As the NASCAR Sprint Cup teams roll into Daytona for the Coke Zero 400 on Saturday, stock car racing’s greatest star will have something very special to celebrate at his favorite track.
Richard Petty, who has long since been a Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series team owner, turned 75 years old today.
Rest assured plenty of birthday cake and Paydays (his favorite candy bar) have been consumed at his Level Cross, N.C., home.
Once he gets to Daytona we know there will be more cake and candles because of publicized celebrations.
He’ll also receive many goodwill wishes as he moves through the garage area smiling, waving to fans and signing autographs.
It’s a bit ironic that Petty’s birthday always comes around the week that NASCAR visits DIS for the second time each season. Some of his greatest successes have come on the famed 2.5-mile, high-banked speedway.
Petty raced for 32 years before he retired in November of 1992 following the race at Atlanta.
He won an incredible 200 races, which included seven Daytona 500 victories, more than any other driver in the track’s storied history.
Petty also won three 400-mile races at DIS in the July events of 1975, 1977 and 1984 – the year he won in a photo finish over Cale Yarborough to record his historic 200th victory with President Ronald Regan in attendance.
To go back 53 years, to 1959, when Petty first saw the mammoth 2.5-mile Florida speedway, it was a bit much to take in.
It was an incredible sight for a country boy who had previously raced on a variety of much smaller dirt tracks – and a few paved ones – around the country.
The biggest track raced on up to that point was the 1.3-mile Darlington Raceway. It was NASCAR’s only superspeedway for a decade, before Daytona opened for the inaugural 500 in 1959.
All of the stars of the era, such as Richard’s father Lee, Curtis Turner, Joe Weatherly and Fireball Roberts – to name a few – simply shook their heads at the sight of such a mammoth speedway.
That they had to race their Plymouths, Buicks and Thunderbirds around such an incredible track caused more than one driver to question how they could complete a full 500 miles.
Petty’s first outing was less than remarkable. In the inaugural race he finished 57th in the 59-car field and collected mere $100.
Father Lee was, finally, named the race winner three days later after a controversial photo finish over Johnny Beauchamp. Lee received the winner’s check and trophy in the living room of the small frame house where he and wife Elizabeth raised their sons Richard and Maurice.
It took five years for Richard to win his first Daytona 500, in 1964. He also won his first of seven career championships that year.
He was to win six more titles, in 1967, ‘71, ‘72, ‘74, ‘75 and ‘79. The only other driver to win seven championships in a career was the late Dale Earnhardt.
In 1966, Petty became the first driver to win the 500 twice. He won his third in 1971 when he beat teammate Buddy Baker.
In 1973 Petty muscled by Baker again to win his fourth 500. A year later, Petty won the race again en route to his fifth championship. It was probably the strongest Daytona outing of his career.
Petty came off major stomach surgery to win his sixth 500 in 1979. He did so only after Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashed on the backstretch on the final lap.
Emotions and angry words into a fistfight among Yarborough, Allison and his brother Bobby – still talked about today.
The unexpected brawl, which was captured on TV, helped NASCAR to become a nationally recognized sport.
In 1981, Petty won because of pit strategy. Crew chief Dale Inman called for fuel only on a late stop. It got Petty off pit road ahead of his closest competition and on to victory lane.
After his retirement 20 years ago, Petty could have elected to wave to the crowd and, many think, disappear.
But NASCAR has been a part of Petty’s life longer than he can remember.
“Racing is all I’ve ever known, you know what I mean?” Petty once said with a broad smile. “OK, the thing is, I really don’t know much about anything else. Racing is all I’ve ever done.
“So when I quit driving I decided to stick around and try to contribute wherever I could. I’ve always enjoyed my friends in the garage area and all the fans I visit with every week.
“Being in the garage area and being at the track is just part of the deal. Racing is something I really enjoy.”
Adds Inman, Petty’s cousin, “Richard has tried to stay home at times but he just doesn’t feel right unless he’s at the race track.
“His entire life has been about NASCAR from the time we were kids racing bicycles, playing football together and turning wrenches on Lee’s race cars. He’s still involved with Richard Petty Motorsports. We did so much together over 60 years of racing.”
Petty has been one of NASCAR’s greatest ambassadors, always touting the sport.
He, along with numerous stars of eras gone by, has worked hard to build interest in the sport, and more.
In recognition of that, we at MotorsportsUnplugged wish a very special 75th Happy Birthday to you, Richard.
You have been, and always will be, NASCAR’s greatest treasure in the hearts and minds of so many.