number "43". A cereal "43"s was created with Petty information on the boxes.

Accessibility was his hallmark. In a sport, and a sports world, where big stars could and did refuse to sign autographs, Richard made a point of staying until everybody got one.

His work on behalf of his sport and his accessibility to fans are seen as crucial elements of NASCAR's transformation from the dirt tracks of the 1950s to the superspeedways and multi-million dollar sponsorships of today.


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