Compared with most other major pro sports, stock car racing is still a kid. When NASCAR got started in 1949, baseball was already the national pastime, and football was on the verge of its breakout years. But those of us in North Carolina didn't have any nearby major league or NFL teams to root for—the closest franchises were in Washington, D.C. NASCAR was founded and flourished in the South because racing was part of the culture and because there was no pro sport around to rival it.� Where I grew up, in Level Cross, a town of 3,000 near the center of the state, automobiles were rare in the years after World War II. A car—especially a new one—was a status symbol. Having a faster car than the guy next door gave you even more status. Having a car you could race 100 mph on one of North Carolina's dirt tracks, well, that was like a dream come true. The feeling of driving a race car is hard to describe, but once you're hooked, it's a lifelong addiction.
I was drawn into the sport by my father, Lee, who was one of the original NASCAR racers and who won 54 races over his career. In 1949, when I was 12, I began taking engines apart and rebuilding them with my dad and my 10-year-old brother, Maurice, in our garage. We lived in a farming area, but our family business was stock car racing. In 1951 I started traveling the NASCAR circuit as my dad's crew chief, even though I was just 14.
Only a few thousand fans came to the races at first, but the crowds gradually picked up. In 1950 the first superspeedway opened, in Darlington, S.C., and folks from both Carolinas flocked there for the first Southern 500 that Labor Day. Soon after, the beach races in Daytona became a big draw. Speedways were built in Charlotte and Atlanta, and with each new venue, more spectators started filling the stands. When those fans would go home, they would talk about what they saw, spreading the love of racing.
I started competing in NASCAR in 1958, driving cars that I worked on with Maurice and my cousin Dale Inman. Daddy taught us what we needed to know, and we figured out the rest. I was named Rookie of the Year in '59 and won the first of my seven driving titles in '64. But nobody in my hometown ever treated me like a celebrity. I was in racing to feed my family. Winning was preferable because it paid more than losing.
Even though NASCAR was founded in Daytona and is still based there, North Carolina has always been at the heart of the sport. The first Grand National (now Nextel Cup) race was held at the Charlotte Fairgrounds in 1949. The state has produced not only four generations of racing Pettys but also the Earnhardts and the Jarretts and other top racers. Today the vast majority of Nextel Cup drivers live in the Charlotte area.
Charlotte is where I got my first victory, in 1960, in a 200-lap race on the half-mile dirt track at the Fairgrounds. The crowd was less than 8,000. When I got my 200th and final career win 24 years later, in the Firecracker 400 at Daytona (I beat Cale Yarborough by less than a foot), more than 80,000 fans were on hand. Those attendance figures tell you how much our sport has grown.
We never thought much about corporate sponsors back in the dirt-track days, but nowadays you can't walk into a grocery store without seeing a product linked to NASCAR. Having my picture on a box of Cheerios or my son's name (Kyle) on a package of Brawny paper towels helps grow the sport even further. Folks might pick up a box of Cheerios and have no clue who Richard Petty is, but they'll probably figure he has to be something special if Cheerios has him on the box!
When you consider where stock car racing was 50 years ago, it's amazing how far the sport has come. Who knows? In another half century NASCAR might have spread from the hills of North Carolina to the entire globe.