A stronger blend of styles could scarcely be imagined in any sport. First comes the Superstar—long, lean and laconic, a drawling epitome of Southern charm and dash, Jeb Stuart on wheels. Then there is Moneybags—short, round and loquacious, a trench-coated archetype of Chicago-style pushiness, fast with a checkbook. That's Richard Petty and Andy Granatelli, the Odd Couple of stock-car racing.
Last week at the Atlanta International Raceway, Petty and Granatelli once again pooled their disparate talents, this time in pursuit of victory in the $112,825 Atlanta 500, one of the Southland's richest and most hotly contested Grand National races.
They didn't get it. In fact, one might say they literally blew it as Petty exited the race spinning in a furious burst of smoke. But it was done in a style worthy of the king of the road and, as ever, Richard drew as many cheers in defeat as the ultimate winner, David Pearson, got in coasting home to an unspectacular victory.
But behind the smoke, as with all types of motor racing, there was a lot more to see at Atlanta last week than Petty and the boys chasing one another's tail pipes through the corners of the speedway's 1½-mile asphalt oval. A. J. Foyt was on hand, making one of his frequent forays into NASCAR country in hopes of winning even more money and acclaim at the expense of the good ole boys—but somehow Super Tex just didn't look right.
Petty had puzzled over the matter for awhile and then slapped his thigh. "Gol ding it," he said, "Foyt's wearin' a toupee! No wonder he looks about 16 years old." And sure enough, there it was—a nifty swatch of skull carpeting that soon had the regular NASCAR drivers honing their needles. "Hey, boy," they would yell as Foyt walked past, "where's yore daddy? You gotta be 21 to get in the pits." Foyt merely grinned and went about his business, which is simply preparing and driving a car, any kind of car, as fast as is humanly possible. To those who cared to see them, he showed photographs of his new Indy machine, a sleek, winged Coyote with which he plans to win his fourth Indianapolis 500 next month. "For awhile there, the fun had gone out of Indy for me," he said. "This year it's back."
Mark Donohue, another part-time participant in the NASCAR go-arounds and the winner of this season's opener at Riverside, also was present, nervous as usual about the intricacies of suspension setups. "This is such a short track compared to Daytona or Talladega that you're cornering nearly all the way around," he said, tinkering with his red, white and blue Matador. "It's going to be a real killer on tires."
Stock-car racing vets Buddy Baker and Cale Yarborough were more concerned with engines. Both of them seemed to have had the Daytona 500 sewed up last February when their motors cooked, leaving the door open for Petty's fourth win in stock-car racing's richest event—the most ever at that track. Of course, Richard is already the winningest driver in NASCAR history (in terms both of races and personality), and his 150 victories over 15 seasons amount to more than double those won by Pearson, his closest rival. "Atlanta's not one of my lucky tracks," Richard allowed early in race week. "I've never won the spring race here, and I've only won the fall race a couple of times."
He was seated behind the wheel of his Dodge 1000 transporter truck, munching popcorn and staring at the steady rain that beset Georgia nearly all week and profoundly fouled up qualifying for the race. Petty likes to fiddle with his image almost as much as he likes to fiddle with cars—and this season he is sporting a wicked gunfighter's mustache to match last season's long sideburns and riverboat-gambler's hair. When he added his high-crowned black cowboy hat he looked like one of the Wild Bunch and, indeed, the mustache has become a matter of concern to Granatelli and his STP minions. Not for reasons of propriety. It seems that all the STP commercials in which Petty appears were shot before he grew the stash, and to reshoot them would cost more than the oil-additive company pays for the whole Petty racing program.
"I got a little heat from the fans and the other drivers at first," Richard said, stroking the scruffy object of all this concern. "The fans don't like their heroes to change, and of course you can understand that. One of the real values of racing, or any sport for that matter, is that it gives the public some stability, something to watch that doesn't hardly ever change, while the world around them is flyin' every which way."
Another point of potential conflict between Petty and his new owner was a question of colors. During the years that Chrysler backed Petty Enterprises with full factory support, Richard painted his Plymouths a fine hard color that came to be known as Petty blue and became synonymous with his grand success. When Chrysler dropped out of racing and Granatelli picked up the major monetary role in 1972 (the Petty family still builds and prepares its cars), Andy naturally insisted that the cars be painted in his own favorite color—that garish, Day-Glo, STP red. "I don't give a damn what color Petty likes," he said. "I happen to like red."