Story of the Week

Posted: 11.18.2014
Richard Petty: Racing Legend
By: Robert Tate, Automotive Historian/Researcher
Images: The National Automotive History Collection

Richard Petty, a famous race car driver can be looked upon as the face of automotive racing in our history books and is considered to be a legend among racing fans. Born on July 2, 1937, Richard Petty was a second generation driver. Lee Petty, Richard's father, had a huge influence on Richard’s career and was also a renowned race car driver. Not only did Lee Petty win the first Daytona 500 in 1959, but he was also a 3-time NASCAR champion. In 1959, Richard Petty was named NASCAR Rookie of the Year after he produced many memorable finishes; six of which he placed top five.

Throughout his racing career Petty has won many competitive races. Petty once said in the beginning of his career, “I had an advantage over a lot of boys who started in Grand National cars. Because I helped build them from the time I was twelve years old. I didn't run my first one until I was twenty-one. So by that time I pretty well understood what was going on under the hood. Because I worked on them enough and saw my father run them enough. It gave me insight into what a car could do”.

At 26, Richard Petty won the Daytona 500 race driving a 1964 Plymouth model with a 426 Hemi engine. Petty would continue to dominate and win many more races throughout his career. Car number 43 was the symbol of Petty's stock car races. In 1966, after a year's layoff (when NASCAR had unfortunately banned the Hemi engine) Petty came back to racing in style. He won his second Daytona 500 along with other victories at Darlington and Rocking-ham; his season's record included eight victories. When speaking on the hemi engine, Richard Petty said “The Hemi engine was so superior to anything I'd ever driven before. It’s got pure brute horsepower. It's just a thrill to drive behind one”.

In 1967, Petty had twenty-seven victories including an impossible 10 race win streak and his second Grand National championship. In 1968, Petty drove into the history books again when he beat his father’s record to win the title which included 16 wins of that year. In 1970, Petty returned to Plymouth after a year's absence. He picked up where he left off this time driving a new Plymouth Superbird model which was one of the original wing cars. He won in Atlanta, the second Riverside race, and Rocking-ham adding more victories to his career.

During the 1960's, Ford motor company had lost four of the top drivers in racing; one of them being Fred Lorenzen, who was a talented driver. The Ford Motor company had begun to speak with Petty about switching name plates. However, Ford officials decided that it wouldn't be a good look -from public relations standpoint- because the Petty name was identified with the Plymouth name plate. However, in 1969, Richard Petty began racing Ford vehicles which left many fans very unhappy, and in some cases were devastated by this move.

In 1975, another historic year, Petty won the World 600 for the first time in his career. In 1979 and 1981, Richard Petty won two more Daytona 500 races. On October 1, 1991 Richard Petty announced that he would retire after the 1992 season; Petty's final top ten finishes came in 1991. Over the years, Petty has received many awards and can add being one of the best car racers of all time to his resume.

Throughout his career, Petty has received many prestigious awards including the 1992 Presidential Medal Of Freedom, the 1997 International Motor Sports Hall of Fame award, and was inducted to the 2010 NASCAR Hall of Fame in addition to many other awards. Today the family resides in Petty's home town of Level Cross, North Carolina. He owns and operates Richard Petty MotorSports. Richard Petty will always be a great legend, and will remain be a key part of automotive heritage.

A special thanks to Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher, for donating the story to the MotorCities Story of the Week program. Photographs are courtesy of the National Au-tomotive History Collection. (Bibliography: Wooten T. James. “In Carolina, the Petty Stock Rides High “The New York Times April4, 1971. Preuss Paul. “Racing Is Family Deal” Detroit News.)

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