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.
For Richard Petty and his father, Lee, the patriarch of the racing family, the sport was very much a business.
There were bills to pay, payrolls to meet, parts and pieces to buy, engines to build. It all depended on money flow, and that meant creating success on the track.
Lee started it, turning an old reaper shed with a tin roof and a dirt floor into a race shop. Over the years, the giant that became Petty Enterprises was built around the core of that old shed, and four generations of Pettys would drive from there into victory lane.
Richard was there – literally – at the creation. When Lee ran in the first race in Sprint Cup (then Strictly Stock) history June 19, 1949, at a pockmarked dirt track in Charlotte, N.C., Richard was in the grandstands. He was 11 years old but already a veteran of working at his father’s shop. By the time he reached 14, he was building race engines.
Although the family built and owned race cars, it wasn’t an easy life.
Richard and his parents lived with his grandparents for a time before moving to their own small home. In the beginning, there was no electricity, no running water and no indoor plumbing. Petty said he wouldn’t describe his early upbringing as dirt poor, but, clearly, there were no luxuries.
Richard and his brother, Maurice (later the team’s chief engine builder) and their cousin, Dale (later Richard’s crew chief) raced wagons and bicycles in the woods near the Petty home when they were children. At the age of 5, Petty took the wheel of a vehicle for the first time when he was allowed to drive the family’s Ford pickup on a farm field.
Richard played basketball, baseball and football at Randleman High School and had small-college scholarship offers to play football, but there was never any doubt that he would be a racer. He joined the Petty racing team full-time a year after his graduation from high school in 1955.
Lee won 55 Cup races, a record he would give up to – perhaps no surprise – his son.
“When Richard came along, he had a great teacher in his daddy, Lee,” said Bud Moore, a retired NASCAR team owner who joined others in trying to compete with the Pettys. “Richard was a heck of a competitor. He liked to race. Most of us only ran 18 or 20 races a year for quite a while. The Pettys ran them all. If there were 50 races, Richard ran them.
“He had a good team behind him and a good crew chief behind him. His daddy taught him quite a bit about what to do and what not to do.”
One of those “not to do” things occurred in dramatic fashion – for both Pettys – in 1961 at Daytona International Speedway. The qualifying races for the Daytona 500 that year were 100 miles. Richard was scheduled to race in the first and his father in the second.
On the last lap of the first race, Richard tried to avoid a spinning car, slipped up the banking and onto the guardrail and sailed out of the speedway and down a 40-foot bank. Fortunately, his worst injury was a twisted ankle, and he suffered that climbing out of the wrecked car.
His father was not as lucky. In the second race, as Richard was released from the track hospital, Lee was involved in a violent crash on the opposite end of the track. His car also flew over the wall, and his injuries were serious. He had a mangled leg, a punctured lung, internal bleeding and numerous cuts. He had two operations and was hospitalized for four months.
Although Lee raced in a few more events, the accident effectively ended his driving career.
Richard accelerated beyond his father in his overall approach to the sport. Lee was much more of a bottom-line racer. He saw the sport in terms of dollars and cents. Although Richard also cherished that bottom line, he was much more goal-oriented and attracted to the idea of success.
And of lifting the identity of the sport.
“Richard really had an awful lot to do with giving the sport a quality name and respect,” said retired driver Johnny Allen, who raced against a young Petty in the 1950s and 1960s. “When I first came in, it was all pretty much roughnecks. There was a lot of stuff going on – a lot of fights at the track. NASCAR did a good job of controlling it, but it could get rough.
“Richard helped to change some of that. I always admired him for the way he handled himself. All the drivers liked and respected him. He was never big-headed or a smart-aleck. I’ve seen him leading a race with three laps to go and blow a tire and finish far back. Then he’d still sit in the back of his truck and sign autographs, all the while smiling.”
WEDNESDAY: Across The Border
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.