The bulk of the family company's proceeds (it also builds bodies and motors for other drivers and sponsors a 1971 Dodge for Buddy Baker, who is some fancy driver himself) is plowed back into equipment and the expanding plant. Richard, like everybody else in the company, works for a salary, with a profit-sharing dividend at the end of the year. The most expensive thing he owns is his $25,000 house right there in Level Cross, where he lives with his wife and former high-school sweetheart Lynda and their three children. He never takes a vacation trip.
But do not think Petty is anything short of a superstar. Stock-car racing may not have caught on as big nationally as country music, but through the South it enjoys a more devoted grassroots following than any other sport except football. On hand for Petty's milestone ride last Sunday was Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, whose first act upon returning from World War II, it is said, was to load his family into the car and take them all down to watch the Daytona 500. Marty Robbins, the Grand Ole Opry singing favorite, was not only present but driving. He finished 13th in Bobby Allison's Dodge and said that racing a stock car "tickles my spine from my neck to my belt."
"Open-cockpit racing cars never caught on in the South," says Petty. "Not even midget racers. I guess it's just that people in the South were so poor, and those fancy race cars were so exotic that they didn't know what to make of 'em. People identify with stock cars. Like that Chevrolet of Junior Johnson's that Charlie Glotzbach raced in—lots of people would come out to see that because a lot of people drive Chevrolets in this part of the country."
Even in those rare periods when Petty can't drive—such as the six weeks following his crash at Darlington—he will show up at races and sign hundreds of autographs, devoting to each a good 15 seconds worth of looping, swirling penmanship. "If a lot of people don't know about Richard Petty, then Richard Petty is nothing," he says, "so I've had to become more of a man of the people."
Most top drivers pass up small events and concentrate on the big purses, but not Petty Enterprises. "If I let a race go by without racing in it," says Richard, "I feel like somebody's taking something away from me." He entered the Atlanta race on a streak of four straight wins—three in five days (July 14-18) in New York and New Jersey and the fourth in Nashville on July 24. The tracks ranged from one-fifth of a mile to 1� miles, the purses from $1,500 to $6,760—barely enough to cover the expense of hauling car and crew so far up North and back. Not to mention the metropolitan bother of "getting tangled up in all those cloverleafs up there and paying 25� every time you cross a bridge," as Richard recently complained to a banquet audience.
But a Petty Enterprises driver likes to compete—which is one reason, he says, why he has never left NASCAR for USAC competition, as have Cale Yarborough and Lee Roy Yarbrough.
"We do some racing" says Petty. "Those Indy cars are so delicate that they can't touch each other. At the end of one of our races the cars are so banged up we strip all the sheet metal off and throw it away. It doesn't hurt the cars any—but we race each other."
By any objective standard Richard Petty is the king of all this action. In 13 years he has won 134 races and all that money. A man does not reach such status by embodying the spirit of Pickett's charge but rather by presenting a highly professional organization which takes such measures as walking every track before Richard drives on it, checking for hazardous patches.
Petty Enterprises doesn't necessarily herald a swing to smug, colorless technocracy in a great old popular sport, however. When Richard came upon a big newspaper picture of his friend Lee Roy Yarbrough's 1967 wreck at Indianapolis, it gave him an idea for a joke. "Nothing was showing in that picture but flames and two wheels," he says. "I took it and flopped it down in front of my wife and said, 'I've got a ride at Indy.' " He didn't really have one. But the notion gave Mrs. Petty a good old-fashioned turn, which tickled Richard no end.
A middle-aged lady fan came up to Richard just after the Dixie 500 and said, "Oh, I just wanted to know, how does it feel to be up there?"