Richard Petty is just a curly-haired, hard-charging small-town boy—and the woods are full of them in North Carolina. They are a breed: lean and flat-stomached, wearing wraparound sunglasses and driving cars hard. But not as hard as Richard Petty. He is a bit leaner, a bit tougher, and he is the unquestioned, alltime king of stock-car racing. When Petty led most of the way and won $20,560 in Atlanta's Dixie 500 last Sunday, he also became the first of the breed ever to hit $1 million in purses. Or, as they say in racing, come anywheres close to it.
The victory, highlighted by a fender-bashing duel between Petty and rival Bobby Allison in the last 28 laps, was the new millionaire's 13th Super Speedway win, another record all by itself. It also boosted Petty's 1971 earnings to $189,295—but the real feat was stock-car racing's first entry into seven figures.
"Twelve years ago," Petty observed collectedly when it was all over, "a million dollars was what you read about other people making. Well, we went right on past a million today." He grinned from the window of his 1971 blue Plymouth and added: "And we got a pretty good start on the second one."
Petty had qualified his car in the third starting spot, a position that earned him a scant $50 bonus. Let's see now: add up all the career winnings and what have we got? Well, he figured he was still $2,357 short of $1 million. Then the race got under way and every turn around the Atlanta International Speedway was like a finely tuned adding machine.
Mid-race, Petty was practically there on lap money alone. And at the end he added in the $18,650 for first place, lap money totaled $1,860—and there it was: he had earned $1,018,203.
So much for money. He pulled off his helmet and relaxed handsomely. Petty comes on with a steady, open look, with firmly focused eyes and straight white teeth like the headlights and grille of a car you can trust. Folks are always asking him which of his many records he takes the most pride in. Petty always drawls: "I guess in still bein' alive."
That figures. Petty's surviving to the prime age of 34 has been an important—and less than predictable—factor in his winning 74 more races and $330,788 more than any other man in the dashing history of his sport. One always thinks of Petty in terms of skill rather than old country death-defiance. The closest he has come to death, driving, was in May of 1970 when his Plymouth glanced off the concrete wall on the fourth turn at Darlington, flipped several times and crunched down on its roof. That experience left Petty with a cut on the forehead and a dislocated shoulder, but with no intimations of mortality. When he mentions his longevity record, he smiles about it the way a good dentist always does when he says he hasn't lost any patients yet.
Petty does say "everhow many" instead of "however many" and "they's" instead of "there's," and he hardly ever travels outside of North Carolina except to a race—but he doesn't chew tobacco and he never ran moonshine or fled a sheriff. He makes a good, sincere, professional impression at cocktail receptions for businessmen and press, himself sipping cola. "He'll smoke a Muriel cigar and he will wear sunglasses," says a reporter who has observed Petty closely for signs of departure from a good United Methodist upbringing, "but I've never seen him take a drink." Petty is a sober corporation executive.
"Winning that $1 million cost at least $3 million," says Richard, who with his father Lee and his brother Maurice is one of 30 employed by Petty Enterprises, Inc., "and that's just counting money I have touched."
That includes Petty money, then, and subsidy funds from Plymouth (and for one year, Ford), Goodyear, a clutch of other companies identified with auto racing and recently PepsiCo, which must have heard about Richard's drinking habits. The $3 million does not include free parts, tires, chassis and gear that sponsoring companies also have provided. Roaring around high-banked tracks at speeds up to nearly 200 mph in cars tenuously resembling the stock models available at your neighborhood dealer is a right sizable business.