Down the final stretch, in the waning weeks of his career, Richard Petty can hardly hear the crowds roaring their farewells. He is 55 years old and partly deaf. The engines have sung to him for too long—through 35 years and 200 major stock car racing wins and passage into blue-collar legend.
After Sunday's Mello Yello 500 in Charlotte, N.C., only three races remain in this, Petty's final season of driving. Three more races, and there will be rest for the lanky frame that has been damaged literally from head to foot—from concussions to broken toes, with all kinds of damage in between. In 1980 Petty drove with a broken neck, knowing that even a bump from another ear could kill him. But the most telling setback occurred in 1978, when 40% of his ulcer-ravaged stomach was surgically removed, likely the price of being too nice to too many people for too long.
"Sometimes," he says, "it's a blessing to be hard of hearing."
Petty has given every bit of himself to the sport he personally brought out of the backwoods and off the bootlegger trails. He is NASCAR's Arnold Palmer. When motor racing fans speak of the King, they don't mean Elvis.
"There arc no more Richard Pettys here," says his son, Kyle, 32, himself a 14-year veteran NASCAR driver. "Nobody to pick up where he'll leave off. And that going to be a major problem for the sport. It's not so much what he's won. Forget winning 200 races, seven championships, seven Daytona 500s [all records]. I'm talking about the Richard Petty who sits on a pit wall and signs autographs for four hours."
Petty has named his final rounds as a driver his Fan Appreciation Tour. Few figures in American sports have appreciated their fans as much as Petty has; few, if any, have reciprocated as thoroughly by mingling with the crowd. Petty does not tower over his followers so much as minister to them. He is of them and among them. One by one, hour by hour, day by day since 1958, he has not only shaken their hands and signed their picture postcards, but he has also talked to them—"talked to me just like I was somebody" as so many have said so often.
He talks to them in their vernacular. For the sake of his fans, he has cultivated the image of a good ol' boy, one he could have shaken decades ago had he wanted to do so. He says, "I can't talk good English," but in fact he doesn't choose to. "One of the first lessons my daddy [pioneer NASCAR driver Lee Petty] taught me was, Don't get above your upbringing," he says.
When Richard, sprung from a hamlet with the salt-of-the-earth name of Level Cross, N.C., says "I knowed," it is not out of ignorance but rather folksiness, the way Woody Guthrie sang, "I been havin' some hard travelin'/I thought you knowed."
"What helps with people," says Petty, "is when, even though you've won a lot of money and been to see several presidents—you know, done the things they would like to do—they can still talk to you on their terms. I talk football with them, religion with them, or I can talk about the kids back there in the swimming hole. It don't make any difference."
The final deluge of emotion for the King will come in Atlanta on the weekend of Nov. 14. The night before the last race of the season, Petty will appear before 75,000 of his closest followers in the new Georgia Dome, with the country-music group Alabama singing goodbye.