Editor’s note: The following story is abridged from an article appearing the May issue of RACER, on newsstands now.
For me, going to a NASCAR race is like visiting a different country. Having spent almost my entire career in the land of open wheels, it is refreshing and fun to take a holiday in stock car country. Sure, I watch the races on TV, but being there is just different. The language is the same, but the accents, the food, the people – everything is just a bit less familiar to me. And while the land of open wheels has been largely a democracy during my time, stock car country is decidedly not. The France family has ruled the sport from the beginning, but the figurehead who stands for everything NASCAR is The King, Richard Petty, and today I have been granted an audience.
As I walk up to the team’s transporter [Ed- hauler, one of those cultural differences], I spot Richard Petty from 100 yards away.
With his signature hat and wraparound shades, he stands out from the crowd of 20 or so people around him. We had met on a couple of previous occasions, so our re-introduction is easy and familiar. But over the course of our conversation, the thought that continues to occur to me is that this man who has seen so much, accomplished so much and been so important to his sport has an amazing perspective on it all. As we cover a wide range of topics – from his own career, records, and accomplishments to the Car of Today and NASCAR’s continuing evolution – Richard Petty shares his thoughts and stories with wit, candor and, above all, humility.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The King…
Bryan Herta: How are you finding things now? This is a new situation for you.
Richard Petty: Yeah, it’s a different deal. We’ve always had our own show, we’ve been calling the shots, but then things got pretty tough for us over the last few years. We weren’t really producing a whole lot, so we finally got Boston Ventures to come in and try and get things cranked up – and about the same time, the economy went upside down. George Gillett and myself had talked two years ago about joining, but at that time I still had some stuff going, he still had stuff going, and so it didn’t work out.
But then it got to the second half of last year, and things weren’t going good for Petty Enterprises at that time so I called George. He had two cars, of course, so he said, “You bring in a couple, I’ll bring in a couple, and we’ll start again.” We moved some of our stuff into their shop, brought
four or five guys and two cars, and changed the name of the whole thing, and I’ve become part owner of this business. So Gillett Evernham Motorsports became Richard Petty Motorsports. We had only ever been two cars, but now with four, it’s more than twice the trouble!
But we went to Daytona and had a pretty decent couple of weeks. At least we were able to roll all four cars on their own wheels onto the haulers at the end – that’s a good deal! Plus, we finished third [AJ Allmendinger] and fifth [Elliott Sadler]. A pretty decent start.
BH: Yeah, that is very good. But it’s got to feel different to you now, right?
RP: Completely different. I’ve been doing this since I was 11 years old. In 1949, my father ran the very first Cup race, and so I’ve
seen all this stuff grow. You see sponsors coming in, you see all the monies that are generated now compared to what it used to be, and you think OK, that’s good so long as the economy’s strong and the money’s coming in the door, but then the sponsorship dries up, and we have to take a different perspective.
BH: But you still love it? You still want to be here and be involved, even after all the things you’ve achieved?
RP: It’s a way of life. Like if you grew up on a farm and became a farmer, just because you get too old to plant crops doesn’t mean you won’t be out there watching the crops being planted or watching them getting harvested. Like I said, I’ve been doing this since I was 11: I don’t know any better!
When I quit driving in 1992, it hurt. I still did everything that I’d always done, except the getting in the car. That near broke my heart. The rest of the stuff had been my job, but now someone had taken my hobby away from me. So I had to learn to take some of the job part and make a hobby out of that. But this work is good. Very few people go through life doing what they want to do and making a living from it.
BH: That’s exactly how I feel about it. I just started my own Indy Lights team and right now I’m out of the car, I’m not driving. What advice would you give me in trying to make that transition in my life?
RP: Well, driving was a portion of your life and that’s history now. So now you have to say, “OK, what’s my hobby going to be? Is growing this business my hobby?” All that effort that you once put into driving a racecar now has to be thrown into a different situation, and you have to accept this is going to be your life from now on.
I drove for 35 years so it was real hard to put that much behind me. But I said to myself, “That portion’s over, I can’t do everything I used to be able to do, and I just got a different outlook. So far it’s worked pretty good.
BH: Let’s talk racing. When I was a kid, I went to Riverside for what was then the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, and saw you race there, and I can remember as you came by, I saw a towel in your mouth. What was that about?
RP: Well, you always ended up getting a dry mouth, even if you drank something during the pit stop or had a thermos bottle in the car. So whenever I made a pit stop they’d give me a wet rag, to wipe my face. But instead I just kept it and chewed on it, and it became a habit.
BH: Would you do that in practice too?
RP: No, just for the races. They’d give me it at the second or third pit stop. Remember, we used to run 200 laps on dirt tracks, and man, it would get so dusty that we’d still be spitting up dirt two or three days after a race.
BH: How do you view your 200-wins record now? I don’t think it could happen in a million years, but how would you feel if someone threatened it?
RP: I set a bunch of records, and some of them have been broken. But I never looked at what I had behind me. I always looked at what I had in front of me, and my ambition in life was to do better today than I did yesterday. That kept me going. I wasn’t ever looking backward. I was thinking, “You done what you done, whether it was good, bad or indifferent, but what can we do to be happy today? I was happy yesterday because I won the race, but that feeling doesn’t last very long.” I guess a lot of those records were about longevity. I don’t really thrive on that. That’s not in my makeup. I did what I did and I beat the majority of the people in my time, and that’s all I can do. So I don’t feel like I’ve lost anything if someone breaks a record of mine.
BH: Hmmm…That’s a good way of looking at it. Journalists always want to compare eras, but you really can’t.
RP: Right. You can’t compare what Jimmie Johnson does or what Dale Earnhardt did to what Richard Petty or David Pearson or Cale Yarborough did; it’s a different time. It’s like the Olympic swimmers now who go out and set records: they do all their training so much different now than Johnny Weissmuller when he won all those medals, or even when Mark Spitz did the same. You can’t compare them. Everybody has his time, and he just has to beat everyone in his era.
BH: Having seen NASCAR evolve and change as much as it has, if you could take something from the early parts of your era, what would you change about modern NASCAR if you could?
RP: When we first started, it was a sport. We drove it as a sport, we looked at it as a sport. It’s entertainment now, and it’s gotten so big that it’s competing against football, baseball and basketball. Back then, we just did our own thing and we weren’t competing against anybody for TV or sponsorship. Now we have to compete to get those fans to watch or to come to the track, so we have to put on a different kind of show. The racers here don’t look at it as entertainment – to them it’s still just racing. But everyone selling T-shirts or hotdogs sees it as entertainment. That’s the big difference. I also don’t think you see the close relationship of the drivers that you saw in the past. And the reason for that I think is because there’s a lot more people, a lot more press, a lot more demands. The drivers can’t just sit in the back of a truck, shootin’ the breeze with each other, because here come the fans, here comes the TV, here come the sponsorship commitments. You don’t get that person-to-person, close-knit relationship. They still back each other if someone has trouble – there’s still that much comradeship; but it’s not nearly as personable as it used to be. Of course, the whole world isn’t, either!
BH: And you lived through NASCAR spreading in popularity.
RP: Yeah, until the early ’70s, we were strictly a Southern sport. Then RJ Reynolds came in and it became the Winston Cup, and we got advertised all over the country. They had figured that if they’re gonna spend all that money on the series, they want more than just the promotion they could get in the South. So tracks got built in places like New Hampshire, Chicago, Kansas City, Texas and California and we were pre-sold: when we went there, people knew what kinda show we had.
Then TV came along, and that just took off. So it got a little different year by year, until we arrive at today. [Son] Kyle says the only thing about NASCAR today that’s the same as it was in the beginning, is that you get a green flag to start and a checker to finish – everything else is different.
BH: Do you have a particular favorite win out of your 200, or an accomplishment that’s a bit more special to you?
RP: You know, I look at it that I was so fortunate to be able to do as much as we did. The first time I won the Daytona 500  I thought, “Man, it can’t get any bigger than this,” but then we won our second, third, fourth and so on… But then I come back and think that my favorite deal was my 200th win. Beating Cale on the last lap, the President of the United States was there and it was July the Fourth. Like I told the President, he got me on the front page of the newspapers, but I got him onto the sports pages! I guess you could say that as my most recent victory, it’s the freshest in my memory.
BH: I had an Indy car race at Laguna Seca that I famously lost on the last lap, and although I came back and won that race two years in a row, the one I get asked about most is the one I didn’t win. Was that the same for you at Daytona in ’76?
RP: Yeah! I won seven Daytona 500s, but I’m probably better known for losing in ’76 than I am for my wins. When I won it in ’79, that was the year Cale and Donnie Allison had their slugging match, but I told them, “You guys ain’t got no class. Me and David Pearson had class: we had our crash on the front straight where everyone could see us!” I guess of all my races, that ’76 500, more than any other, makes me think how dumb I was to not win it!
BH: What’s your take on what happened?
RP: Well, this is my side of the story. I was leading but I had slowed the pace down with Pearson right behind. I’d been running 7800rpm the whole race, but then I started slowing to 7700, 7600, 7500…and he’s still sitting right behind me and he’s gotten used to going that speed. So then on that last lap I open it up all the way and though he drafts past me on the back stretch, he’s now going into Turn 3 about 10mph faster than he has been, suddenly he’s not in the groove he thought he was in and he drifts up the track. I go down the inside and get ahead. Now, I wanted to move up in front of him to prevent him retaking me but, in all honesty I thought I’d cleared him. Guess I was wrong by about six inches, so we hit, we crashed and all that. He got his car going again and got the checker.
In ’84, racing Cale for my 200th win, it was the same kinda deal. I was leading and slowed, he stayed back, but passed me on the back stretch, and going into the final turn his car drifted up a lane, and I got down beside him. But I learned from the ’76 race not to try to pull in front of the car before the checker; this time I just held my line and won the race by a couple of feet.
BH: Classic times. Do you miss the diversity of the cars at all?
RP: When NASCAR started, these cars were stock cars. And I mean, strictly stock. They just painted the numbers on…oh, and they had seatbelts. But they’d break wheels. NASCAR thought, okay, can’t do that, so they put bigger, stronger wheels on. Then they break the lugs. They put bigger lugs on, they break the hubs. Put bigger hubs on, they break the spindle. Put on a bigger spindle, they break the ball-joint. And so on, and so they turned into racecars. I’m giving you a bunch of history here that you don’t want.
BH: No, we love it!
RP: Well, we used to run stock suspensions, stock wheelbases and so on. So some cars were 60 inches wide, some were 63, some had 115-inch wheelbase, some 118-inch. Whatever size that car came in for the road, that’s what we had to run on the track. But in 1981, manufacturers had started making smaller road cars, and a lot of them were 105-inch wheelbase, and all of them were front-wheel drive. NASCAR says, “We can’t be running six cylinder engines or front-wheel drive” so they designed a chassis – 110-inch wheelbase, 60 inches wide, four coil springs suspension. This was the NASCAR racecar, and manufacturers just added a stock body – Ford gotta look like a Ford, Dodge gotta look like a Dodge.
Then a few years ago they wanted to make a safer car, have the driver more in the center of it, put more rollcage in, and a whole load of safety deals, and it wouldn’t fit anything Detroit had. So they drew up a whole NASCAR car and all the cars are templated the same now.
It used to be that if you had a Dodge one year it would have the best body design for racing, then another year Ford would have the best body design, and if you were in a Dodge at the time, you just had to tough it out. Now we have the same car. And it’s the same one from track to track: the car you saw at Daytona is the same one you’ll see at Martinsville. In the long run, that made it cheaper. Otherwise you could have 25 cars for a 36-race schedule! So we started out with stock cars, but these are now NASCAR cars.
BH: And do you approve of that?
RP: It was a necessity. We would not be able to survive if we tried to run stock cars.
BH: You’ve got a great perspective, in that despite all the years you’ve been in the sport, you aren’t hanging on to things, saying “This was better back then.” You’re always looking forward – this is what we’ve got now, let’s go make the most of it.
RP: Well, this is what I was telling guys last year when the Car of Tomorrow became the car of today. They were moaning that they don’t like this car, it don’t handle. I just said, “Suck it up, baby. This is what you’ve got. It’s your job to get those things round the track. If they were easy to drive, I’d still be driving them!”