Encompassing the greatness of a man like Richard Petty is next to impossible. He has not only set records and standards in NASCAR that all modern-era drivers strive to reach, he has also set standards of humanitarianism that some will never come close to. It is his respect for others that has made him who he is today and provided him with his career success.
Richard Petty was born in Level Cross, NC, a small town near the Piedmont Triad region with a current population of slightly more than 3,500 residents. Richard and wife Lynda are among them.
He began his racing career at the age of 21, following in the footsteps of his father, Lee, who was the winner of the first Daytona 500 and who won three Grand National championships himself.
In 1958, Richard was the rookie on the track at the Canadian National Exhibition Grounds in Toronto, Canada and finished 17th. It didn't take him long to find his groove though and by 1959 he was honored with the Rookie of the Year award after having achieved nine top ten finishes and six top fives.
The sixties brought about both triumph and tragedy for the man who had been deemed the "Randleman Rocket." In 1960 he won not only his first Daytona 500, but an additional nine races which earned him his first Grand National Championship (known today as the Sprint Cup Championship). He left the sport for a bit in 1964 due to fellow drivers protesting about the size of the engine he was running and tried his hand at drag racing. That was short lived however, when he crashed his car, resulting in the injuring of seven spectators and the death of an eight year old child.
He wasted no time in setting records upon his return to NASCAR, and in 1967 he won 27 out of 48 races which included ten in a row, the first accomplished by a driver. He took his second championship this year and was now bestowed with a new nickname; "King Richard."
The seventies were as much of a success for Richard as the sixties, with him winning his third Daytona 500 and becoming the first driver in history to do so. He also won his third Grand National in 1971, making him the first driver to earn the million dollar prize. This was also the era that he raced his most famous car, the Plymouth Superbird. It is now on display in his museum in Level cross. But in case you can't make it to North Carolina to view the car, pick up a copy of the Pixar movie "Cars." Not only was it cast in the movie as the retiring race car,Strip "The King" Weathers, but Richard was the voice behind his famous car!
July 4, 1984 was a momentous day for "The King." Not only was this his 200th race, but President Ronald Reagan was in attendance that day, the only President ever to come to a NASCAR event. He celebrated with Richard and his family that day in victory lane when the race was complete.
In 1991 Richard announced that he would no longer race after the completeion of the 1992 racing season. And while many retiring racers do not race a full season during their final season, this is not how Richard Petty operates. He felt he owed it to his fans to give them what they had given him for 34 years. Not only did he start every race that final season, but he lead the field on the pace lap for every race as a salute to his fans.
Aside from his success on the track, "The King" is known for much greater acts. The first would be the donation of 72 acres of land to The Victory Junction Gang Camp. This camp is located in Randleman, NC and was built in memory of Richard's grandson Adam (Kyle's son), who was the first, fourth generation NASCAR driver in history. Adam was killed in an accident at New Hampshire International Speedway in 2000 and the camp was actually his idea before he died. In honor of him, his family raised the money needed to build it so that terminally ill and chronically handicapped children could know happiness. For more information or if you would like to donate, visit www.victoryjunction.org.
Richard is also the owner of Petty Enterprises along with son Kyle, and they operate the car that Bobby LaBonte drives each week. He is seen frequently in the garage area, signing autographs for people who adore him. This, in fact, has always been his trademark. In the world of fame and notoriety, many stars either don't make or have the time to sign any or all of the autographs that are requested of them. This is what makes "The King" who he is and sets him apart from the rest. He has always made it a point to stay until every last autograph has been signed and every fan has been met. He showed his appreciation to the fans and if it weren't for his act of humanity, NASCAR wouldn't have evoloved into what it is today.
Overall, Richard Petty has had a tremondous career. He has won a record 127 poles, has won the Daytona 500 a record setting seven times, has seven cup championships under his belt, and is considered to be the greatest NASCAR driver of all time. But it takes more than numbers and victories to raise a man to legendary status. It takes heart. While the boys in NASCAR today show the drive and passion to set records and achieve greatness, there will never be another who will reach the standards that Richard Petty has unintentionally set. God broke the mold when He made Richard and his boots are pretty hard to fill.