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.
His car rolled and tumbled down the frontstretch before being hit by another car, and the violence of the crash was such that television commentators quickly began speculating that Petty’s career might be at an end.
He didn’t miss a race.
Looking back over the years, it almost seems as if Petty had the ideal setup entering the sport. The Petty shop was next door to his home, and he could follow in the footsteps of his dad to learn all the ins and outs of the sport.
“He had a good 10 years’ experience before he ever set down in a race car,” retired driver Johnny Allen said. “He grew up helping his dad, went to all the races, was just there. He quickly learned the mechanics of it, how to make the car handle. He had a ton of knowledge going for him.
“Of course, none of that is worth two cents if you don’t have the ability and the passion to get out there and make it happen. He had that. He was smooth. He was good.
“His dad was a points racer, a money racer. I always said if it paid more money to finish last than first, Lee would finish last. Richard was the other way. Richard wanted to win every race. He wasn’t going to slow down and take care of equipment. He was more competitive than his dad from that standpoint.”
Petty’s racing life has not been without its tragedies.
In 1965, when NASCAR outlawed the powerful Hemi engines used by Chrysler teams, the factory pulled out of racing, leaving Petty without a ride. He retreated to drag racing, running a Plymouth with factory support.
That detour turned deadly on a Sunday afternoon in Dallas, Ga., when a front-end problem developed in Petty’s car, and it swerved to the left on a run and into a wire fence. The fence and car hit the crowd, and an 8-year-old boy was killed.
In May 1975, Petty’s brother-in-law, Randy Owens, was killed in a freak pit-row accident at Talladega Superspeedway. A member of the Petty Enterprises crew, Owens died when a pressurized air tank he was using exploded.
And, of course, the Petty family and organization was stunned in May 2000 by the death of Adam Petty, Richard’s grandson and the heir apparent to the Petty Enterprises throne. He was killed during practice for a Nationwide Series race in Loudon, N.H.
Richard’s final season as a driver – 1992 – was labeled the Fan Appreciation Tour, and he was honored at every track on the schedule. During that season, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, from President George Bush.
Then he rode off into a new phase of his life – team owner. And he’s still there, although Petty Enterprises is no more and Petty is a minority owner of Richard Petty Motorsports, which is controlled by the Gillett family.
Everything has changed, and nothing has changed. Richard Petty is still the King.
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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.