"Keep shovin'," he said.
Why had he never raced in other venues like Indy or Grand Prix, which would have broadened his acceptance as a world-class racer, one of the internationally great ones?
"The Indy money never appealed to me that much. This is where I grew up. There's different games within the same game, so to speak. Joe Namath and Catfish Hunter, they both throw balls. I reckon if they started early enough, Namath could be throwing baseballs and Hunter footballs. But they didn't. And they probably wouldn't be near as good as they are if they did, or somethin'."
Petty lit another cigar and stuck a long, thin finger into the rain. He allowed as how it wouldn't dry out for a while.
"There's this about stock-car racin'," he said. "We didn't none of us get this handed to us on a platter. Not like these football stars who got started in college and then got these fat pro contracts. Here you start little and grow. I was lucky in a way that the first stars of NASCAR were all nearing the end of their careers when I came up—Junior Johnson and Fred Lorenzen and Fireball Roberts and Curtis Turner. And my daddy Lee. And I was lucky that my daddy Lee had got the Petty name out there where it was already recognized. And I was lucky that the superspeedways like this here Daytona was just gettin' built when I come along—so's if I was any good I could grow along with the sport." Nothing more than that—no hyperbole-laden statistics about how he grew. Just the thanks to the sport for letting it happen.
The rain had blown away by now, and steam rose amid the almost-visible vibrations of the blatting engines in the garage area. You stand back and look at Richard Lee Petty. He is tall and skinny. Slump-shouldered, he moves loose like a hound with worms, with a hound's bright flash of teeth in a grin that is not exactly humorous. You realize, at this glance anyway, that he does not seem so healthy. He is hard of hearing—a race driver's occupational disease, like black lung in coal miners—and he squints even behind his sunglasses. Rumor has it that Petty inhaled fire in an early crash and did to his lungs with one suck what some of us have taken years to do with cigarettes. But he denies it. "Tain't so. You'll never meet a driver who's got hurt less by what he does than me. Oh, I've got hurt ridin' motorcycles and Go-karts for fun. But when it's serious, I don't get hurt." But the rumor persists among other racing people: he is prone to severe headaches; he takes a lot of oxygen after long, hard, hot races. What are those pills he gobbles, two at a time with a Coke, during the heavy, pounding afternoons? Aspirin? Petty shrugs and grins. He's hard of hearing, after all.
Qualifying is over. Donnie Allison won the pole position in his Chevy at 186.737 mph, blowing the doors off everyone, including Buddy Baker, a favorite here, whose Ford could squeeze out only 184 and change. As for King Richard, he chose to qualify his car with a racing setup, disdaining the pole, and ended up in the unlucky 13th position on the starting grid, a bit farther down the line than he had hoped. "In a race like this, it's better to be ready for the real thing than to go scootin' off for the pole and then have to set up the car all over," he said. For all that devil-may-care attitude, though, he was glum. His speed had been a dismal 180.032.
Right now, though, Petty had other things on his mind. "Come on along," he said. "I gotta go across the street to the gas station. There's a Petty fan club over there holding a car wash. The money goes for the family of my brother-in-law who was killed at Talladega awhile back." The brother-in-law, Randy Owens, 20, had been a member of the Petty pit crew. During an unscheduled pit stop to repair burning brakes in Petty's car, Owens had been blown up by a faulty pressurized water tank. It was one of the rare deaths in stock-car racing, and its freakiness made it all the more ugly.
Moving out of the speedway, he was accosted by hundreds of fans. He greeted them all alike, with the same bright, crooked grin, the same elaborate, rolling autograph. He moved through them with an ease rarely seen among professional athletes of greater visibility, waving off the waves in a manner that might be envied by an Aaron or a Nicklaus, even an Evel Knievel. At the car wash Petty just walked up and started washing cars. Nobody squealed. They said hi, smiled, and kept on working, as if he were a brother, not their king. He pretended he was going to squirt them with the hose. Everyone laughed. It was like that scene in James Agee's book A Death in the Family, where the father goes out to sprinkle the lawn. It was that full of easy summer affection.
"It's amazing how you move through them so easily, with no fanfare and no nonsense. How do you manage to do it?"