Three days after Adam Petty became NASCAR's first fourth-generation driver, the patriarch of the dynasty, his great-grandfather Lee, died at age 86. But to remember Lee Petty simply as the man who begat Richard (who won an astounding 200 races), who begat Kyle (who has driven on the top stock car circuit for 22 years), who begat Adam, is to neglect the fact that in his day Lee was the best driver around.
Lee drove the family Buick Roadmaster from Level Cross, N.C., to Charlotte on June 19, 1949, to run in the inaugural NASCAR race. His crewmen that day were his sons, 11-year-old Richard and 10-year-old Maurice. Team Petty finished 17th. Five years later, in 1954, Lee won NASCAR's points championship, a title that was his again in '58 and '59. "He used to take those little old Plymouths and just outthink people," Richard has said. "When they got him in Oldsmobiles [in 1957], he won races. He won championships. He was blowing people away."
Richard began driving in '58, but, though his achievements ultimately would dwarf his dad's, his initial ride was bumpy. In his first Grand National race, Richard was put into the wall by the eventual race winner: Lee. The next year the man who would be King took his first checkered flag, at Atlanta's Lakewood Speedway, but he had the victory taken away when the second-place driver—dear old Dad again—pointed out that Richard was actually a lap down.
Among Lee's 54 career wins was the 1959 Daytona 500, the first race on the 2.5-mile superspeedway. His career was effectively ended by a horrific crash on that track during a qualifying race in '61. "It was a left turn, and we went straight," Lee said of the incident, in which he jumped a wall and landed 150 feet away, wheels up, in a parking lot. He spent four months in the hospital with a punctured lung and broken collarbone, among other injuries, and raced only sporadically after that. In retirement he oversaw the family's racing business, Petty Enterprises, and took up golf, whittling his handicap to scratch.
Lee had surgery for a stomach aneurysm in February, and his worsening health kept Richard from making it to Texas Motor Speedway to see Adam's debut. "The Petty family is a national racing treasure," said three-time Winston Cup champ Darrell Waltrip after Lee's death. "When you lose part of that treasure, it's truly time to grieve."