They say he was born with a golden throttle under his right foot and a silver steering wheel in his hands. His very first act was to send his crib careening through the nursery in a perfect four-wheel drift while loosing a nascent Rebel yell. Shortly before his first birthday he learned to drive a pickup truck, whistling Dixie and wearing Day Glo red diapers. In the piney woods outside Level Cross, N.C., where the miracle occurred just 38 years ago last week, a fountain that had previously spouted Southern Comfort suddenly began leaking an oily substance that folks far and wide soon came to call STP. All of these things were taken as good omens. In such a manner is a king born among us.
Or so runs the legend.
For those who prefer the facts, Richard Lee Petty, 38, the king of contemporary stock-car racing, stands a mortal 6'2" and weighs in at a willowy 182 pounds. His face is dark and pitted with the pores endemic to those who deal with harsh sunlight, excoriating oil fumes and the 30-race annual circuit of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, Inc. Petty's demeanor in the presence of women and children is polite, almost chivalrous, as befits a happily married man with four kids of his own. He raises no hell—except when you try to pass him on a racetrack. On foot he is a veritable lamb.
This man, this paragon of lead-footed speed, survivor of horrendous crashes, winner of more car races than most of us have ever seen, can filter through a crowd with a grin and a howdy so smoothly that you hardly know he is there. But he is King Richard. Petty truly is a legend. He also may well be the best racing driver in the world.
Since July of 1958, when he first began racing, Richard Petty has won 172 NASCAR Grand National races. That is exactly double the number won by his closest stock-car competitor, David Pearson of Spartanburg, S.C. Within the next month Petty's earnings from these victories, accumulated over a 17-year period, will amount to $2 million. A. J. Foyt, now 40, winner of 52 U.S. Auto Club Championship Car races and $2.5 million over an 18-year career, also is a legend—and the only active driver who may conceivably be better than Petty. ( Jackie Stewart, the skittering Scot who won the World Driving Championship three times, along with a record 27 Grand Prix, is retired; his career prize money, in any event, would be far less than Petty's or Foyt's, since European road racing pays off in less obvious forms.) It may be argued that USAC's Championship Car racing is tougher than NASCAR's Grand National equivalent, since the Indy cars are open wheeled and more dangerous, but racing is still racing: you get in a car, go out there and try to win. Richard Petty has accomplished that not-so-simple act more often, and with more success, than any other man in the history of motor sports. And he never did it better than last week at Daytona during the 17th running of the Firecracker 400.
Petty had never won the Firecracker. He had come home victorious five times in the Daytona 500, stock-car racing's biggest and richest event, where no other driver had been able to win more than once. Indeed, Petty had won the Grand National Championship an unprecedented five times. Yet during the 16 previous runnings of the July Fourth classic at the world's fastest beach, Petty had been no better than second—and that four times in a row in his last four efforts.
A certain psych was at work. Just as Foyt had found it extremely difficult to cope with his fourth possible victory at Indy earlier this year, Petty found the Firecracker potentially just another dud. All through the week preceding the race he lolled and drawled as usual, but behind the curved sunglasses and deep within the twang, there lurked the suspicion of another failure, a shade of fatalism.
"Pull up some oil and sit down." Petty gestured languidly toward a cardboard case of STP in the back of his trailer. He was crouched, Johnny Reb style, in a corner of the truck with a black, acrid el ropo smoldering in the side of his grin. It was raining outside, a slashing Florida sun-shower that thickened the humidity to the proportions of fresh-cooked hominy grits. All morning Petty had been opening presents—his birthday was the following day—and the celebratory air had lightened his mood. He was particularly delighted by a hand-scrawled set of boxes from a moonstruck girl named Elizabeth, who addressed him as "King Richard the Lion-Lover" and included in her natal offering a plaster lion, a set of Band-Aid cans wrapped as firecrackers, toy houses from a Monopoly set (no doubt an encouragement to buy her out one way or another) and a purple paper crown, gaudily elaborate with curlicues and crosses. Petty stuck the crown on an onlooker's head, then slapped his thigh.
"Looks like he et the margarine," he chortled to no one in particular. Then he pulled out a penknife and resumed carving something vaguely wooden, even more vaguely abstract-expressionist in nature. Occasionally he spat out into the rain. It was as if he had taken a master's degree in laconics from Li'l Abner University. But it was for real.
What was his strategy for the upcoming race, this event that seemed to deny him victory year after year?