Richard Petty was born on July 2, 1937 in Level Cross, North Carolina, to a racing family. Lee Petty, Richard’s father, won the NASCAR championship three times during the 1950s, and Richard grew up helping his father build race cars. In a 2008 interview with Sports Illustrated, Petty recalled his first memory of NASCAR as an eleven-year-old: “My mother, my father, my brother and myself rode over to the race in a great big ol’ Buick. We pulled it into a Texaco station – I remember this, I don’t know why – put it on a rack, greased the thing, changed the oil, took the muffler off, took the hubcaps off of it and put a number on it. Then it became a race car.” Ten years later just ten days after his twenty-first birthday, Richard formally entered the family business.
On July 12, 1958, Richard Petty raced for the first time in Columbia, South Carolina, and he finished sixth. It was the beginning of a successful career, expounding upon the foundation his Lee Petty had established. The “first family” of the Winston Cup Era, Lee and Richard would race on the same father-son team for several years. Lee continued to dominate as Richard learned about the racing business. Soon, Richard earned respect on the track, winning his first NASCAR championship in 1964. All in all, Richard won seven NASCAR championships, and the only driver to accomplish this feat is another North Carolina native, Dale Earnhardt.
A brave and tactful racecar driver, Petty dominated NASCAR for over a decade in the 1960s and 1970s. Petty popularized many techniques and skills that remain useful to today’s drivers. The King employed “nose to tail” drafts along with fast pit crews, passing maneuvers, and holding off other competing drivers to finish first time and time again. He ranks number one in several NASCAR all-time categories, particularly all-time wins (200), top-five finishes (555), and consecutive races won (10 in a row). In the 1967 NASCAR season, Petty put on the most successful performance in the sports history. He won 27 of the season’s 48 races, finished first 10 times in a row, finished second 7 times, and secured his second NASCAR championship.
Not only was Petty a successful competitor, but he was also voted the most popular driver in NASCAR nine times during his racing career. Always willing to sign autographs and take pictures with fans, Petty was known for his charming personality and his connection to family and friends. Even after his racing career, Petty continues to don his iconic cowboy hat and sunglasses. Petty’s famous stock car, a light-blue #43 Plymouth Superbird, is a classic remnant of the King’s legacy.
“Auto Racing.” William S. Powell, ed. Encyclopedia of North Carolina (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC 2006).
“Richard Petty.” Michael R. Bradley. Great Athletes (Salem Press) (2001): 1998.
“Richard Petty.” Mark Bechtel. Sports Illustrated 109.1 (2008): 74.
“Richard Petty.” NASCAR.com website. April 21, 2008. http://www.nascar.com/news/features/50.greatest.richard.petty/index.html, (accessed October 13, 2011).