In 1986 Petty gave some telling advice to the young Bill Elliott, who was hurtling into stardom but was baffled by the limelight. "You've got to grin and bear it while you're there," Petty told him. "Then you can go out behind the building to cuss and throw up."
In 1989 came the lowest point of Petty's career. He was having trouble even qualifying for races. In April at Bristol International Raceway, a little hellhole in the hills of eastern Tennessee, rain was coming down in sheets, drowning his last chance to qualify for that weekend's race. He sat in a rented station wagon, head bowed, a hand over his eyes. Another icon, Pete Rose, was in the news, in trouble. "A compulsive gambler can't quit," Petty said of Rose. "Can't quit when he's winning, can't quit when he's losing. Sort of like me."
Then came a tapping at the window. Outside in the downpour stood three boys, aged 10 or so, with a pen and some soggy pieces of paper. Petty summoned his trademark grin and lowered the window. "How 'bout it, boys?" he said. They asked for his autograph. He found some dry paper in the car, signed and handed each boy a sheet. "How'd you do in qualifying?" one of the boys asked. There was a second of silence. Petty sighed. He resummoned the grin. "We're workin' on it." he said. The boys left exultant. Petty's weathered right hand returned to his eyes, and lie slumped deep into the seat. It was sinking in that there would probably never be a 201st victory.
Yet 200 is nearly twice the career total of David Pearson, the man with the second-most NASCAR wins, 105. Pearson, who retired in 1986, is the man Petty considered his toughest competitor through the years. The only major Petty record that appears threatened is his seven season championships. Dale Earnhardt, still in his prime at age 40, has won five but has only 53 career wins on the Winston Cup tour and an unpaved demeanor. Elliott, 37, the nearest Petty surrogate in terms of fan appeal, has only recently gotten the upper hand in his chronic battle with discomfort in the public eye.
Any NASCAR star will sign autographs nowadays—for $10,000 per session or on orders from a corporate sponsor. And the young guns sometimes hand out machine-printed autographs. But, says Petty, "everything that's supposed to be autographed, I sign." For 35 years he has signed his name, on average, 600 times a day. He signs in his office in the morning, on private and commercial planes, at public appearances, at home at night, right up until bedtime; he signs posters, souvenirs, letters, trading cards, toys. He personally signs every response to every letter in the full mailbag that arrives every day at his racing compound in Level Cross. He long ago mastered a handwriting technique that utilizes the muscles in his arm rather than his hand, so he won't get writer's cramp.
Big Jesse Sykes, who at 450 pounds is an unofficial Petty bodyguard and something of a sage in the garages, stuffs his catcher's-mitt hands into his overalls and remarks on the drivers of past and present. "You can't compare a man doin' it for money with a man that done it for love," he says. "Richard done it when there weren't no money."
In the years when NASCAR was just emerging from the dirt tracks, "we didn't have sponsors," says Petty. "We didn't have nobody to please. We didn't have nobody to tell us when to do right. We just done it. To begin with, it was an honor—still is. But a cat from Level Cross, never been nowhere, he goes down to South Carolina or up to New York and some-body wants his autograph. It was a big deal. Big honor. Once you got doing it, you didn't mind doing it. You seen how it pleased the people. It just happened. The good Lord just docs these things, and I don't know why, and the people don't know why."
"Nobody fills those shoes." says driver Darrell Waltrip, who seemed to think that he could when he exploded onto the NASCAR scene in the 1970s, young, articulate, brash and talented. Waltrip at first thought NASCAR needed a new, more polished hero—a Waltrip—to purge the sport of the good-ol'-boy stereotypes of Petty's generation. With avalanches of boos, the public let Waltrip know it liked the King and his realm just fine. And for years, every time the aggressive Waltrip so much as rubbed fenders with another driver, his roller-coaster image would take a plunge. Waltrip, now 45 and wiser, says, "The thing that has impressed me most through the years about Richard is his image. Through the good times and the bad times, that has never changed."
Incidents that would have engulfed Waltrip, or virtually any other driver, in controversy never seemed to dent the Petty mystique. Following a victory by Petty at Charlotte in 1983, his engine was found to have a larger-than-allowed displacement. NASCAR fined him $35,000 but let him keep the victory. Says Petty, "We were lucky enough that the people let it go—they didn't harp on it."
Petty has been involved in fender-banging feuds, most notably a running war with Bobby Allison in the early '70s. But he has never had the bad-guy label hung on him.