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Richard Petty memories of a middle-aged racing fan

by Dave Grayson
Wednesday, July 16, 2008

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Richard Petty
This past July 12th marked the 50th anniversary of Richard Petty's first ever race and with that came the appropriate congratulations and media attention that a milestone like this richly deserves. This prestigious event took place in 1958 in Columbia-South Carolina. Official NASCAR archives indicate that Petty started the race from the 13th position, worked his way to a sixth place finish and earned $200 for the effort. It also marked the beginning of one of the most prolific legacies in the world of auto racing complete with statistics that may never be toppled.

Historians note that Richard Petty's formal introduction to NASCAR racing came at a very early age when he worked for his famous father, Lee Petty, in their Randleman-North Carolina based family race shop. Over the years a young Richard Petty did everything in the shop including sweeping the floor, washing car parts and eventually graduated to race car construction. All the while he was waiting for his 21st birthday which was NASCAR's mandatory age limit back then for their Grand National Division, now Sprint Cup Series. When the all important birthday arrived Lee Petty was prepared and told his son to take one of their cars to Columbia.

This particular event featured NASCAR's Convertible Division. Back in the day NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. was intelligent enough to recognize the popularity of convertibles with the nation's car buying consumers and that's why he created this special racing division. Most of the teams just simply cut the tops off of the car to race in this division and then bolted them back on for the Grand National events.

The official record book indicated that NASCAR star Bob Welborn won the Convertible Division race that night in Columbia. Over the years it would be noted that Lee Petty was unable to be in Columbia to witness his son's racing debut. He was committed to a Grand National Division race in Ashville-North Carolina that night. He sent his nephew Dale Inman to crew chief his son's car along with engine man Red Miler. It was very prophetic that Richard Petty was accompanied by his cousin that night because Dale Inman became the crew chief that led him to all of his future NASCAR championships.

The Columbia Speedway hosted many of NASCAR's races in both divisions and played a huge role in the history of the sport as well as the career of the drivers who are now known as the pioneers of NASCAR. The half mile oval, packed with red clay, had the reputation of being one of the toughest dirt tracks in the southeast. During the early days of NASCAR the Grand National teams ran as many as 65 races in one season at venues all over the country. There was a major reason why NASCAR was so attracted to the Columbia Speedway: they ran their races on Thursday nights. That meant the sanctioning body could send their teams to Columbia on a Thursday and then send down the highway to other tracks on a Friday and Saturday night. It was very common for NASCAR to schedule as many as three races per week back in its early days. Interestingly enough this track  also ran their races on Thursdays because it was Army payday at the nearby Fort Jackson Training Facility and the track promoter was smart enough to realize that the young soldiers would be broke by Saturday night.       

I personally know all of this first hand because I was there that night. On that summer evening back in 1958 a little red headed boy from South Carolina, all of six years old at the time, accompanied my dad to the Columbia Speedway. After the race the hot and tired drivers climbed out of their convertibles completely covered in red dust. They actually resembled Martians from an old 1950's era science fiction movie. I was part of the legion of fans who walked over to the pits to look at the cars and get our souvenir programs autographed by NASCAR's stars of the day. When I approached Richard Petty that night he seemed to be a little amazed that anyone would want his autograph. But, in a very low key style, he signed my book, shook my hand and thanked me. That was another racing example that he learned from his famous father who told him to always respect the fans because they were the ones who really supported the racing.

Two things happened that night in Columbia-South Carolina. First, and most important, the legacy of Richard Petty, the king of stock car racing, was officially created. Secondly, and to a much lesser degree, Richard Petty had just shaken hands with a little six year old boy who would grow up to become the biggest fan Petty Enterprises has to this day.

This past February, while covering the NASCAR weekend at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, I had the privilege of getting to talk to Richard Petty about that night in South Carolina and all the other Petty Enterprises memories I have from tracks all over the southeast. We were standing along the rear side of one of the garage buildings and I figured that my audience with the King was probably going to last about sixty seconds before the rest of the media saw this and engulfed us with microphones and cameras. Amazingly this onslaught never happened. It was like it was meant to be and I actually had 20 minutes alone with Richard Petty to talk about NASCAR memories. When I told him that it was Petty Enterprises, NASCAR racing and the Atlanta Braves that got Dad and I through the so called generation gap during my teen years Petty nodded his head and flashed that famous grin. All of a sudden it was like I was that little red headed boy in South Carolina again.

Not long after that I found myself standing in one of my favorite watering holes here in southern California. There was a lady next to me wearing a Dale Earnhardt Jr shirt. I, of course, was dressed in my traditional Petty Enterprises attire. Everyone in the world knows that once two or more NASCAR fans identifies each other a highly spirited conversation is going to follow. During the course of that conversation she pointed at me and said "gee it's too bad about that shirt you're wearing."

Challenge made and challenge accepted. I smiled at her and replied "I'm going to make you a deal right here right now. When I hear about your guy winning the Daytona 500 for the seventh time, when I read about your guy winning his seventh NASCAR championship and when the SPEED Channel shows me video highlights of your guy winning his 200th race then I would go to our local Wal-Mart, buy every Dale Jr shirt and hat they have and proudly wear them all over town."

Challenge accepted and challenge won. I certainly mean no disrespect to Dale Jr. He's clearly on his way to become one of the sports greatest drivers while establishing a NASCAR legacy in the same manner that his famous father did. Simply put the lady had no way of knowing that old school Petty fans are very formidable people. To be completely fair she had no way of knowing that she was dealing with the memories of a middle aged racing fan.

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