The NASCAR Hall of Fame will induct the five members of its inaugural class May 23. Leading up to the hall’s induction ceremony, SPEEDtv.com is profiling the first five racing legends chosen for this unique honor.
There have been pretenders to the throne – drivers like Fireball Roberts and Fred Lorenzen, Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison, Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon. They were superstars of their eras, men who drove to the front and stayed there, men who built powerful racing careers.
None of them, however, was the King.
As long as there is stock car racing, there will be only one King. Richard Petty.
He picked up the nickname during a stellar 1967 season in which, remarkably, he won 27 races. Even more remarkably, he won 10 of them IN A ROW.
Try that, Jimmie Johnson.
If there was ever a no-brainer in the history of stock car racing, it appeared last year when Petty was named to the inaugural class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Five men were elected. It is not stretching the imagination to suggest that if there had been room for only one person in the hall’s inaugural class, that person would have been Richard Petty.
Through the 1960s and 1970s, Petty was the bright light at the center of stock car racing. He won races – dozens of them – and championships – seven of them. He became a sponsor and fan magnet. He dined with presidents and kings (real, honest-to-goodness, royalty-type kings).
And he signed. Boy, did he sign. It is quite likely that only a few people in history have signed more autographs than Petty. And he still is at it today, almost two decades after he drove a race car for the last time.
With his willingness to meet with fans, his piano-keyboard smile and his ability to bring others into his orbit, Petty built the pattern for all who would follow in his sport. During NASCAR’s building years in the 1960s, the graph of the sport’s progress could be measured on his strong back.
As he and stock car racing grew, his name became synonymous with winning and with doing it with style and professionalism.
His accomplishments are familiar but no less staggering: 200 Sprint Cup victories, seven Cup championships, seven Daytona 500 victories, the sport’s first million-dollar winner, 41 500-mile race wins, prime builder of a racing team that once ruled its sport like the Yankees rule baseball.
Perhaps more importantly, he was there for everyone. On many nights at some backwater track far from the interstate, after an eighth-place finish in a race that barely paid enough to the winner to meet expenses, he would sit for hours after the race, still sweating in his firesuit, signing autographs.
And the fans never forgot.
Even in the dying years of his driving career, when wins were non-existent and even top 10s were hard to come by, Petty retained one of the most loyal fan followings in the business.
They never forgot the King.
Now, with the Hall induction, no one ever will.
Bobby Allison, who probably will join Petty in the NASCAR Hall in the next year or two, was one of his greatest rivals, and he can quickly cut to what made Petty so great.
“There were people who were drivers,” Allison said. “Cale [Yarborough] was a driver. David Pearson was a driver. They were really good at what they did, but Richard Petty – he really went into the workings of what it took to go to a race and win it, whether it was a quarter-mile or half-mile or Daytona or a road course or a dirt track.
“He knew what it took to go to that place and win a race. I admired that. That was always my target.”
TUESDAY: Rough Beginnings
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEEDtv.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.
The NASCAR Hall of Fame Grand Opening is set for May 11, 2010. Outdoor Opening Ceremonies are May 11th from 9 to 10 am ET free of charge, open to the public. Outdoor festivities including driver appearances and concerts May 11th from 10 am until 8 pm ET open to the public, free of charge. Tickets to enter the NASCAR Hall of Fame are on sale now at www.NASCARHall.com or by calling 877-231-2010. The countdown to the NASCAR Hall of Fame is on! Visit www.NASCARHall.com/50days for daily updates about the NASCAR Hall of Fame.