But Petty's biggest parting has already taken place. He has raced his last at Daytona International Speedway. The man and the track made each other famous. His seven victories in the Daytona 500 are as many as the second-and third-best achievers have managed together. The man and the event are synonymous; no one has ever gained so much attention for losing a race as Petty did at the Daytona 500 in 1976, when he and David Pearson crashed into each other with the checkered flag in sight.
He hasn't won on the NASCAR circuit since 1984, admitting that "the legend part is what has kept Richard Petty going." But that final victory provided the sort of material that seals lasting fame: It was Petty's 200th, and it came at his beloved Daytona, not in the 500 but in the Firecracker 400, on the Fourth of July, with President Ronald Reagan looking on.
For his final Daytona drive, this past July 4, Petty qualified on the front row and led the first five laps of the race but parked his car on the 84th lap because of sheer fatigue. So far in his final season, he has finished no higher than 15th.
In his twilight years partial deafness has blessed him with an inability to hear younger drivers' snide remarks that he is over the hill and ought to quit. Now that he is officially retiring, the young hot dogs are a little ashamed of themselves. Now they pay their tributes to the King. It makes them look good, look humble, and it keeps A.J. Foyt off their backs. Foyt, perhaps the staunchest admirer of Petty in the world, growled last year upon hearing of the sniping, "Richard Petty's won more races than 90 percent of these sonsabitches will ever go to!"
For the fans, the memories—and Petty's diligent acknowledgment of his faithful's adoration—are enough to keep him the King, despite eight years of not winning. For his farewell tour he has allowed himself a sanctuary, a luxury motor coach in which to rest at each track, because the fans and the media have multiplied so greatly.
"The greatest luxury of this bus is the bathroom," he says, emerging from the toilet. "I can go whenever I like. Out in the garage area, it takes half an hour to get from my race car to the rest room [through mobs of autograph seekers] and half an hour to get back." He could have hidden in a motor coach for the past 20 years, as younger drivers often do nowadays. But Petty remained among the people—smiling, signing, always smiling, always signing—one-hour trips to the bathroom and all.
He and his family have paid a price for his success and popularity. In 1967 Petty won 27 races (out of 48), a record that will be virtually impossible to break because NASCAR's Winston Cup tour now counts only 29 races. After that grinding '67 season, says Lynda, Petty's wife of 33 years, "we had plans to go to Panama to visit some friends. But at the last minute, Chrysler Corporation needed him to do something [Plymouths wore Petty's number 43 in those days; Pontiacs have since 1982]. I ended up flying with three children down to Miami and then to Panama, all of us really upset that he didn't get to go. Since then, I don't know how many times he has come to me and said, 'I hate to tell you this, but....' And I would take the children and go on. I couldn't disappoint them just because he couldn't go. We've learned to live that way."
Even the Pettys' avocations are public. Back home in North Carolina, Richard serves on the Randolph County Commission—salary $200 a month—and Lynda sits on the county school board. "He's never been a hunter or a fisherman or a golfer," says Lynda. "He docs have a tractor with a bush hog. He's cut roads all through these woods [their 500-acre spread in Level Cross]. He gets on his four-wheeler and rides those roads for hours, and nobody bothers him. That's the nearest thing to a hobby he has."
He will not even suggest that the weight of being the King may have had something to do with his ulcer surgery of '78. At the time, he says, "I wasn't eating right, wasn't sleeping right, wasn't doing anything right, and it all caught up with me. A lot of it could have been mental. I don't know. I can't separate those things."
That was the year his slip from the pinnacle began. He suffered through the first big losing streak of his career, going winless through all of '78. While other NASCAR teams went high-tech, refining aerodynamics and chassis with more sophisticated engineering and less hard-knocks savvy, Petty Enterprises remained complacent. "We'd been winning for 20 years and decided we wouldn't change," Petty says. "We should have led the way [in technology], but we didn't even follow." And so his dominance ebbed, but not the legend. In fact, his public image may have helped to hasten his downfall, for he was simply too busy with the public to spend time with his mechanics improving the team's race cars.