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.
Growing up in the Petty shop adjacent to the family home, it was virtually inevitable that Richard Petty would follow his father, Lee, into racing.
It seems almost unbelievable now, though, that the man who would come to define American auto racing over a long and spectacular career drove outside the borders of the United States to start his major-league career.
Petty’s first Cup race was in Toronto, Canada on July 18, 1958. His NASCAR debut had come six days earlier in a Convertible Division race in Columbia, S.C. After he proved that he could go fast and turn left in the Columbia event, Richard was sent to Toronto to drive an oft-used Petty Enterprises Oldsmobile at the Canadian National Exposition Speedway, a facility that no longer exists.
When the track was torn down to make way for new construction, somebody sent Petty one of the steel poles used to support the track fence. It’s his only souvenir from the debut.
Petty, then 21, finished 17th of 19 drivers in the 100-lap race on the .333-mile track. Petty crashed 55 laps into the race. He was knocked into the wall by a much faster car – one driven by his dad, Lee, who went on to win the race.
“Richard was all over the track,” remembered Ross Kennedy, the flagman for that race. “Lee was leading, and he came around, and there was Richard in the way. Whomp – that was the end of Richard.”
It was business. That was Lee Petty.
During his career, Petty started 513 consecutive races, running despite a laundry list of broken bones, stomach ailments, recurring headaches and surgeries. That stretch lasted from 1971 to 1989.
His most remarkable season, however, occurred in 1967, when his Petty blue Plymouth – scheduled to be one of the primary attractions in the new Hall of Fame – was practically unbeatable.
Petty won and won and won. Oddly enough (for such a productive season), he did not win the Daytona 500, which became a Petty signature event. In fact, his most dominant season ever really didn’t get seriously on track until mid-summer.
Petty opened the streak by winning at tiny Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C. Aug. 12. He followed with victories at Columbia, S.C.; Savannah, Ga.; Darlington, S.C.; Hickory, N.C.; Richmond, Va.; Beltsville, Md.; Hillsborough, N.C.; Martinsville, Va. and North Wilkesboro, N.C.
The streak had its oddities. When Petty won at Darlington, it would mark his last win on NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway, and he won at Hickory Speedway despite driving the final two laps on a flat tire.
“They were all shooting at us,” said Dale Inman, Petty’s crew chief. “Ford was bringing in top drivers and sending everything they had at us.”
Those who thought Petty might win every race through the end of his career were disappointed the next week when he didn’t win at Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina. He and Paul Goldsmith crashed early in the race when Goldsmith blew a tire and spun. Petty returned to the track but blew an engine and wasn’t running at the finish.
It was during that season that Petty’s fame grew by leaps and bounds and fans started slapping “Petty for President” bumper stickers on their cars.
Earlier, Petty had shown signs of the fire that would drive the 1967 season.
He scored his first victory in what would become the Cup series Feb. 28, 1960 at the old Charlotte Fairgrounds track.
In 1964, he won his first championship and scored his first Daytona 500 win.
As the numbers piled up, Petty gained more and more attention from fans and sponsors. And the level of income at Petty Enterprises increased, allowing the team to build on its strengths, add personnel and, in many cases, outclass the rest of the field.
“He usually had the best equipment, but still you had to have the ability in order to get that backing,” said NASCAR historian Buz McKim. “You had to have the expertise to keep your car in one piece. And you had to have the determination to run all those races.”
And, all the while, Petty was becoming a favorite in the garage area, too.
“I remember Donnie Allison talking about Richard as a person,” McKim said. “He said you could draft up behind him and he would work with you. He would not only do good, but he’d make sure you were doing good, too. He’d work his way through the field with you. Donnie always thought a lot of Richard because of that. He was pretty benevolent as a competitor.”
Donnie’s brother, Bobby, however, brought out the dark side in Petty. They once engaged in one of the longest and most animated feuds in NASCAR history, slamming each other’s cars in a succession of short-track races before eventually calling a truce.
“Richard was the living, breathing, operating model of what every race driver really wanted to be,” Bobby Allison said. “You wanted to have the best of equipment and the best crew and drive good and win races and do all those things.
“Richard Petty is who I went to the race track to race every week.”
The peak of the Petty-Allison feud occurred at North Wilkesboro Speedway in October 1972. They slammed into each other much of the day before Petty edged Allison in a cloud of smoke on the final lap. Petty needed protection from irritated Allison fans after the race ended.
THURSDAY: Dark Day At Darlington
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.