David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
BIRTH OF A KING
He wasn't the King, but a tall, lanky kid who had never made a competitive lap around a racetrack. He wore not leather cowboy boots, but chopped-off Wellingtons that stopped just above the ankle. If he wore sunglasses, it was just to keep the dirt out of his eyes. If he sported a hat, it was a simple ball cap, and not the cowboy variety with ostrich feathers adorning the front. He raced with a shop rag dipped half in water, sucking on the moist end to keep the mud out of his mouth.
He drove a convertible, a Grand National car with the roof cut off, on a nasty half-mile track that's long since been beaten down by progress and underbrush. He qualified 13th and finished sixth, five laps behind winner Bob Wellborn. He picked up a check for $200, loaded the racecar onto an open trailer hitched to a three-quarter-ton pickup, and began the journey home. And somewhere in the darkness of U.S. Highway 1, just outside of Rockingham, N.C., he turned to his good friend Dale Inman and uttered eight words that would alter the course of motorsports history.
"I think," Richard Petty said, "I'm going to like this driving."
And so it began, a career that would net a record 200 race wins and a record-tying seven championships, the greatest NASCAR has ever seen. And all of it – the Daytona 500 victories, the boots and the cowboy hat, STP and the No. 43, the persona of the King, all those untold autographs signed and photographs posed for – sprung from one night 50 years ago on a mean and unforgiving racetrack outside of South Carolina's capital city. It was at fast, slick Columbia Speedway, a place that attracted the best of the best, where Richard Petty first realized not only that he could drive, but that he loved to do it. The sport has never been the same since.
He had never driven a racecar before – well, not on a racetrack, Inman says now with a sly smile. Since the time he was 11, he had done virtually everything there was to do with a racecar except race it – building engines, building and painting cars, hauling them to the racetrack, repairing them in the pits. Because of a NASCAR age limit, he had to wait to take the next logical step. So on July 2, 1958, the day he turned 21, Richard Petty presented himself to his father Lee, a gruff three-time series champion who one year later would win the inaugural Daytona 500. He had met the age limit. He was ready to race.
Lee was taking a Grand National (now Sprint Cup) car to Asheville, N.C., for a race on McCormick Field, a baseball stadium still in use today. He knew Richard's birthday was looming, and he was prepared. He pointed to a car in another corner of the Petty Enterprises shop, telling Richard to cut the top off it and use it in a convertible race scheduled for July 12 at Columbia. He would go with Inman – who would later serve as Petty's crew chief during all seven of his championship seasons – and Red Miler, an engine man who had come south from Iowa with the great racer Tiny Lund.
And that was it. It happened with no ceremony, no attention, no pressure and no expectations. As Dale Earnhardt Jr., son of the late seven-time champion, neared his Cup debut in 1999, the passing days were marked with a "Countdown to E-Day." But in Petty's case, the birth of one of the iconic careers in sports history was marked only by three guys jumping into a truck.
"It was just another thing," Petty says now, his trademark cowboy hat sitting on a shelf in his motor home, his sunglasses exchanged for regular eyeglasses. "We weren't excited. It was just another day. Of course, I'm pretty low key anyway. But even at 21, I was. Nothing intimidated me."
A savage place
He couldn't have picked a meaner place to make his debut. Located just outside of town in the bedroom community of Cayce, Columbia Speedway was a snarling handful, and drivers loved it. The greats of the era flocked there, and like Indianapolis or Darlington today, only the best won there. Petty would go to Victory Lane seven times in Grand National competition, David Pearson five times, Buck Baker and Bobby Isaac four times each. Rex White, Ned Jarrett, Junior Johnson, Curtis Turner – the roll of winners at Columbia reads like an inaugural class for NASCAR's hall of fame.
You'd never know it today, though. The old racetrack is still there, deep in the forest in an industrial area of Columbia, hidden from view by trees and protected from trespassers by a fence. The only people to use it now are cyclists, who occasionally turn the old racing oval into a training track. Weeds sprout up through the asphalt, pines and willow oaks grow in the infield, and the old frontstretch guardrail is being eaten away by rust. Grandstands have long since been removed or crumbled away. It's hard to believe the place hosted NASCAR's premier series for two decades, from 1951-71, converting from dirt to asphalt in a vain attempt to thwart the inevitable, finally done in by more modern speedways elsewhere and encroaching neighborhoods that didn't want the dust and the traffic and the noise.
But while it existed, it was legendary. Columbia hosted most of its races on Thursday nights, a bit of strategic scheduling that attracted the best drivers because other facilities in the region raced on weekends. Ralph Earnhardt and Ned Jarrett competed there on a weekly basis, comparable to Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson racing each week on a Saturday night short track today. Championship-caliber drivers would show up even if they didn't have a ride, hoping to slip into one of the locals' cars. Grand National events would draw a packed house, the spectators who couldn't get in climbing trees to catch a glimpse of the action.
“Columbia always ran on Thursday night, because the army guys got paid on Thursday, and [track promoters] figured they wouldn't have no money by Friday or Saturday," Petty said. "It was great. There wasn't nobody else in the country racing on Thursday nights, and ... they got all the talent. So it was a knock-down, drag-out."
It could be a savage place. Old racers will tell you of the time a tire flew into the grandstand and killed a teenage spectator. Of the time the not-so-tiny Tiny Lund lifted one end of a racecar off the ground to help free a man who had been pinned beneath it. Of the city not being able to muster enough ambulances to take banged-up drivers to the hospital after a large crash. Of drivers getting too high in the turns, flying over the embankment, smashing through a wooden fence – and then turning around, driving right back up the hill, and getting back into the race.
"The upper groove – and there really was never an upper groove – you got into that, you were gone anyhow," said Buddy Baker, who began his driving career one year after Petty, and competed in 14 Grand National events at Columbia. "But if you went over the back, then you got into that wood fence. And I'm going to tell you, it made some noise."
Yet in spite of the danger – or perhaps, to a degree, because of it – people loved the place. The promoter was a former car salesman named Buddy Gooden, the public address announcer a former police chief named Bert Friday. "Here they come off the fourth turn, lined up like grandma's onions!'" he would bellow as the cars hit the frontstretch. The local drivers had names like Dink and Stick and Little Bud. The cars would roar though the corners at a cocked angle, sliding on the dirt just like sprint cars do today. Football players at the nearby University of South Carolina were let in free, and one of those who took advantage of the offer was a running back named Jim Hunter.
Hunter would later cover the speedway as the motorsports writer for Columbia's evening newspaper. He would do so not from the tiny press box, but from the back of a flatbed truck his friend Mike Harkey would park inside the first two turns. The place became the center of attention – drivers would congregate waiting for their heats to begin, coolers would be opened, Cale Yarborough would bring okra, butter beans and tomatoes from his family's farm in the state's Pee Dee region.
"A driver would fall out of the race, and come down to the flatbed," recalled Hunter, now a NASCAR vice president. "We'd give him a beer and talk about the race."
The dirt racing surface was one of the best around, keeping plenty of grip as long as it stayed wet. "But when that thing dried out, it was just like asphalt," Inman remembered. "It would cut a tire flat. We had a hole cut in the floorboard where a driver could see the tire, see if it had tread on it. If it had gone slick, it was worn out. He could see the right front and right rear. That's what this [sport] has come from."
Columbia was a tough place populated by tough men, a facility that South Carolina native Paul "Little Bud" Moore – a star on the Sportsman circuit, the forerunner to today's Nationwide Series – has called "possibly the ultimate short track." It was a facility that separated great drivers from ordinary ones. And into this atmosphere walked Petty, an untested 21-year-old with the right last name but no competitive laps under his belt, his father having chosen perhaps the most difficult place possible for his son to prove his racing mettle.
"I had never run a fast lap around a racetrack. Never, nowhere," Petty said. "And [Columbia] was probably one of the hardest tracks there was."
A different time
He wanted out.
At least, that's how it looked to Inman. Teams used hand signals in the days before radio communication, and the sign for a driver who wanted out of the car was to pat the top of his head. Sure enough, as Richard Petty thundered past the pit road, Inman saw him patting the top of his head, lap after lap after lap. It couldn't have been completely unexpected; after all, he was a kid driving in a real race for the first time. Who knew how he would react? Joe Weatherly was there, one of those greats who would come to Columbia without a car, hoping to finagle a ride. Looking back now, Inman wonders if it was Lee Petty who had sent
Weatherly, as a backup in case his 21-year-old son lost his nerve.
Inman told Weatherly to suit up, that Richard wanted out of the car. Weatherly, a two-time series champion who would die six years later as a result of injuries suffered in a crash at Riverside International Raceway, pulled on his helmet and the fingerless golf gloves in which he always drove.
ut Richard kept circling, and circling, and circling. When he finally did notice the suited-up Weatherly standing in his pit box, he waved him off. Later, on that dark drive back to Level Cross, N.C., Inman asked him – 'Why were you patting the top of your head?' Turns out Petty's head had been itching, and he was trying to scratch it through his helmet.
And that's about the extent of the drama that surrounded Petty's first NASCAR start, many of the details of which have been diluted by time. Petty and Inman struggle to recall the particulars of that night, not because of problems with their memory, but because it was just one race among thousands. Hunter attended so many events at Columbia, he can't remember if he was there or not – and if he was, nothing about the evening stood out. Richard Petty's debut was remarkable only because of its ordinariness. Nobody thought to save the uniform he wore or the tools they used, items worthy of a museum today. Nobody got too excited over a sixth-place finish, because he had been so many laps down.
"There was no planning or anything for it," Inman said. "I don't think ya'll understand how little press there was and everything back then. It was no big deal."
It was a different time. On return trips to Columbia, Petty would stop and make an appearance at a local Plymouth dealership. Since there were no such things as show cars, he would compete in the same vehicle that had been shown off on the dealership floor. It wasn't uncommon for Lee Petty to tow a racecar to an event not on a trailer, but on the road, it rolling in neutral behind another vehicle. Inman remembers a 500-mile race in California, after which the Petty Enterprises patriarch drove home cross-country in the same car he had competed in. NASCAR hosted a convertible series, tapping into the popularity of that type of vehicle in the same way the Craftsman Truck circuit makes the most of the pickup craze today.
Teams would cut the roof off a standard Grand National car, from the windshield to the rear post, and remove the windows from the side and back. Convertibles were outfitted so the tops could be bolted back on, allowing the car to race in either hardtop or convertible events – or those races, like the inaugural Daytona 500, that allowed both types of car. While they didn't travel as fast as the hardtop cars, convertibles could still make 130 mph on a big track. But racing with the top off and the wind rushing through your hair could be dangerous, and not nearly as refreshing as it might seem.
"The biggest thing a lot of people don't realize is, the convertible was actually hotter than the car with the roof on it," said Baker, who now co-hosts a program on Sirius Satellite Radio. "The roof was like a shade tree. You take that roof off, and it was some kind of hot."
There were no expectations, not even for a driver whose father was a champion, certainly not like those Kyle Petty would face entering the sport as son of a seven-time Cup winner. "You've got to figure, it was such a low-key deal there," Richard said. "You didn't have the press coverage. By the time Kyle come along, or Adam come along, people started comparing. Just like [Dale Earnhardt] Junior is compared with Dale. At that time, there was not enough press. You had Hunter and three or four other guys, they did all the press and shipped it out to everyone. If you got along with them, you had good press. And coming along then, everybody was trying to help the sport. None of those reporters was trying to dig up dirt on anybody, 'cause there was plenty of it."
No one had any inkling of how good he was going to be.
"Absolutely not," said Inman, when asked if he saw flashes of greatness in Petty that first night. The King himself saw sliding behind the wheel as nothing more as an extension of all that body and engine work he had done over the years, labor that taught him to respect the automobile. Drivers, after all, were the ones who showed you how well the car had been put together, making sure it handled and none of the pieces fell off. Petty knew all that before he ever slipped on a helmet. He knew drivers had to pace themselves, had to take care of the vehicle, had to respond to all the signals the car gave off. He knew this because he had spent years building them, and it was that knowledge that helped make him great.
"The mechanical background was probably the only way I personally made it," said Petty, who still worked on his own cars for years after he became a driver. "If I had been turned loose, told there's the car, now drive it, I probably couldn't have made it. It took a bunch of ingredients to make a success out of what we were doing."
There was one more moment, one more bit of drama to come out of that first start in Columbia, but it occurred on the ride home. Inman hadn't had much experience towing a trailer, and about turned the three-quarter-ton truck sideways in a corner. "Scared the pee out of me," Petty says now with a laugh. In Rockingham, they stopped for gas. When Inman got out, Petty slid behind the wheel. He stayed there for 34 years.
A King is born
Six days after that debut in Columbia, Petty made his first Grand National start – in, of all places, Canadian Exposition Stadium in Toronto, finishing 17th in an event his father Lee won. The next year he was back in Columbia, and this time the flashes of greatness were clearly evident. He won, scoring his first victory in a NASCAR-sanctioned series, but since it occurred in a convertible and outside of the Grand National ranks, it wasn't the first step toward 200.
That didn't come until two years later, when Petty scored his first Grand National victory at Charlotte. And suddenly, the floodgates opened: two more wins that year, two more the next, eight in 1962 and 14 in 1963. Even judging by today's standards, it took only a very short period of time for Petty to evolve from Lee's son to the biggest star in the sport. He was a talkative, media-friendly driver in an era when many others were tight-lipped or shy. He had factory backing and NASCAR's best team behind him. He had that intangible quality that attracted fans to him, almost single-handedly building a support base for NASCAR just as Arnold Palmer was doing the same for golf.
"His personality was so good, and he was so at ease with sportswriters," Hunter said. "If you covered a race, and Herb Thomas won it or Joe Weatherly won it and Richard finished 30th, you would go to Richard, because you knew Richard would just talk to you. Junior Johnson was known as a 'yep' and 'nope' answer guy, and Richard would carry on a conversation with you. And as a result of what happened between him and the media, it transformed him into a star. It wasn't overnight, but over a period of years. Every time you picked up the paper, you were reading around Richard Petty. And plus, he was winning."
Winning big. He finished as runner-up for the championship in just his second full-time season, and four years later netted his first crown. "He had so much ability, and he understood the game," said Baker, who once drove for the Pettys. "It wasn't whether he could go out there and demolish the crowd or not. He realized that sometimes the fastest car doesn't always win, and it's about being smarter than the rest of them."
And along the way, piece by piece, he became the King. First the sunglasses, then the cowboy boots, and finally the hat. It was born in a practical, Petty fashion, giving Richard a way to avoid potentially offending sponsors and to keep from looking mussed-up when he climbed out of the car. "We had three or four different sponsors. I was always talking to the Goodyear guy when I was wearing an STP hat, or talking to the STP guy when I had on a Union Oil hat," he said. "I said, man, this ain't going to get it. The cowboy hat worked good. And, I didn't have to worry about combing my hair. Some boys used to look in the mirror and comb their hair before they'd get out of the car."
His popularity soared, eclipsing anything the sport had ever seen. Petty became the first driver to have a national sponsor, one of the first to do television work, easily one of the most comfortable in front of the camera. His down-home accent belied a shrewd business sense inherited from his father. Why did he sign all those autographs? Partly because he liked the attention, but also because he knew more fans in the grandstands meant a bigger winner's check.
"Every time a fan would come down, I would say, 'Thank you for buying a ticket so I can buy me a hot dog going home.' So every time I signed an autograph, it was a thank you for just being a race fan," he said. "You didn't have to be a Richard Petty fan, you could just be a race fan. So if you read through the Richard Petty, you'd see, thank you."
He's been out of the car for 16 years now, but he still signs those thank-yous, every time he walks through the garage. And it all started five decades ago, with three friends, one car, a $200 dollar paycheck and a long-forgotten South Carolina racetrack that's since been handed over to birds, mosquitoes and weeds.
"Richard is the all-time No. 1 ambassador to this sport, and still is," Hunter said. "Fans just react to him. ... I have never seen him turn anybody down. Never. I don't care if he just got wrecked, he never has turned the fan down that I'm aware of. Guys say the demands weren't there. The demands were there, because everybody wanted Richard, and not the other 42. He's carried that a long time, and carried it very well."