RANDLEMAN, N.C. — Mario Andretti remembers racing behind Richard Petty in the 1967 Daytona 500, which Andretti won.
“I remember one time he was really loose in front of me and caught the car,” Andretti said. “I thought, ‘That was a really good catch.'”
That was 55 years ago. Andretti was 26, Petty 29. They were nearing the start of their motor racing careers that would make them rich, internationally famous and iconic in the eyes of millions of fans and their peers.
Andretti is now 82. Petty will turn 85 on Saturday.
AJ Foyt is 87. Bobby Allison is 84. Cale Yarborough is 83.
Racing’s old guard is now an even older guard. To imagine decades ago that they would all reach their 80s would have defied common sense. All have cheated death on many occasions, and their heavy-duty, fuel-soaked lifestyles, inches from disaster, are not the kind that usually lead to long stays on Earth.
Yet, not only are many ex-racers in their eighties still moving above ground, but some also remain key figures in the ever-changing, personality-driven, cut-throat world of motor racing.
Petty clearly stands among – and above most – of them. He hasn’t driven a race car in anger since the 1992 season, but a typical NASCAR weekend will find him in the garage, signing autographs, catching up with old friends, sharing the same stories with others who were there in the growing years of car racing.
He remains part owner of a race team (Petty GMS Motorsports), but his role on the tracks is generally that of an ambassador and friend, a dedicated racer who stepped on a race track as a toddler and never left.
Eighty-five to Richard Petty is just another number. Like the number 43 on the front of the Level Cross Fire Department (Station 43) near the Petty shop, honoring the number of the race car Petty drove for most of his glory years.
“Racing and being on a race track and being around racing people is Richard Petty,” said his son, Kyle Petty, also a retired driver. “If you took all that away from him, I’m sure there’s no doubt he would have sat in the chair and died. But it just had the drive part taken away from it. It took him a while to get over it, but once he did, he’s still Richard Petty. Here’s who he is and what he does.
“Racing was his only focus. Everything he ever wanted to do.
Although most top-level drivers are obsessively dedicated to racing, most also have other interests. Golf, maybe, or fishing. Restoration of old cars. Operating companies that have little or nothing to do with racing.
Nothing else mattered to Petty.
“All he’s done his whole life besides go to school and high school is compete,” Kyle said. “It’s the same with all the other Pettys — my grandfather (Lee Petty), my uncle Maurice. None of them had a hobby. I’m the anomaly of the group. All I had were hobbies. They didn’t have any.’
Those who thought Richard might retire from the sport after his driving career ended were in for quite a surprise. He remained a team owner and rarely missed more than a few races a season until the pandemic forced him to stay home.
“It’s been the hardest two years for him,” Kyle said.
Andretti’s life after driving is much the same. He continues to participate in the various Andretti family races, attends nearly every IndyCar race, and continues to appear in front of sponsors.
“My passion for the sport has never gone away in any way,” Andretti said. “The fact that we have an ongoing family and that we are a part of it gives me even more of a reason to stay close to him.” This will be for the rest of my days. This is our life.
“I guess Richard thinks the same way. There have been battles, but big battles with great memories. I only remember the positive things. It keeps me going. I continue to love what is the most important part of my professional life.”
Petty’s weekly schedule has returned to what it was before the pandemic. He usually visits the team store in Statesville, North Carolina, on Tuesdays, makes sponsorship or charity appearances during the week, spends time at the Petty Museum in Randleman signing hundreds of autographs and travels to the site of the Cup race on the weekend.
“I don’t really have to do anything except keep things going for the garage (Petty’s Garage, which deals in high-performance parts and vehicle restorations), the museum, Victory Junction (the Petty family-run kid’s camp), and the race team , I commit to doing things,” Petty said.
“As far as turning 85 goes, it’s just another number. The way I look, how I behave, how I dress – everything is the same as it was 15-20 years ago. What you see is what you get. I don’t think I’ve changed. My personality, what I do, where I go – not much has changed. I don’t think I’ve changed, but I obviously have.
“I feel as good as I did 10 years ago. I can’t see as well and I can’t hear as well, but this change is gradual, so you just adjust to it.”
“What You See” with Richard Petty is a man in a cowboy hat and sunglasses, a shirt splashed with sponsors’ names, worn jeans and cowboy boots. It’s an image that will forever scream RICHARD PETTY that adorns all kinds of memorabilia still popular with fans.
And the autograph. Petty has done his looping signature a million times over the years and people still want it, even kids who have no idea about that guy in the cowboy hat. On a recent Wednesday, he sat in his office and signed more than 1,000 items to distribute at a future event. The daily mail, even 30 years after Petty last drove a race car, usually carries 20 to 100 requests for that autograph.
Darrell Waltrip, who left driving in 2000 and almost immediately moved to television with Fox Sports’ NASCAR broadcasts, took a different path than Petty’s. Waltrip used to work in racing television, but said he rarely “finds himself” at races now because so many of the people he raced for, with and against are no longer in the garages. But he said he understands Petty’s situation.
“That’s all he knows,” Waltrip said. “He knows the races. I just always felt like no matter who you are or what you do, stick to what you know. And he’s still the king. I guess he will be king until the day he dies and there will never be another king. He has 200 wins, he has so many things that no one else has. This helped with its longevity. He is King Richard. He is an icon.”
It continues the long road that has been Petty’s life, his cousin and former team boss Dale Inman. Inman, almost a year older than Petty, is as close to Richard’s cousin as you can get. They traveled together through their racing careers, graduated together into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and now that journey continues.
Virtually everywhere Petty goes, Inman follows. It’s the ultimate long-term friend trip. The king is driving, by the way, as always.
“When we were growing up, a 50-year-old man was an old man,” Inman said. “The trends of the times are changing all that. We’re older, but we’re still there. Hold us both. I’ve been with him all over the planet and it’s still amazing how people recognize him with that hat and sunglasses.
“The track promoters, the sponsors, the team owners – they still want him around because he attracts attention wherever he goes. He likes to go to races. He wants to be among people.
Petty’s health is good considering his age and the hardships he put his body through during his competitive years. He broke his neck twice, broke most of the bones in his body, lost 40 percent of his stomach to ulcers, and overcame prostate cancer. Every year he gets checked out by a bunch of doctors, and Petty says they tell him he’s physically 10 years younger than his age.
“I picked him up from the hospital after his prostate surgery and he had to stop and get ice cream,” Inman said. “He tells people he had two ulcers and they had names – Linda and Dale.”
Linda. Petty’s wife and a bright light in the garage areas and victory lanes during Petty’s championship years and beyond. Known as the First Lady of Racing, she died in 2014 after a long battle with cancer.
The Petty family had lost its center.
The following weeks were rough times for Richard, who, when Linda’s diagnosis was revealed to the public, asked members of the media at an emotional press conference at Daytona International Speedway to “pray for Linda.”
After her death, Petty retired from a life that had always been very public.
“I’m back in a shell of Richard Petty,” he said. “I haven’t gone anywhere. I didn’t care about anything. All my daughters came up one day and said, “Dad, you need to get off your ass and do something. You can’t sit here for the rest of your life. “
Petty was soon back as The King, the very public figure his fans had come to expect. After all, a new woman appeared in his life. He describes Ellen Hill, who grew up in the same area as Petty, as his companion.
“Ellen was on trips with Linda when Linda was involved in the 4-H Club and Girl Scouts and things like that, but I didn’t really know her,” Petty said. “She came to church one day and introduced herself. We should be friends. My girls knew her. They’re upside down anyway, but not as much as if I’d gone out and found a girlfriend somewhere else. They’re still trying to protect dad, but they know her.
“Ellen lives life. I live a life. She lives in her house. I live in mine. But we do things together. It amuses both me and her.”
Racing was everything to Petty, but it also hit him in the heart. Randy Owens, Linda’s brother, died in 1975 in a car accident at Talladega Superspeedway (a track that Petty usually avoided because of this accident). And then in 2000, Adam Petty, Richard’s grandson and the bright and shining star of the Petty clan, died. The fourth generation of drivers in the family, Adam was killed during practice at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He was only 19.
“That was probably the lowest point of my life,” Petty said. “I didn’t leave the house for five or six days. I would get up in the morning and just sit there. My world gave up. Then I got a letter from a woman I didn’t even know. She said, “Don’t put a question mark where God has put a period.” That brought me back to the real world. I used to blame myself for Adam’s death because if I hadn’t raced, Adam wouldn’t have. She lifted a burden from me.
As a tribute to Adam, the Petty family built the Victory Junction Gang Camp, which serves children with chronic illnesses.
“The camp came out of that, so his life was worth something,” Petty said. “Thousands of children have benefited from this camp. That was what he wanted.
And so, at 85, Petty continues. He has duties to perform, hands to shake, photos to autograph. His days resemble those of 65 and 75 years old. For the king, the road seemed to go on forever.