Lee, Richard, Kyle and Adam Petty
Father of Richard, grand-dad of Kyle, Lee crashed the family Buick in his first Grand National race, in '49. But with a new set of wheels, Petty went on to win the inaugural Daytona 500 in '59, three Grand National series championships, and 54 series races (seventh). A bad crash at Daytona ended his career in '61.
Lee Petty #42
Unlike today when a Winston Cup driver might continue to race until well into his fifties, during the earliest days of Grand National stock car racing, the sport was almost exclusively reserved for "young" men. Most drivers hung up their helmets shortly after their thirtieth birthday (if not considerably before) in the days when Tim Flock and Herb Thomas were leading the racing pack.
And that's why Lee Petty's legendary career is all the more remarkable. You see, the senior member of the racing Petty clan didn't buckle himself into a racing car until the extremely "advanced" age of thirty-five.
Petty's delayed entry into the racing fray can perhaps be explained by the devotion he felt for his family: wife, Elizabeth, and sons Maurice and Richard. Life in the Carolinas during the Depression was challenging at best and allowed little spare time for hobbies. Before taking up racing as his business, Petty had to put food on the family's Randelman, North Carolina, table by pursuing a variety of trades. At various times he had been a watermelon truck driver, a taxi driver, a mechanic, and even a hog farmer.
Young Lee had always enjoyed going fast in a car, but never thought to pursue that need for speed professionally until the inaugural "Strictly Stock" NASCAR race in June 1949. When Petty heard about that event in Charlotte, he borrowed a neighbor's 1946 Buick Roadmaster and drove it to the dirt track oval in Charlotte to try his luck. He qualified the car ninth in a field of thirty-three and was running well in the race until flipping the car three times on lap 105 (of 200). For that feat, Petty earned the dubiogordonus distinction of being the first man to wreck in NASCAR competition. He also collected $25 in winnings and, doubtless, the anger of the Buick's owner.
Even though Petty's first outing was somewhat less than successful, he was hooked. He soon returned to the circuit with a black 1949 Plymouth coupe that bore racing No. 42. He didn't know it at the time, but that first race car was the start of a family association with Plymouth (and later Dodge) that would continue for much of the next three decades. By the seventh race of that first NASCAR season, Petty had become a winning driver, his first victory coming at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The $1,500 purse he pocketed that day was the first of literally millions that Petty, his son, Richard, and his grandson, Kyle, would win over the next forty-five (and counting) years.
Before long, Petty, with the help of his two young sons, had become a force on the fledgling circuit. Back home in Level Cross, Petty began construction of a shop and racing dynasty that to date has produced hundreds of NASCAR victories for more than forty different drivers, and an unrivaled ten Grand National/Winston Cup championships. But perhaps we're getting a bit ahead of ourselves.
After his first season on the circuit, Petty began to turn in a string of remarkably consistent and financially rewarding performances. From 1949 to 1954, Petty never placed lower than fourth in the championship points standings. During that time he won six races and finished in the top five scores of other times.
In 1954, he captured his first of three Grand National driving titles. Big wins that year came at Daytona (where he won after Tim Flock was disqualified), and Martinsville, but it was primarily his consistency (seven wins and twenty-five top-ten finishes in thirty-four starts) that won him the points race. Over the next five seasons, Petty was again the soul of consistency and always finished near the top of the points standings, year in and year out. During that time, he switched back and forth between Dodge and Oldsmobile racing iron.
Nineteen hundred and fifty-eight was more than just a year of consistent performances for Lee Petty in a number of ways. That season was the first year of the GM-inspired AMA ban on factory-backed racing, and as a factory-backed Olds driver that year, Petty had decided advantage over the few Ford racers who raced as independents. He didn't have things quite as easy with his Chevrolet and Pontiac rivals since they, too, were still getting clandestine factory support. After being unable to catch Paul Goldsmith in Smokey Yunick's Pontiac at Daytona, Petty first got to kiss a pretty girl in victory lane at Concord in March. He collected similar busses six more times that season, and those smooches coupled with thirty-seven other top-ten finishes made Petty Grand National champion for a second time.
Another object of pride for Petty that season was the debut of his twenty-one-year-old son, Richard, in two 1958 Grand National races. The junior Petty's first run for the checkered flag came in September in Toronto, Canada. He drove one of Dad's spare Oldsmobiles that day under the number 142. The lanky lad qualified the car seventh but then fell out midway though the race when he had a close encounter with the retaining wall. Richard's winnings that day totaled $115 for finishing seventeenth in the nineteen-car field. Richard's second race came twenty-four hours later in Buffalo, New York, and this time his Olds carried the number 42A. Richard only qualified thirteenth for the 25 mi event, but this time his car was running at the finish--albeit a full four laps down. Richard made 840 more than he had in his first NASCAR race to bring his total earnings up to 8170 for the 1958 season. From such a humble beginning a "kingdom" was to grow.
In 1959, Lee Petty did what no other man had done before: win a third Grand National driving championship. Once again with Oldsmobile that year, Petty achieved a sort of immortality by winning the first Daytona 500 at Big Bill France's all-new 2.5 mi temple of speed. Though Petty qualified a distant fifteenth for the inaugural 500, by lap 150 he had put his block-long '59 Olds in the lead. The next thirty-eight laps would prove to be a harbinger of the close racing for which Daytona would soon become famous. The lead changed no fewer than eleven times after Petty first put his No. 42 Olds out front. When he and Beauchamp roared across the finish line on lap 200, their cars were so close together it took 61 hours of photographic evaluation to determine who had actually won. In the end, a majority of the shots that NASCAR officials had collected from track photographers showed Petty's car ahead of Beauchamp's by the slightest of margins. The average speed for that first 500 was 135.521 mph.
Son Richard also started the first 500, this time driving his 1957 Olds convertible bearing No. 43 from the sixth starting position on the grid. Unfortunately, by lap eight of the race he was watching the race from pit road, the victim of a blown engine. But he did show promise later in the season when he drove his white No. 43 Plymouth (he and Lee having switched back to Mopar machines at midseason) to a fourth-place finish in the Southern 500. During the rest of the season, Lee Petty scored ten more Grand National wins, the most he had ever racked up in a season.
Nineteen hundred and sixty was another solid year for father Petty on the circuit, and it was also the season when son Richard notched his first three GN wins. The first of what ultimately would be 200 NASCAR victories came for the younger Petty in a 100 mi dirt track race at the Charlotte fairgrounds. In the rest of the twenty-one car field that Petty vanquished that day was another Carolinian driver named David Pearson. It would not be the last time that the two tangled for a NASCAR win. The first "major" win of Richard Petty's career came at Martinsville in the Virginia 500. Petty qualified his 325 hp Plymouth fourth behind pole sitter Glen Wood and went on to a $3,340 victory.
Lee Petty's last season of competition was 1961, though that probably wasn't his plan as he pulled into the garage area at Daytona for Speed Weeks 1961. The week got off to a bad start for the Petty family when a nudge from Junior Johnson sent Richard over the wall on lap thirty-seven of the first 100 mi qualifying race. Richard suffered abrasions to both eyes and a cut hand and did not run in the 500.
As it turned out, neither did his dad. That's because later that same afternoon, the senior Petty also took an airborne trip outside the speedway, with much graver consequences. That particular wreck, on lap thirty-seven of the second qualifying race, occurred when Petty and Johnny Beauchamp tangled as they entered turn four. The two cars went out of control at more than 150 mph, then scaled the retaining barrier at the top of the 33-degree banked turn. When that happened there was nothing but blue sky below both cars until they came crashing to earth several stories below. Both cars were totally demolished, Petty's landing so far outside the track it was almost in the parking lot just beyond the turn. He was seriously injured and suffered a punctured lung, multiple fractures of the left chest, a fractured left thigh, a broken collarbone, and multiple internal injuries. Beauchamp was luckier and only sustained head injuries. Petty spent four months in the hospital and eventually recovered. He even returned to the track two years later, to make a brief comeback, but his racing career effectively ended just outside of turn four that day in Daytona. The fifty-four wins he scored during his time on the circuit still place him seventh on the all-time win list.
The dominant driver of the '60s and '70s, Petty was the sport's first true superstar. Son of legend Lee, King Richard won 200 series races (first) and seven series championships in his 35-year career. In '67 he won 27 of 48 races (including 10 in a row) and finished second seven times. Petty fans remain devoted to their hero even in his retirement. Most of Petty's accomplishments from his 35-year career as a driver will never be equaled. Richard Petty will always be...
Though his dad's career had come to a crashing halt, young Richard's Grand National star was on the rise. When he returned to the fray after Daytona he scored his fourth and fifth wins later that season. Eight more wins came in 1962 and Petty showed a flash of his superspeedway greatness to come when he barely lost the Daytona 500 to Fireball Roberts and his Smokey Yunick-prepared Pontiac. Nineteen hundred and sixty-three was Petty's best year yet and he won fourteen more races toward his ultimate 200. He finished second only to Joe Weatherly in the points race that year and came back the following year to win his first GN championship.
In 1964, Mopar drivers like Petty got their first taste of 426 Hemi power. Though that engine had been purpose-built for stock car racing and would not appear in a regular production automobile for two more years, the sanctioning gods deemed it "stock." Ford drivers didn't have much of a chance against the new Hemi-headed mill, even though their Galaxies had received a set of "High Riser" cylinder heads that were also hardly "production" items. They were understandably upset by the presence of the new Mopar motors along pit road and voiced their unhappiness. Their howls of protest grew even louder after the Daytona 500, where Petty's electric blue Belvedere lead a three-car Plymouth sweep of the top finishing positions. It was the first of a phenomenal seven Daytona 500 wins for Petty, and coupled with eight other firsts and twenty-six top-five finishes, it helped make him the 1964 Grand National driving champion.
By the end of the season, Ford's noisy complaints about the 426 Hemi's legality led NASCAR to reverse itself and declare the engine verboten. Though the sanctioning body also outlawed Ford's suspect "High Riser" head castings, Dodge and Plymouth racers were little appeased. They ultimately chose to boycott the 1965 season altogether.
Petty spent his time off from NASCAR campaigning a Petty Blue Barracuda drag race car called the 43 Jr. He and the Mopar legions came back in 1966 when NASCAR once again allowed the now-regular production Hemi engine to compete. When NASCAR would not let Ford racers campaign their 427 single overhead cam engine, it was Ford's turn to walk out of the series. As a result, it was a very drivers year for Mopar drivers like Petty, as he added eight more notches to his winner's "belt" in 1966, including his first superspeedway wins at both Atlanta and Darlington.
As impressive as Petty's performance had been in the years preceding, it's likely that not even he was ready for the success that awaited him in 1967. In that forty-nine-race season on the Grand National circuit, he forever earned the crown of "King" of stock car racing. And even today, Petty still doesn't know exactly how it all came about. After all, the car he used that season was unchanged from the one he campaigned the year before. Ditto for the engine. His archrival Fords were no longer on the sidelines, having returned in late 1966 with a fleet of (you guessed it) decidedly nonproduction 427 Tunnel Port-headed engines that breathed nearly as well as the Hemi. But even having said all of that, 1967 was Richard Petty's year in stock car racing.
Win number one came at Weaverville in a short track race, and before the year was over he had visited victory lane twenty-six more times. At one point during the season, the rest of the field should have just stayed home as Petty won an incredible ten races in a row, including his first victory in the Southern 500. It's highly unlikely that anyone will ever break the single-season record for wins Petty set in 1967. As you might have guessed, Petty picked up his second GN championship that year.
The King suffered a reversal of sorts in 1968 when Fomoco unveiled two all-new Ford and Mercury intermediate body styles that featured wind cheating fastback rooflines. Suddenly Gale Yarborough, LeeRoy Yarbrough, and David Pearson were the kings of the superspeedways, not Petty — or any other Mopar racer, for that matter. Making things worse for Petty at Daytona that year was the vinyl roof on his Road Runner that became something of a parachute when debris broke the car's windshield. Though he won sixteen races that season, he finished third in the points chase.
Due to their poor showing on the superspeedways in 1968, Dodge engineers burned tankersful of midnight oil trying to counter the aerodynamic advantage the new Fomoco intermediates enjoyed over the new-for-1968 Charger. Their eventual solution was to fare over the car's tunneled-in back light and to bring the grille flush with the surrounding bodywork. The new, special-bodied car was called the Dodge Charger 500 for obvious reasons. Unfortunately for Plymouth drivers, the Mayflower division had no plans to make similar changes to the Satellite body styles that they drove. When Richard Petty got wind of the new Dodges, he immediately asked his corporate sponsors to let him switch to Dodge for 1969. In what has to be one of the most obtuse corporate decisions made during the factory-backed NASCAR wars, the answer Petty got was a flat no.
Knowing when to take no for an answer, Petty wasted little time in calling Ford racing Czar Jacque Passino to see if the offers Passino had been making for the past several seasons were still drivers. When the answer Petty got to that question was a resounding yes, he broke Mopar lover's hearts everywhere by signing on with Ford's 1969 "going thing. That meant that Petty would be campaigning a special aero-bodied car after all. In this case, a droop-snouted Ford Torino Talladega--Ford's answer to the Charger 500.
And better yet, 1969 was also the year that Ford finally got NASCAR to sign off on a race-legal Fomoco racing Hemi, the Boss 429. Petty signaled his comfort with his new Torino surroundings by winning the first race of the 1969 season at Riverside, which was also the first roadrace victory of his career. The Talladega proved to be a far superior car to the Charger 500, and Chryco engineers had to go back to the drawing board once again.
This time they hurriedly grafted on a pointy snout and soaring rear wing. The result was the Charger Daytona. In 1969, it didn't make much difference, and the new winged car was unable to slow the Fomoco aero-juggernaut. Talladega drivers like Petty and their counterparts in Spoiler II's (Mercury's version of the big T) won thirty of the fifty-four races that season. Incredibly, though Petty and his crew had absolutely no Ford experience going into the season, they won ten times and finished the season second in points only to Holman and Moody Talladega pilot David Pearson.
Plymouth was smarting from Petty's defection to Ford all season long. Something had to be done to get the "King" back, and money wasn't going to be enough to do the job. So, taking a page from the Dodge boy's book, Plymouth engineers pasted on a pointy beak and soaring rear wing to transform their aerodynamic ugly duckling Satellite into a sleek, wind-cheating Superbird.
With the new Mopar-winged car, coupled with Chryco's promise to make Petty Engineering the Plymouth and Dodge version of Ford's Holman and Moody (read: buckets of greenbacks), Petty decided that one season with Ford was quite enough. It could just be that Ford's 1969 decision to cut its 1970 racing budget by 75 percent had a little bit to do with the King's return to Plymouth. For whatever reason, it was an exceedingly drivers decision.
When the warm Florida sun dawned on Speed Weeks 1970, Petty Engineering was in Daytona with not one but two new Petty Blue Superbirds. Petty's car carried his traditional No. 43 while newcomer Pete Hamilton's was dressed in No. 40 livery. Petty ultimately blew an engine in the 500, but Hamilton was there to pick up the slack. When race leader David Pearson's Talladega momentarily lost traction in turn four of the last lap, Hamilton slipped by to take his first and only 500 win. With the Fomoco teams crippled by the decreased flow of factory dollars, Superbird and Daytona drivers had a romp. Petty himself picked up eighteen more GN wins.
The Aero-Wars were over in 1971 and the NASCAR rule book was the winner. Alarmed by the 200 mph velocities the special body cars were capable of, the sanctioning body had introduced restrictor plates during the 1970 season and outlawed the special sheet metal altogether for 1971. When that happened, King Richard campaigned a boxy '71 Road Runner. Though clumsy looking, it proved to be one of his most successful race cars. In fact, it earned him twenty-one more wins and his third national championship. In 1972, that same Road Runner body style was the first Petty car to carry his new red-and-blue STP... racing livery. Near the end of the season Petty switched those colors to a swoopy Charger body style that he would campaign for the next five years.
Today Petty names those Coke bottle-bodied Dodges as his favorite racing cars. And that's not surprising since they helped him win thirty-eight more Winston cup races, three more NASCAR championships, and nearly $1.5 million in prize money.
When the Charger body style was finally declared illegal for Winston Cup competition, Petty, ever the Mopar loyalist, fought on with a new Dodge Magnum. It was not a lovely car either on and off the track, and Petty's 1978 season was a disaster he won no races that season, so he switched to General Motors for 1979. It was a smart move and resulted in his seventh and final Winston Cup championship. Petty ran the balance of his illustrious career in Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs. And it was, of course, while mounted in an STP No. 43 Pontiac that Petty won his 200th NASCAR race In Daytona at the 1984 Firecracker 400. Win number 201 never came (it would have spoiled the symmetry anyway), and Petty retired from NASCAR at the close of the 1993 season. He is simply the greatest driver in NASCAR history. Today he oversees the operation of the Petty Racing Team... so King Richard will still be a fixture in the Winston Cup garage area for years to come.
Richard Petty's retirement from the ranks of active drivers has not meant the disappearance of the Petty name from the winner's column on the Winston Cup circuit. That's because since 1979 his son, Kyle, has followed in father Richard's oh-so-large (and rapid) footsteps. The first race for the third generation of racing Pettys came at Daytona in 1979, when the eighteen-year-old Kyle drove one of his dad's leftover Magnums to victory in the ARCA race during Speed Weeks. Shortly thereafter, Kyle began to make selected appearances on the regular Winston Cup circuit. The first of those came at Talladega in August at the Talladega 500. Still driving a Magnum, Kyle qualified eighteenth for the superspeedway event and finished a very creditable ninth.
By 1981, Kyle was running the full Winston Cup tour in the Petty Enterprises team car. He stayed with the family team through the 1984 season and recorded four top-five finishes in 139 starts. In 1985, Kyle signed to drive Ford Thunderbirds for the fabled Wood Brothers team. While driving their Ford, Petty became the first third-generation driver to win a NASCAR stock car race. The first win for the youngest Petty came in 1986 at Richmond, when he won the Miller High Life 400 (formerly the Richmond 400). Nineteen hundred and eighty-seven produced another win for Kyle and the Woods, this one coming on Memorial Day weekend at the World 600 in Charlotte.
In 1989, Petty left the Wood Brothers and Ford for a Pontiac Grand Prix fielded by Felix Sabates. It's been a successful pairing and the pair has won four races and placed in the top ten twenty-three times since becoming a team. At just thirty-four years of age, it's likely that Kyle will remain a Winston Cup regular for many years to come, especially now that he's given up the idea of a country music singing career in favor of focusing all his efforts on racing.
Adam Petty began his career in 1998, shortly after he turned 18. Like his father Kyle, he won his first Auto Racing Club of America Re/Max Series start, in the #45 Sprint Spree Pontiac at Lowe's Motor Speedway in that same year. Petty drove a #45 Sprint Chevrolet in the Busch Series full-time in 1999 after a successful season in the Midwestern short track American Speed Association season in the #45 Sprint Spree Pontiac. He also finished sixth in his first Busch Series race at Daytona and had a best finish of fourth place that year. However, he failed to qualify for three races, and finished 20th overall in points.
Petty Enterprises planned to give Adam a Winston Cup ride in 2001 and to give him seven starts in Cup in 2000, along with a full Busch campaign in a car sponsored by Sprint. He struggled early in the Busch season, but managed to qualify in his first attempt at Winston Cup during the DirecTV 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. He was disappointed, however, when his father failed to do the same. Further disappointments came when his engine failed during the race, giving Adam a 40th overall finish. During the race, however, Kyle was able to drive in the event, as a relief driver for Elliott Sadler, after Sadler felt ill and had to exit his car during the race. Lee Petty, Adam's great-grandfather, and 3-time NASCAR Champion, lived to see his debut, but died just three days afterwards.
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