The AC Interview: Richard Petty

Richard Petty, 73, comes from the first family of motorsports racing. His father, Lee Petty, won the inaugural Daytona 500, and Petty himself has seven NASCAR championships, seven Daytona 500 wins, and 200 career victories to his name. A new documentary on the Petty family legacy, Petty Blue, is available on DVD. American Cowboy visits with Petty from his garage in Randleman, N.C.

Tom Wilmes: You grew up in a rural farming community, what was that like?


Richard Petty: The house I live in now is right next to where I grew up. We lived on a dirt road about a mile from a paved road. We didn’t have running water, electricity, telephones, or much of anything. But all the neighbors were the same way, so we didn’t know we didn’t have it because we never had it. My dad started racing in 1949 and we went all over the country. When we started it was really a family deal. My dad drove, my mother looked after the books, my brother and I worked on the car, and we had a couple of cousins that came in and helped out.

TW: Your dad was also involved in the moonshine business, correct?

RP: He was never in the making of the liquor, but he did have some fast cars and used to make runs at night. That’s how he got involved in racing. He was a hot-rodder and he had to make a living running moonshine, then when the racing come along it was an automatic deal. That’s basically how NASCAR got started.

TW: How about where you live today?

RP: It’s still pretty daggone rural. We’ve got a couple of longhorns, a couple of buffalo, we’ve got some donkeys, some goats, chickens, turkeys, and pigs … my wife says I’m like Noah, I’ve got two of everything. We just love having animals around. We also have a place in Wyoming on the backside of the Tetons. We like snowmobiling in the winter and in the summertime we go four-wheeling up in the mountains.

TW: You’ve known for interacting with your fans. What role did they play in your racing career?

RP: The fans made Richard Petty. When we first started there were no sponsors?the spectators were the sponsors. So right early you learned that these guys are the ones letting you do what you want to do. The guys that came up with me?the Pearsons, the Allisons, the Bakers, the Yarboroughs?they all understood that.

TW: What attracts people to NASCAR?

RP: Back then you had Ford fans and Chevrolet fans and Chrysler fans?that’s what brought the people in initially. Then they’d pick out their favorite Ford driver or favorite Chevrolet driver and pull for them. Now the personalities kind of overshadow the cars. It’s like Brett Favre; he overshadows who he plays for, whether it’s Green Bay or Minnesota.

TW: What’s the “Petty Driving Experience?”

RP: We’ve got about 20 tracks all over the country where people can come in and learn how to drive a racecar at speed. It gives the fans a chance to really see what the drivers go through. These guys and gals will run a few laps and get all sweaty and they’ll say ?Man, how do you all do this for three or four hours at a time with 42 other cars out there?’ It helps them appreciate what it’s all about.

TW: Do you miss driving a racecar?

RP: I do miss driving. You worked on the car all week and you did your appearances and whatever you had to do to get ready for a race?but the driving part, to me, was the hobby. I probably stayed in the car six or eight years longer than what I was really capable of in terms of winning races. I just loved it so much that it was hard for me to give it up.

TW: What was it like taking that last lap in ’92 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway?

RP: That was pretty emotional for me and for the whole family knowing that even though I was out there riding around slow because we’d done got in a crash, that was the last time I was going to be out there trying to compete. It was an emotional week trying to get ready for the race and knowing it was your last race and then trying to stay out of trouble, but I got in trouble anyway [laughs].

TW: How about your 200th win at the 1984 Firecracker 400?

RP: That was just a Hollywood finish for my career. Winning on July the Fourth on the last green-flag lap?passing [Cale Yarborough] for the win right at the finish line?and doing all that in front of Ronald Reagan, the first sitting president that had ever been to a race. That was the crowning deal on everything. It was unbelievable.

TW: How important is family in your life?

RP: Nobody does anything by themselves. It’s all the people around you that give you the opportunity and help to accomplish what you set out to do. I, Richard Petty, have never done anything, but we as a group have done a whole lot. That’s the family part of it all.

TW: What are you the most thankful for?

RP: Just being here [laughs], with all those wrecks and stuff that we had. But really just being able to get up every morning and do the things that I’ve been doing for the past 60 years and then having my family around.

TW: What do you want people to remember you for?

RP: I guess the main deal is if they just remember period. Good guy, bad buy, or whatever, that’s all you can really ask for.

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