In the annuals of American motorsport, one driver reigns supreme – King Richard Petty. Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt may have been more versatile – Indy 500 and Formula One titles; Andretti even won the Daytona 500 – but for sustained dominance of a singular form of racing, Petty’s accomplishments are without peer. And he never needed help from a “competition yellow.”
His record is unprecedented and unlikely ever to be equaled: 200 wins in NASCAR competition; seven Winston Cup championships; a record 700 top-10 finishes. In 1967 alone, he won 27 races; in 1971 he won 21. For 18 consecutive seasons (1960 until 1977) Petty won at least one race. Oh, and he is not only the winningest driver in NASCAR history, but also its most popular.
No wonder he’s the only race driver to be crowned “The King.”
Richard Petty was born on July 2, 1937 in Level Cross, North Carolina, to Lee and Elizabeth Petty. His future exploits were somewhat preordained, as his father was a racer who would eventually win three NASCAR titles. Race cars were always a part of Richard and brother Maurice’s lives. Lee was a fixture in the garage who was constantly repairing his racing machines. The siblings learned at their father’s side and the atmosphere imbued in young Richard a fierce competitiveness, particularly when it came to racing things, whether it was wagons, bicycles or cars. That competitiveness manifested itself in Richard by his commitment to seize every advantage over his opponents.
Take wagon racing, at age eight. As Petty recalled in his autobiography, “I had a plan. I went straight to the reaper shed and got a can of axle grease from the shelf, and I took off each wheel and greased the daylights out of the axles. Dale and Maurice didn’t know they were in a race; they thought they were just playing, but I meant business. I beat them both by a country mile.” Or, as he summed it up: “Racing Lesson Number One: If you can get an advantage, take it.”
Meanwhile, Lee was competing in the fledgling NASCAR series. In the inaugural 1950 season, Lee placed third in the standings, then fourth in 1951. In 1954, he won his first of three titles. By this time, young Richard and Maurice were seasoned NASCAR crewmen. While Richard was keen to get behind the wheel himself, his father forbid him to race until he turned 21.
Ten days after he did, in the summer of 1958, Richard competed in his first race in Columbia, South Carolina; he finished sixth. He then made a handful of starts in the NASCAR Grand National series. In Toronto he competed against his father, who unceremoniously punted his kid into the fence. Lesson learned.
The following year, 1959, he earned NASCAR Rookie of the Year honors and placed 15th in points. He thought he had won his first race in Atlanta, besting his father. But Lee had other plans. He protested the result, claiming he was ahead of his offspring. He won the protest, thus denying Richard his first victory!
Once Richard settled into NASCAR, it was obvious he was a preternatural talent. Between 1961 and 1964, Petty won 45 of the 262 NASCAR events in which he ran and placed, and he finished in the top five 147 times. He conquered the Daytona 500 in 1964 driving a Hemi-powered Plymouth. The engine was so dominant, NASCAR banned it, prompting Petty to go drag racing instead in 1965. He returned to NASCAR later that year.
By 1967, Petty was simply dominant. Imagine a current NASCAR driver winning 27 of 48 races, including 10 in a row! Imagine a current driver blowing a tire, going 10 laps down and charging back to win by five! Naturally, he took his second NASCAR championship. He also earned something else – the moniker “The King.” As Richard explained to the St. Petersburg Times, “A bunch of reporters got together, sitting around drinking their Budweisers, and got to talking. If my name had been Dale or Kyle or Darrell, it wouldn’t have sounded like much. But Richard was just a natural to go with King. It stuck.”
To recount all of King Richard’s success, race wins, the next five NASCAR titles and such would take a year’s worth of Legends of Hot Rodding columns. Just listing awards and accomplishments is the stuff of Ripley’s Believe It or Not:
1959 — NASCAR Rookie of the Year
1962, 1968, 1974-77 — Most Popular Driver, NASCAR
1964, 1966, 1971, 1973-74, 1979, 1981— Daytona 500 victory
1971 — NASCAR Driver of the Year
1992 — Medal of Freedom, awarded by the President
1992 — Inducted into Daytona’s Stock Car Racing Hall of Fame
1997 — Inducted into Motorsports Hall of Fame
Motorsports journalist C.J. Baker marveled at Petty’s competitiveness. “Never let it be said that ‘The King’ was afraid to stand his ground on the track,” explained Baker. “I recall watching a NASCAR race at Ontario Motor Speedway in the late 1970s. Toward the end of the race, Richard was running for the lead in a tight four-car pack. One of them was A.J.Foyt. Lap after lap they ran that way, shuffling from inside to outside, leading or following. On one lap, A.J. crowded Richard against the wall; not hard but it forced ‘The King’ to scrape the wall. Next lap around, Richard repositioned himself inside of A.J. and slammed him hard into the wall. A.J. did not give Richard Petty any further trouble.”
Throughout his career, Petty was as popular off the track as he was on it. With his feather-festooned cowboy hat and wrap-around shades, coupled with the unmistakable Petty Blue cars adorned with the iconic STP logo, Petty defined NASCAR through the 1970s and ’80s. Fans couldn’t get enough of the guy.
Petty announced his retirement before the 1992 NASCAR season, calling it a “Fan Appreciation Tour.” Tens of thousands turned out across the country to see his last runs. President George H. W. Bush attended his final race. The King may have retired that day, but his reign over American motorsports will endure forever. Long live The King.