I often wonder about talent, whether it is an inherited gift, or pops up randomly in families – especially as it pertains to race car drivers.
In the Petty family it was clearly evident that driving prowess existed throughout the lineage, albeit to varying degrees.
Lee Petty, the patriarch of the family, experienced success out of the gate in the fledgling NASCAR Grand National Series. From 1949 – 1964 Petty won 54 times. Additionally, he collected three championships.
Petty’s son Richard has a most impressive, rock solid list of statistics prove his talent. From 1958-1992 Richard won 200 races and seven championships, achievements that earned him the moniker of “King” in NASCAR.
Talent continued to flow from the Petty family when Richard’s son Kyle became a driver in NASCAR. Although he won only eight races in his nearly 30-year career (1979-2008), Kyle possessed an aptitude for driving.
Finally, the Petty Family had a burgeoning talent with Kyle’s son Adam, a 19-year-old boy who got his shot in a Cup car at this tender age with the goal of continuing the Petty heritage.
Tragically, Adam’s life was cut short in an accident at New Hampshire International Speedway while he was practicing for a Busch Series race.
Clearly there is an argument that the formula for racing genius lies somewhat in the genes, to varying degrees.
Other families in NASCAR can support that.
Ralph Earnhardt had a modicum of success as a driver in NASCAR’s top series. But he was well respected as a short track racer, who worked hard for every dollar he earned.
Earnhardt definitely had “something” when it came to racing, he was a short-track master and national champion, but he never experienced great success at the Cup level.
Earnhardt’s son Dale was a scrappy kid who couldn’t seem to get a foothold in racing until 1979, when he won rookie of the year honors in NASCAR’s Winston Cup circuit.
The very next year Dale won the championship. This started a string of successes that led to 76 wins and seven championships – which ties him with Richard Petty.
Dale’s son Dale Jr. certainly has had a modest career in his 13 years in Cup to date. He has earned 19 wins and is still vying for more.
His two Busch Series championships were the catalyst that propelled him to Sprint Cup competition. With Dale Jr.’s career still going at full speed, there is no telling how many more wins he can accrue – and if there may be a championship in his future.
Other families in NASCAR have rich racing legacies.
The Allison dynasty comes to mind instantly. Bobby and Donnie Allison, brothers, won 84 and 10 races, respectively, in NASCAR’s top series. They earned scores of other victories throughout their racing careers.
Bobby’s son Davey won 19 times before his life was cut short by a helicopter accident in 1993. Bobby’s other son Clifford lost his life in 1992 at Michigan International Speedway while practicing for a race. He had a promising career but was struck down before it got under way in earnest.
Ned Jarrett earned 50 wins and two championships. Jarrett’s son Dale won 32 races and one title.
David Pearson has 105 wins to his credit and three championships. His son, Larry, found success in the Busch Series winning championships in 1986 and 1987. Although Larry never had a win in the Cup series, he certainly had a knack for winning in the lesser series posting 15 victories.
Coo Coo Marlin and his boy Sterling found some success at NASCAR’s top level. The elder Marlin never won a points race in his career, but did win a twin qualifier at Daytona in 1973 and earned several top fives and top 10s.
The younger Marlin strung together 10 wins in NASCAR’s Cup series in his 33-year career.
The Labonte brothers are other siblings who show talent in the gene pool. Oldest brother Terry earned 22 wins in Cup racing along with two championships. Younger brother Bobby earned 21 victories and has one championship to his credit.
Darrell Waltrip set NASCAR aflame with 84 victories and three championships. His younger brother Michael struggled until Dale Earnhardt became his team owner at DEI.
Michael now has four checks in the win column and has become a successful team owner in his own right.
The Bodine brothers, the Wallace brothers and the Busch brothers have all proven that talent can, and does, run in a family – again, to varying degrees.
But it doesn’t prove that talent springs only from families.
Junior Johnson and Jimmie Johnson may share a last name, but they are not related and appear to be the one-offs in racing talent in their families.
Tim Richmond, Jeff Gordon and Cale Yarborough seem to be standalones who show talent may just be random but no less incredibly potent.
For every familial link of talent there is a case of uniqueness in a brood where racing prowess had not existed.
Perhaps there is no more talent in “racing families” than in other ones. Maybe the skill has taken more time to be found and developed.
Do you believe racing aptitude is inherited or do you think it is random and racing families merely have the means to identify talent more readily?