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.
Richard Petty had grand moments, but he also had days when everything landed on his head – even his car.
One of the worst wrecks of his career occurred in May 1970 in the Rebel 400 at Darlington Raceway, a track Petty often found perplexing. Those who were there that day remember it vividly. Petty roared out of the fourth turn, slammed into the outside wall, bounced into the inside wall protecting pit road and flipped his Plymouth four times.
The car came to rest on its roof in front of the horrified frontstretch crowd, which had watched Petty’s left arm flopping out the car’s window as the car rolled.
Petty briefly lost consciousness, but he was moving around as safety workers placed him in an ambulance. He suffered a broken shoulder and missed five races. NASCAR responded to the fact that Petty almost fell out of the car during its wild ride by requiring teams to put driver’s side window nets in their race cars.
A year later, Petty became the first NASCAR driver to win $1 million in a career.
And he had only begun to fight.
“The more he ran, the stronger he got,” retired team owner Bud Moore said of Petty. “His ability to drive – you couldn’t have asked for any better.”
In 1975, he scored 13 wins and his fifth championship.
In 1976, he threatened to win the Daytona 500 again but was turned back on the last lap in a dramatic finish with his No. 1 nemesis, David Pearson. They crashed approaching the checkered flag out of the final turn, and Pearson urged his damaged car across the finish line to win the race.
Petty and Pearson finished one-two 63 times (Pearson winning 33 of those) in their legendary careers. They rarely had problems.
“We always ran good together,” Pearson said. “I had no trouble with Richard. When we ran on dirt, you could get your nose up under somebody and spin them out, but we never spun each other out. I never tried to spin him out. I enjoyed running with him.”
Three years later, Petty kicked off what would become his seventh and last title run by scoring a surprise win in the Daytona 500 after leaders Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashed on the last lap.
In the 1980s, the Petty express slowed dramatically, and it was clear that both the driver and the team had seen better days.
There was one last big hurrah, however, and it came on one of the most memorable race days in NASCAR history.
President Ronald Reagan attended the summer race at Daytona International Speedway in 1984, met with drivers, participated briefly in the radio broadcast of the race and stayed around for the race finish.
He saw a great one. Coming to a late-race caution flag that obviously would mark the last competitive lap of the race, Petty and Cale Yarborough banged into each other side-to-side as they approached the finish line. Petty edged in front by a few feet to score the 200th – and last – victory of his Cup driving career.
It sparked a red, white and blue July 4 victory celebration unlike few others in the sport’s history. And a president was there to supply the extras.
Petty drove on for eight more seasons, and his final start – at Atlanta Motor Speedway in November 1992 – created an emotional day for virtually all involved.
He was saluted at the pre-race drivers meeting. “I really appreciate what y’all have done for us over the years,” Petty said to the other drivers in the field. “Try not to hit me today, and I’ll try not to hit you.”
Then Petty handed each driver a silver money clip. Each clip was engraved with the driver’s name, his starting position and the track’s name. On the other side was this message: Thanks for all the memories – Richard Petty.”
Petty said the end of his driving career did not bring sadness.
“Hopefully, I can look back on more good times than bad times,” he said. “All the people I’ve met and all the things I’ve done through the years, we’ll roll up into a big ball so I can look at the whole picture. There haven’t been any sad times, and I’m not looking for any.”
Declining performance over the final years of his career hurt, however.
“I don’t mind not finishing good from time to time, but I hate like a son of a gun to go out there and not be competitive with anybody,” he said. “That’s what really hurts. When you go out there and think you’ve put it all together and run 15th or 20th instead of fourth or fifth, then it really, really hurts.
“When that’s been happening over a long period of time, it doesn’t get any easier to accept.”
Petty crashed early in the race, and his car briefly caught fire – “I went out in a blaze of glory,” he joked later, but the team performed some quick repairs so that Petty could return to the track and be rolling when his last checkered flag fell.
Petty later admitted that he probably drove too long, but he said being in the car on race days was the best part of his week and that he simply struggled with the idea of giving it up.
“He, A.J. Foyt and Darrell Waltrip did run too long,” NASCAR historian Buz McKim said. “But they were racers by nature. It’s tough for guys to walk away. They just really enjoyed driving race cars.”
FRIDAY: Still The King
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.