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FIFTY YEARS ago this month, on July 12, 1958, Richard Petty made his debut behind the wheel of a race car. He had just turned 21—his father, three-time NASCAR champion Lee Petty, wouldn't let him start driving until he was of age—10 days earlier. The young Petty entered a 1957 Oldsmobile convertible in a race at Columbia Speedway, a half-mile, flat, sandy dirt track in central South Carolina. There were maybe 4,000 people in attendance. Twenty-six years later, on July 4, 1984, the man in the number 43 car won his 200th (and last) race, the Firecracker 400 at Daytona International Speedway, in front of 80,000 fans, including President Ronald Reagan.
SI: What do you remember about that first race in 1958?
PETTY: Three or four years before that, I had said, "Daddy, I'd like to drive a race car." He told me, "Come back when you're 21. You'll learn a lot between the time you're 18 and the time you're 21. You'll really grow up." So a week before my birthday I said, "O.K., I'm going to be 21 next week. Can I start driving?" He said, "There's [a car] over in the corner. Get it ready, and y'all go to Columbia." Then he went to Asheville, N.C., to run a hardtop race, and me and my cousin Dale Inman, who was my crew chief, hooked that car up behind a pickup and went to Columbia. I think I qualified 13th. I was a raw, raw rookie. I had run around a racetrack when the wheels were muddy and they wanted to dry them off. But as far as running a hot lap, in race conditions, that was my first time. They call these guys coming through now "rookies" when they're 21 years old, but they've been driving since they were five or six. I had never raced go-karts, midgets, not even bicycles. But I'd been watching races since I was 11.
I wound up sixth. I think I was three laps behind, which wasn't bad for your first race. We brought the car back, anyway.
SI: It was a convertible?
PETTY: We had cut the top off it. You'd bolt the top on it and run it one night, then take the top off and run it as a convertible the next.
SI: Did your father give you any advice before your first race?
PETTY: I think his words were, "Drive it where you think you got some control of it." One thing about race car driving, you can't tell people how to drive. When you go down in a corner, you know you're going to turn left. What can you say? It's all feel.
SI: What was your take?