The best race drivers have a way of transforming their cars into extensions of themselves, fusing man and machine into a single organism, pistons and heart beating as one at 15,000 revolutions per minute. No driver ever got under the sheet-metal skin of a stock car better than Richard Petty, who revolutionized his sport, simonized his opposition and was canonized in his native South.
Petty didn't merely feel his race car around him, he began to look like it, too, taking on the brilliantine gloss of its bodywork, in the manner of people who start to resemble their pets. With the gleaming grille of his smile, the wraparound sunglasses he wore like a windshield, and the ever-present cheroot that preceded him like a hood ornament, it must have taken all his mechanics' willpower to resist putting Petty up on concrete blocks and draining the oil out of him.
Petty won exactly 200 NASCAR races from 1960 to '84 and then stopped winning, as if he had reached the summit of some great symmetrical mountain, the other side of which he slid down for the next 8½ seasons before he finally retired in 1992, at the age of 55. Happily, however, Petty's road to glory ended not with a whimper but with an eight-barrel bang: his final victory came at Daytona's Firecracker 400 in 1984 on the Fourth of July.
He won twice as many races on the NASCAR circuit as anyone else ever has, some of his victories coming one after another on Dixie dirt bullrings. "People kind of forget Richard got a lot of those wins of his when he was running on them old short tracks," rival driver Cale Yarborough once pointed out. And it's true. But it's also true that when King Richard didn't take the checkered flag, he was usually filling up the minors of the winner: He finished second 158 times.
In 1976 Petty and David Pearson collided in the Daytona 500, and Petty's Dodge ended up in the wall as Pearson limped to victory. It was only this little demolition derby that prevented Petty from winning the Daytona 500, NASCAR's signature race, eight times. It was at Daytona, in fact, that Petty became a legend. The Speedway opened in 1959, the year Petty was named NASCAR's Rookie of the Year, "so's if I was any good, I could grow along with the sport," Petty later reasoned. He came along just as the earliest NASCAR stars were fading—drivers like Junior Johnson and Fireball Roberts and Richard's daddy, Lee—and was among the first great stock car drivers who didn't sharpen their skills hauling moonshine out of Carolina hollers.
Stock car racing fans are the most intensely brand-loyal in all of sports, devoting themselves early in life to the fortunes of one driver. For most of a generation, that driver was Richard Petty, whose trademark racing groove typically meant leaving a blue streak—Petty Blue—on the retaining wall. He was once offered $50,000 to cover his blue paint job with a sponsor's colors, but he turned it down for fear that his fans wouldn't recognize him.
Petty once predicted, "One of these days when they have a race and I don't show up, then everybody will know I've retired." But when the time actually came, of course, he could scarcely bring himself to leave. For decades Petty had returned the kindness of strangers with regular open houses on the Petty Enterprises compound in Level Cross, N.C., where his fans could meet him and get an autograph. Often they would bring homemade quilts and samplers, or models of his race car. "They bring all this stuff here that they've made," said Laresa Davis, who worked at the Richard Petty Museum on the compound. "It's like they're offering it to their god."
Whether god or king, he was all too prone to human frailties. In 1978 he had to have 40% of his stomach removed after suffering for years from ulcers. And after 35 years in the cockpit, the roar of his own engine had left him nearly deaf. In the final tally Petty gave racing far more than he took from it. In 1967, for instance, he won 27 of 48 races and earned only $130,275. Yet it was he who made stock car racing one of the biggest spectator sports in America, a cash cow so fatted with sponsors' dollars that the winner of this year's inaugural Brickyard 400, 23-year-old Jeff Gordon, took home a prize of $613,000. It should have been the King's ransom.
"We didn't have sponsors," Petty recalls. "We didn't have nobody to please. We didn't have nobody to tell us when to do right. We just done it."