LEVEL CROSS, N.C. - Fireworks always have been a part of Richard Petty’s birthday.
This year will be no exception, as NASCAR runs its traditional Cup series summer date at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday, with the sky over the track lighting up after the race.
But instead of being at the track for his birthday this year, Petty probably will be at home in North Carolina, surrounded by family. This year’s celebration, which probably will be in a large picnic shelter near Petty’s house in Level Cross, will be special: The King turns 80 on Sunday.
For many years, Daytona’s summer race was scheduled for July 4 as part of the nation’s Independence Day celebrations. Beginning in 1988, the track moved the race to the Saturday closest to July 4. Among those significantly impacted by the change was a man of some significance: Petty.
In the long string of years in which the race was held July 4, Petty and his family always were in Daytona Beach for his birthday, which was celebrated with cake in the garage area and possibly a family gathering at a beach restaurant. But with the race falling on July 1 this year, teams won’t be at the speedway July 2 barring a race postponement.
It will be an odd sort of birthday for Petty, who is used to marking so many life milestones at one speedway or another.
He estimates he has been in attendance — either driving, watching or as a team owner — at almost 2,300 of the 2,514 races in Cup history. He watched his dad, Lee, drive in the first Cup race on June 19, 1949, in Charlotte.
“This year we get to do what traditional families do,” Rebecca Moffitt, Petty’s youngest daughter and executive director of the Petty Family Foundation, told USA TODAY Sports. “His birthday is on a Sunday, and there’s nothing going on that day. We’ll probably end up at his house grilling dogs and burgers and having a normal family birthday.”
There has been little normal about Petty’s long and fruitful life.
Son of a NASCAR champ and father and grandfather of NASCAR drivers, Petty set stock car racing records that will live long past his lifetime, including 200 Cup wins and seven Daytona 500 victories. Still sought for appearances and sponsor events — and for his distinctive autograph — 25 years after he last drove a race car, he rolls into his ninth decade having barely lifted the throttle.
He is stock car racing’s ambassador-in-chief.
“I don’t know what the future is,” Petty told USA TODAY Sports. “I think health will dictate what I do and where I go and when I do it. As long as I am healthy and can afford to do all this stuff, I’m going to go as long as I can.”
Obsessed with sport
It is no small thing that Petty remains out on the ramparts. In a driving career that stretched from 1958 to 1992 and included 1,184 Cup starts, he was involved in countless accidents, breaking virtually every bone in his body — and his neck twice — cheating death time and again. An illness resulted in Petty having about half of his stomach removed, and he is a prostate cancer survivor.
Petty could have retired to his mountain home in Wyoming many years ago, yet he and family members say his continuing attachments to the sport he has loved since watching his dad race are the things that keep him going.
“If it wasn’t for racing, he wouldn’t make it to 80,” Kyle Petty, Richard’s son and also a former driver, told USA TODAY Sports. “He would just sit down and stop, because he wouldn’t have anything to do. He went to the first race with my grandfather in 1949, and he was at the last race last week. That’s a long time to be dragging up and down the highway.”
Petty has wrestled with ailments and injuries over the years, but he says he isn’t on medication “other than an occasional Goody’s (a longtime Petty sponsor) if my head hurts. Physically, I don’t hurt anywhere. I don’t feel any different from 10, 20, 30 years ago.”
Early in his career, Petty figured out the dynamic between racers and fans. When he started winning and people started noticing, he went beyond the norm to accommodate fans, staying hours after races at dirt tracks in the middle of nowhere to sign autographs for all fans willing to wait.
His handsome face and piano-key smile helped make him a natural, and the winning cars consistently churned out by mechanics at the Petty shop in Level Cross were the perfect complement.
Petty zoomed to his first championship in 1964, and the race was on. He was his father’s son on the track but — much more than often-irascible Lee off the track — a hero willing to give time and attention to fans. When television came along, he was the perfect central figure to carry the sport from its Southeastern roots to exposure nationally.
Petty was a humble hero who understood the world of lower-income fans who saw him as someone who rose above the challenges of their daily lives. Lee Petty and his family lived in a wooden construction trailer in the 1940s.
“They were dead dirt poor,” Kyle Petty said.
Plenty to keep him busy
When Petty’s driving career ended in 1992, no one knew what to expect.
He was awarded the Medal of Freedom a month after he retired, by President George H.W. Bush. A life-long Republican, he ran for North Carolina secretary of State in 1996 but lost to Elaine Marshall, a former state senator who still holds the secretary position.
But because he remained in team ownership, it was assumed that he wouldn’t fade into obscurity.
Still, few could have predicted that he would still be walking pit roads a quarter-century later in his signature sunglasses and Charlie 1 Horse cowboy hat, his unofficial role as the sport’s perpetual hero unchallenged.
“I guess I could have made a big announcement in Daytona, brought everybody together and said, ‘That’s it. Don’t call me. I’m not making any appearances,’ ” Petty said. “That would have gone over like a lead balloon.”
Instead, he attends all but a few Cup races every year, and he travels extensively to make appearances for sponsors. He typically spends part of a day or two each week at the Petty Museum in Level Cross, signing items fans leave or mail to his attention.
The Petty shop, which began in a reaper shed built by his dad, now is headquarters for Petty’s Garage, a growing business that builds custom cars and restores classic car models.
Petty is active in fundraising for the Petty Family Foundation and Victory Junction Gang Camp, the North Carolina camp for chronically ill children started by the Pettys in memory of his grandson, Adam, who was killed at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2000 in a practice crash.
“Racing is not only his career but also his hobby,” Moffitt said. “We knew he wouldn’t be able to totally give it up, but we had no idea that he would still be going strong at 80.
“I think we all kind of hoped he would sort of retire after a few years, but now we’re really glad he didn’t, because we think that’s why he’s so healthy. He’s doing what he loves.”
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