Richard Petty heard someone shout for the King to stop as his golf cart sped past rows of RVs parked at the Pocono Raceway infield.
Petty couldn’t ask his driver to hit the brakes for one fan, not with a hundred or more waiting in line for him outside the track. All were eager for a greeting and a bit of his perfect penmanship — with that looping script in the R and P — on a piece of memorabilia, a signature as much a part of his persona as his feathered cowboy hats, dark glasses and cowboy boots.
“Finally, I’m going to meet the man,” said 52-year-old Steve Millett of Syracuse, New York. “It’s been 44 years of being a fan.”
Millett bought a ticket for just his third NASCAR race simply because he wanted to meet the King. Millett packed the camper for the three-hour drive, slipped on his Petty T-shirt and STP hat, and had Petty sign the hood of a model 1971 Dodge Charger. Millet just wanted to thank Petty for a lifetime of memories.
Most of the fans didn’t, or couldn’t, remember Petty from his days as the greatest stock car driver alive. Kids dressed in Dinoco blue shirts smiled as parents pointed and said, yes, that’s the King. You know, from “Cars”? The rest waited because dad was a fan. Because grandpa told them about the time he was at Pocono when Petty broke his neck in an accident.
Petty, who had six colored Sharpies and a can of Skoal in his pocket, never stopped smiling and shook hands for every selfie and snapshot. Yes, the blue hairs and graybeards had old-school cameras for their audience with the King, perfect for a race car owner who keeps tabs of his meet-and-greets on a paper schedule. One by one, they trudged to the front with a variation of the stories Petty has heard on repeat for nearly 60 years.
“It pays the bills,” Petty said. “I’m just an old guy walking around, hasn’t been in a race car in 25 years and people still want an autograph or a picture. I guess it’s because I’m that old.”
Petty waved goodbye after an hour and grabbed a seat on the cart. On the way back to his motorhome, Petty directed his driver back to the area where he remembered that fan calling for him. Richard Keller had devoted a shrine to Petty around his RV and was elated when the Hall of Fame driver signed his name next to a Tony Stewart banner on the trailer wall.
The King is synonymous with NASCAR, and he has shown no inclination of retiring as he approaches his 80th birthday on Sunday. Few drivers in the sport — heck, few athletes in sports — can rival Petty in popularity and accessibility and the calls for the King never cease at tracks around the country.
“I just wonder if my name is Joe what they would have called me,” Petty said. “King Joe don’t go over too good.”
Richard Lee Petty has no sage wisdom on how to live to 80.
Still strikingly slender, he walks with a full, healthy stride around the garage that has belied the physical anguish from a 35-year career riddled with injuries. Petty’s last two of his seven Daytona 500 victories — 1979 and 1981 — both came after operations to remove part of his stomach after serious ulcer problems. He had his gallbladder removed between the 1985 and 1986 seasons.
Concussions? Sure, Petty suffered from a bunch of those. But who kept count back in the day when drivers hit 200 mph wearing not much more than an open face helmet and a seat belt? Petty broke a leg, his fingers, his knees. Petty broke his neck in 1980 at Pocono when the No. 43 careered up a wall and was eventually struck on the driver’s side by another car. Petty went to the hospital, the doctor looked at the X-rays, and asked in amazement:
“When did you break your neck before?” Petty recalled, laughing.
He shrugged. Who knows?
There was the broken left arm and shoulder, seen dangling from the window in a horrific 1970 crash at Darlington, that caused him to pass out from pain and forced him to miss starts for the only time his career. In 1988, at the age of 51, Petty was involved in a horrifying crash during the Daytona 500. His car hit the wall, flew into the air and barrel-rolled violently before it smashed the track and slid back into the wall.
“When things happen, they happen so fast,” Petty said, “you haven’t got time to get scared.”
If Petty feels major pains or has bouts of memory loss from a lifetime of jarring hits, he hides it well. Tracks have feted Petty all year (Dover had a “Cake Boss” winner bake a $2,000 cake in the shape of the No. 43) and he’s shown up for every Q&A session and birthday bash.
“All my joints is working. All the broken bones has healed back up,” Petty said.
Petty still dips tobacco. Who’s going to tell him to quit? He enjoys his wine (merlot) and his steaks (rare) as red as they come. He snacks daily on popcorn but eschews coffee. The King is known to even sneak a pinch of raw meat off a hamburger right before it hits the grill. Like many in his generation, he has no use for a cellphone. And he sleeps. A lot. Petty is fresh and focused for his fans because he never skips a chance at a nap.
The NASCAR circus stretches from early February to late November with few days off in one of the more grueling schedules in sports. Plane. Race. Plane. Garage. Countless appearances for sponsors, who all want a piece of Petty. He’s never slowed down — not even in the face of tragedy — and has no plans to ease up with Richard Petty Motorsports boasting only a handful of checkered flags.
Kyle Petty, his 57-year-old son and former driver, said racing is life for his father.
“If he couldn’t go to the race track, he would just sit down and wither away,” Kyle Petty said. “I honestly believe that until the day they put him in the ground, he’s going to be at a race track somewhere.”
But the King wants to get the 43 competitive again.
Wayne Gretzky flopped coaching the Phoenix Coyotes. Magic Johnson lasted 16 games as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. Ted Williams lost 100 games his last year managing the Washington Senators.
The greatest in the game can’t always find triumph calling the shots.
Petty has never rekindled the dominant days in retirement running RPM that that came so easily behind the wheel. Petty, who made just $7.5 million in his racing career, doesn’t have the funding to compete with heavyweights Roger Penske, Rick Hendrick or Joe Gibbs. Petty’s teams failed to win a race from 1999-2009 and his cars reached victory lane three times this decade.
“I’ve made a bad car owner,” Petty said. “We haven’t won but five or six races in 30 years. So that means somewhere down the line I didn’t have the deal of being able to put the team together and let them run the show. The combinations have never gelled like what you would think they would be. It’s not that you tell the driver how to drive or what needs to be done, but the cars are so much different than when I was running ’em, that I can’t even suggest what to do with the race car.”
Petty’s difficulty with straightening out his team pale compared with the tragedies over the years. He was drag racing in 1965 when his car veered off track and into the crowd, killing an 8-year-old boy. Petty’s brother-in-law, 20-year-old Randy Owens, worked as part of his crew and was killed in the pits during a freak 1975 accident. Adam Petty, Kyle’s son and a fourth-generation Petty driver, was killed in 2000 during practice at New Hampshire.
“It’s not been all glory,” Richard Petty said. “We’ve had some really, really bad, low times. But you can’t live yesterday over again. So you say, what can we do coming up? The living’s got to go on. My living has got to go on. I don’t know how you do it, you just do it.”
Kyle Petty said his father spoke little of the drag racing accident.
“He spent a lot of time when he was home just by himself and coming to terms of it,” he said. “That was the hardest of all of them, just from the standpoint that he was such a young boy. And my dad was young at the time. It made him question things and he had to come to terms with it.”
Petty has forged ahead alone since his wife, Lynda, died in 2004 of cancer. The Pettys were married for 55 years and had children Kyle, Lisa, Rebecca and Sharon. His days at the track help him cope with loneliness as the days spent at the family retreat in Wyoming have dwindled.
“He’s a lot closer with my sisters now,” Kyle Petty said. “A lot more caring, a lot more open, a lot more emotional.”
NASCAR will fire the engines for its 2,514th Cup race on Saturday night at Daytona. Petty was just a kid at the first one and figures he hasn’t missed much more than 200 races over the years. His daddy, Lee, was a three-time champion and knocked Richard (in his first race) out of the way and wrecked him to win a $575 purse in Toronto. The racing gene was passed on to 16-year-old grandson Thad Moffitt, who races in ARCA and has dreams of a NASCAR ride.
Petty’s family tree stretches across some 69 years of NASCAR history.
In 1,184 starts, Petty had a record 200 wins, 157 second-place finishes, 712 top-10s and 123 poles. Petty won championships in 1964, 1967, 1971, 1972, 1974, 1975 and 1979, a total matched by Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson. He was a stock superstar who even starred as himself in the 1972 movie “The Richard Petty Story.”
NASCAR is ready to throw a birthday bash worthy of a champion.
Daytona has Petty’s 1974 Daytona 500-winning Dodge Charger on display this weekend and set up a wall for fans to write him messages. Drivers taped special greetings that will be played on the big screen all weekend and the King will be introduced during pre-race ceremonies.
Petty’s 200th victory came on July 4, 1984, at Daytona in the Firecracker 400. It was a gala day, with President Ronald Reagan on hand to congratulate Petty, perhaps his finest hour in a career stuffed with celebrations.
“I ran 1,100 of ’em. How do you pick one?” he said. “But the magic one was the 200th one, though. But to win your 200th race in front of the president of the United States, on the last green flag lap. I always told him, he put us on the front page and we put him in the sports page. Nobody would believe something like that would happen. But it happened to us.”
Because of the Saturday night race, Petty will spend his birthday not at the track but at his North Carolina home with family. Kyle Petty says they will grill hot dogs, hamburgers and steaks (rare, of course).
“This is going to be his real birthday and it’s going to be the most low-key event of his entire year,” Kyle said.
No appearances, no autographs, no interviews.
And if he feels 80, it’s hard for Petty to say.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I ain’t never been this old.”