"Richard was made for this sport, or this sport was made for Richard—however you want to look at it," says Waltrip. "Particularly in the early years, it was as if Richard had written the script and NASCAR just helped him play it out. And anybody else who tried to come in, tried to get a leading role, had to be the bad guy."
For almost 20 years Pearson was the perennial other guy, though not so much the bad guy as simply not Petty. "I was bashful," says Pearson. "I'd hide from the media, and Richard would talk to them. I once saw him ask a TV reporter if he wanted an interview. I'd never have done such a thing. It hurt me in the long run. Richard did it the right way."
Aficionados will say that Pearson was a better driver than Petty—smoother and wilier. Says Petty, "Pearson could beat you on a short track, he could beat you on a superspeedway, he could beat you on a road course, he could beat you on a dirt track. It didn't hurt as bad to lose to Pearson as it did to lose to some of the others, because I knew how good he was."
"We finished one-two more than anybody else ever did," Pearson says. The Petty-Pearson quinella came in a remarkable 63 times between 1963 and '77. At the time of their last one-two finish (which Petty won, at Riverside, Calif., on June 12, 1977), they had finished one-two more than any other NASCAR driver had even won races. Allison, Cale Yarborough and Waltrip have since surpassed 63 wins each. Pearson finished with a 33-30 edge over Petty in races that they finished one-two, but of all those races, one stands out most keenly in Petty's mind.
It was the Daytona 500 in February 1976. On the final lap the two came flying side by side through the high-banked third turn, Pearson completing a classic "slingshot" drafting maneuver. But Petty counterpunched, regaining the lead through the fourth and final turn with an unprecedented sort of re-slingshot. As they entered the home stretch, Petty pinched Pearson into the outside retaining wall. Pearson collided with Petty but was able to keep his engine running. Petty, his car fishtailing from the impact with Pearson's, continued several hundred yards before hitting the wall. As Petty's Dodge sat smoking, immobile, Pearson drove his wrecked Mercury under the checkered flag at 10 mph to win the 500.
Of all the drivers from other forms of racing who came to run occasionally in NASCAR—from Jim Clark to Mario Andretti—Foyt is the one Petty would have loved to face on a regular basis. "If Foyt had run with us full-time," Petty says, "nobody might have ever heard of Richard Petty." He grins. "Then again, nobody might have ever heard of A.J. Foyt."
The two men chose separate paths, Foyt driving Indy Cars and Petty stock cars, but their careers were strangely parallel. A hot streak or a slump by one usually meant the same for the other. When things went sluggish for both, Foyt would come to run a NASCAR race. "I'd go to Richard and say, 'Goddammit, start winning again and get us going!' " says Foyt.
From Foyt's mouth, these are enormous words: "I kinda looked up to him."
Still does, Foyt says, "because I admire what he's done." Maybe it's because, above all, Foyt sensed a bedrock toughness in Petty. Foyt, the raging bull, has always worn his toughness on his sleeve. Petty has worn his in his hip pocket, seldom visible but always ready. In 1971 and '72 he and Allison engaged in their notorious feud, knocking each other's cars all over virtually every NASCAR track in America. Finally they held peace talks. "As far as I'm concerned, it's over," Petty told Allison, then a wiry welterweight of a man. "But if I hear one more word you've said in the media, I'm gonna beat the livin'——out of you."
Allison, the same age as Petty and a friend since the feud ended, was not able to choose the time of his retirement. A near-fatal brain injury, suffered in a crash at Pocono Raceway in 1988, made his decision for him. He has since recovered enough to lead a fairly normal life but not to race. "I guess I pity more than envy" Petty's having to make a decision to retire, Allison says. "He's earned the right to run until he's 90 if he wants to."