Two fighter jets are supersonic, howling through the Southern sky on a coordinated mission to buzz this speedway at the exact moment the marching band’s horns blast the final note of the national anthem. Then, 43 racecars will crank their engines in a single explosion. Oh yes, it is Sunday at the track, race day in the South, and there will be noise.
But just before the thunder, during the pre-race ceremonies, you hear a high-pitched shriek that causes you to spin on the asphalt and wonder, in the name of all things holy, just what in the heck is causing that earsplitting sound in the third row?
It starts with a short squeal.
She’s a woman, and she’s excited.
It’s piercing. You spot her, mid-40s, wearing a white T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up around her shoulders. Her sister, or someone who looks like she could be her sister, joins in.
They hold cameras toward the track. Up stands Mom, or someone who looks like she could be Mom, and she joins in, too.
C’mon! Look up heeeerrrrrre!
Together, their voices sound like a litter of cats with their tails caught under Goodyears.
At least they say please.
Finally, the skinny man in the dark sunglasses and cowboy hat, the grand marshal of this race and the once and only King of NASCAR, turns around and grins. His white teeth glow. And he waves to these delightful ladies, making their day.
Thank you, baby! the first woman hollers. You’re the greatest! The greaaaatest!
You ask him if this ever gets old. He puts his finger to his ear, revealing a small hearing aid, and he leans in closer to you. You ask again.
“Nah,” he says softly. “They pay the bills.”
Richard Petty was the greatest long before these ladies assured him so. He won 200 races, nearly twice as many as anybody else in NASCAR history. He won seven championships. He led NASCAR’s transformation from moonshine to mainstream. You won’t find anyone who accomplished more in a sport than Richard Petty accomplished in NASCAR. Nobody will ever break his records; they’ll stand until we start racing spaceships. Petty is the greatest car driver in history. But he rose above that status, and he became The King, for one reason — he makes everyone feel good to be around him.
Richard Petty turns 75 this month. He hasn’t driven a racecar in 20 years. His race team, Richard Petty Motorsports, still struggles in this new age of NASCAR, where real businessmen profit more than real mechanics. And the Petty family line of drivers has nobody in waiting, not after the death of his grandson Adam 12 years ago, a wreck that forced us all to face the reality that the name that built this sport right out of our North Carolina dirt won’t be around forever. And yet Richard Petty, more than any other sports star of his era, remains one of his sport’s most important assets. The King doesn’t fade away; The King stays The King.
Sponsors still line up for him — spend a day with Richard Petty, and you can have all the Goody’s Headache Powder and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts and Smithfield Hams you want. Fans still line up for him — his autograph is probably the least rare of any autograph in professional sports. And young racers, those cocksure millionaires of today’s NASCAR, still straighten their backs when Richard Petty comes around.
In sports today, it is accepted that current athletes are individual corporations, and past athletes were the real, God’s-honest competitors. But Richard Petty transcends both classes. He could race a car and sell it, too. He forged an image six decades ago, and still today, he never loosens from it. He wears cowboy boots to the White House, for crying out loud. Richard Petty proves that if you do anything long enough, the image you craft is the person you become.
To be that image, to be the true Richard Petty, that means he signs autographs for hours, and he makes sure every cursive curve is correct. That means he talks about where he was raised and the people who raised him with reverence. That means he smiles, even at people others might find annoying. And yes, that means the old rule still guides him: Treat people like you want to be treated.
“I don’t think you can be that person and fake your way to being that person,” his son, Kyle, says. “If you’ve met Richard Petty, you’ve met Richard Petty. He’s not playing Richard Petty.”
Trees and fields. That’s still the scenery alongside the two-lane road leading to Richard Petty’s garage in Level Cross.
Years ago, in this little community just north of Randleman, boys didn’t dream of making individual names for themselves. They dreamed of doing like their Daddys did. The Petty boys, Richard and his brother, Maurice, were born in the upstairs of a two-story, white house next to where the garage is now. All around them, people owned land. Lots of land. Farmers. In these parts, they measure wealth in acres. The Pettys, then, were poor. Lee Petty, the Daddy, sold Nabisco crackers out of the back of his car, and rumor has it maybe he might of sold some other stuff, too, but nobody’s ever been able to prove that. Their mom made chicken for most suppers, never steak or anything fancy.
In June of 1949, when Lee Petty was 35 years old, he picked up a Greensboro newspaper and saw an advertisement announcing a car race in Charlotte. He borrowed a four-door Buick from a friend, took it down the road, dropped his two sons and wife in the stands, and then went out and wrecked halfway through the race. He was hooked.
Three months later, Lee’s two boys mixed cement in a wheelbarrow and poured the first permanent floor of the race shop. For boys, they did a decent job — the floor was only slightly uneven. “But it beat the tar out of dirt,” Richard says. The father carved his initials in the wet cement: L.P. 9.49. The mark is still there. Lee Petty won his first race one month later, in October 1949.
For all the natural amusement that rural North Carolina blessed the Petty boys with — Randolph County woods to hunt in, Polecat Creek to catch frogs and fish in — they never cared about that stuff. Just racecars. And for all the cycles of seasons their neighbors followed — plant a crop, harvest a crop, plant a crop again — these boys just wanted to drive around in a circle.
“If Daddy would’ve been a farmer,” Richard says now, “we would have been farmers, too. We raced ’cause we didn’t know anything else.”
The Pettys became the first family of racing at a time when racing became the first sport of the South.
It was the 1950s, just after the war, and baseball flew the Stars and Stripes as the national pastime. But baseball’s center was in the North and Midwest, from Chicago to New York to Boston. The only baseball in North Carolina was minor-league ball, and while that was all well and good, the South didn’t have a Mickey Mantle. But in places like Level Cross, with all those fields separating neighbors, everybody needed a car to go somewhere.
There’s a picture from the 1950s still floating around. It’s a picture of Lee Petty crossing the finish line in first place at a racetrack in Asheville, and on the sidelines stands a teenage Richard, arms raised, wearing no shirt. You can almost hear him hollering. Lee later won the first Daytona 500 in 1959; Richard then won seven Daytonas of his own. In 1967, Richard won 27 races, including 10 in a row, and the joke around the racing world was that if he showed up on race day, other drivers started looking around to see who would finish second. Maurice, Richard’s little brother, was a seven-time mechanic of the year. Even their mother, Lib, short for Elizabeth, helped shape the sport. After Richard flipped his car at Darlington in 1970 and Lib saw her boy’s arm fly out of the driver’s side window, she made a checkerboard safety net for that window. Soon every racecar had one.
Sports writers, particularly those in the Piedmont, never wrote a negative word about the sport, wanting it to grow, wanting something to claim as their own. Those early drivers were much like neighbors going off to college. We hoped they’d graduate.
They were just the boys down the road. When STP began to sponsor Richard’s car in the 1970s, people throughout the state thought, Hey, I use motor oil, too.
Richard was the model. He married his high school sweetheart, had a family, and sent all of his kids to public school in Randleman, just like their daddy.
And all along, even as his name grew into something more than Richard, grew into something etched into the national sports and cultural conscious as two names — Richard Petty — and even as he made more money than anybody in Level Cross could have dreamed of, Richard Petty thought of racing as going to work. That much must be true; otherwise, why would he still be dealing with it all?
Sunday morning, this past April, 7 a.m. Six hours before the jets fly over. Trees and hills and fields. That’s what still surrounds the road on U.S. Highway 220 in Rockingham County. At the BP station, two men sit on the back of their truck, waiting for a friend to come out with smokes and a Gatorade. Another fills up his Mustang. Back on the road, heading north, a cop pulls over a car with a Jimmie Johnson sticker on the bumper. Must’ve been speeding. Daylight begins to break through the hills, and you’re a part of the pilgrimage, going just across the state line to Martinsville, a track that Virginia owns, but that Richard Petty from North Carolina made his own with 15 victories during his career.
The list of important events during these three weeks for someone in these parts reads like this: First Day of Spring, Martinsville, Easter. What the people on the road don’t know is that among the cars driving north, in a black Ford Taurus SHO performance car with black rims and dark-tinted windows, is Richard Petty. He’s riding with Dale Inman, his old crew chief. They’re first cousins. Inman’s grandson, who plays baseball at Randleman High School, rides with them. They sit in traffic, just like everyone else. Richard Petty hates traffic. But it’s smooth riding the closer he gets to the gates. He doesn’t need credentials. He has the hat.
At about 9 a.m., Richard Petty is standing in the back of the hauler that brought his team’s No. 43 racecar here. He looks out the back windows, which are tinted so nobody can see in. The truck driver, Paul Icenhour, is from Hickory. He doubles as the cook. Just outside the hauler, Icenhour has a brown-sugar-glazed Smithfield Ham on the grill at 340 degrees, beans and corn and macaroni-and-cheese on the stove. He’ll fill about 40 plates. Richard Petty will be too busy to have one.
“Richard picks,” Icenhour says. “He don’t eat.”
Inside the hauler, it’s quiet. Richard Petty is in a heavy conversation with Dr. Eric Warren, the race team’s chief engineer. They’re talking about the left-rear tire, something about the difference between 30 seconds and 31 seconds. You see, Richard Petty still talks racing. He makes suggestions, but his staff makes the decisions. “That’s why I hire ’em,” he says.
On his fingers, he twirls a keychain with two small, plastic pigs. The pigs have the Smithfield label on them. Then Warren asks his boss to step aside from the cabinet, so he can grab a Goody’s. The two spend a minute discussing the merits of Goody’s orange-flavored headache powder. You see, Richard Petty still uses the products he endorses.
His Tag Heuer watch says it’s almost time to head up to the Goody’s suite. He’s thinking about signing some autographs before going.
“If I step out that door, it’s like a magnet,” he says. “Ain’t like Randleman. You’re a neighbor there. You go to church with ’em. Here, you’re not a neighbor.”
OK, you think, so that’s why he still does this. Because people still recognize him, and we all want to be recognized. Right?
“No,” Kyle Petty tells you. “There’s only so many autographs you can sign before your ego fills up. This isn’t his job; it’s his life. Just because you get to an age when you’re supposed to slow down, you don’t stop living your life. His life revolves around racecars and racetracks and fans and sponsors and everything else. If he didn’t do this, he wouldn’t do anything. … I’m telling you, anybody who’s ever met him has met him.”
You first meet Richard Petty on a Tuesday at 3 p.m., five days before Martinsville. He walks out of the back of the old garage in Level Cross, shakes your hand, and says he loves this magazine — he and his wife have taken it for years. In that instant, you think, He’s the greatest!
He offers to show you around. Billy Idol’s song “Rebel Yell” blares from the speakers inside the garage. About a dozen guys are at work, transforming cars. You quickly notice that for all the noise that surrounds him, Richard Petty is a soft-spoken guy, and he’s the master of small talk. “How’s it goin’, man?” he says to one mechanic. “Good, ’n’ you?”
A few years ago, The King decided he needed to move his race team out of this garage and into a more modern shop. He first moved it to Mooresville, then it went to Statesville, and now, Richard Petty Motorsports is in Concord, near the other NASCAR teams. But those employees here in Level Cross, they were his friends and neighbors, and he couldn’t leave them without jobs. So he cranked up another business, turning the Level Cross garage into a performance garage to restore and soup up cars. He kept all those old boys here, earning a paycheck. Sometimes, if someone asks him what he’s doing with his day, he likes to joke, “Keeping y’all employed.”
As a driver, Richard Petty’s last race was in Atlanta in 1992. That day, he gave every driver who competed in the race a money clip inscribed with their name and starting position. A year later, he was looking for someone to drive the blue No. 43 STP car. One day in Indianapolis, he ran into John Andretti, the nephew of Mario Andretti, whose name is to open-wheel racing what Richard Petty’s name is to stock cars. He invited John Andretti to Level Cross.
The two toured the facility, and eventually, Richard Petty offered Andretti the driver’s job by sliding an envelope across the hood of the racecar. But not before they talked about family.
“When he hires employees, he doesn’t hire one person,” Andretti says now. “He hires the whole family because that’s who he believes he’s responsible for taking care of.”
In Andretti’s second season with the race team, his boss gave him another envelope. It was a bonus check for the driver’s hard work. Andretti argued and tried to give it back, but The King insisted: “This will make me happy.”
Andretti drove for Petty Enterprises, off and on, for several years.
In April 1999, Andretti went to Martinsville to compete in the Goody’s Body Pain 500. He was a lap down and in 21st place at one point during the race, but he fought back and won. It would turn out to be the last victory for the No. 43 blue STP car.
Just after the race, Andretti pulled into victory lane, and Richard Petty came down to the track and propped himself up in the window, legs dangling over the side, and Andretti drove into the winner’s circle with The King.
“There is no other,” Andretti says. “There just isn’t.”
Sunday, this spring. Martinsville. 10 a.m. The Tag Heuer watch says it’s time. Richard Petty opens the back door of the hauler. He looks down and plants his first boot on the top step, then his second boot, and he looks up, chin high. “Hey, Richard!” a fan yells. A line starts to form. Behind those fans, pit crews for today’s race finish the final preparations. The current drivers, all 43 of them, with names like Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., are meeting to go over the rules. But the line of fans is right here, with the old guy who hasn’t raced in 20 years. Richard Petty signs about 30 autographs, standing next to the grill with the ham cooking. He could stay for hours. But he has somewhere to be, upstairs in the suites, with the Goody’s folks. His public relations man, Jeff Dennison, plays the bad guy — he breaks up the line.
“I have to do it,” Dennison says. “Richard Petty can’t say, ‘No more autographs.’ He’s Richard Petty.”
He doesn’t need a racecar to be that person.
As sports fans, we make guys heroes, but usually it’s only within the context of the game they play. Take them out of that setting, and all of a sudden, they’re just guys.
And maybe that’s why we’re still drawn to Richard Petty. He always was just a guy, and he still is just a guy. He grew up idolizing his daddy, like some boys do. He drove cars fast as a teenager, like some teenage boys do. He chews Skoal Straight, and he rubs his cowboy boots over his spit to clean it up, like some guys do. He signs deals with handshakes — in fact, with regard to Goody’s, both sides grew tired of meeting every few years to renew his contract, so they said, Heck with it, let’s just sign a lifetime deal.
That’s where he’s headed now, to meet with Goody’s VIPs in the suites high above the track. A sign on the door reads, “Now you’ve entered Mr. Petty’s neighborhood.” He signs autographs for everyone in the room and tells each one of them, “Appreciate you comin’ to check on me,” or, “Thanks for comin’ out.” Several people ask him if he remembers meeting them last year, or the year before, and a few even remind him of times they met him years ago. Seems everyone has a story about meeting Richard Petty.
“Most people sign autographs for 10 years,” he says. “Not many do it for 60.”
After about an hour in the suites, it’s almost race time. The fighter jets are on their way. Richard Petty walks down the hall and hits the down button, calling the elevator to carry him to his next appointment — which is on the track, where he’ll be grand marshal. The role of the grand marshal is simple: He’ll say, “Gentlemen, start your engines!” His grandson, Harrison Moffitt, will help him. But just before he goes down the elevator to the track, a boy who’s about 5 years old happens to walk past with his family. The boy tilts his head back, barely able to see underneath a baseball cap that’s too big. The King kneels down. Just before he can say hello, the boy beats him to the conversation punch: “My name’s Gabriel.”
The King snaps his head back.
“Well, my name’s Richard.”
“Nice to meet you,” the boy says, then turns away.
The elevator opens. Richard Petty steps into it and stands in the back, with a crowd of people in front of him. His reflection shines in the closed elevator doors as it goes down. He stands out, taller than everyone else, a smile brighter than everyone else’s, and, of course, that cowboy hat and sunglasses that nobody else wears like him. You go down three floors with him. When the door opens again, a golf cart driven by a Goody’s spokesman waits for him. Richard Petty hops into the passenger’s seat. “Now, we ride,” he says.
The driver presses the pedal, and the cart speeds away from you, dodging the crowd that’s pouring toward the gates. These fans traveled hundreds of miles to get here and spent hundreds of dollars to enter, and now they see their King. But as the golf cart weaves through the people, a funny thing happens: They don’t scream or try to stop it. They just grab the person next to them or lean down to their kids to explain the significance of seeing the man on the cart.
And you hear the sound build behind him — one person telling another to look, telling another, telling another, creating a soft, almost imperceptible, chant that trails The King’s chariot as he rides to the track.
“It’s Richard Petty,” they each whisper.
Michael Graff is the senior editor of Our State magazine. His most recent story was “The Best Barber I’ve Ever Had” (June 2012).