Say a king-sized happy 79th birthday to the king of NASCAR, Richard Petty.
One of the five inaugural inductees into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010, Petty was born July 2, 1937.
NASCAR’s winningest driver with 200 victories has called Level Cross home ever since.
Back in May, NBC Sports sat down with the legendary Petty to talk about one of the greatest days of his career.
Not only was it two days after his 47th birthday, more importantly it marked his 200th and final Cup win on, fittingly, July 4, 1984, in the Firecracker 400 at Daytona International Speedway.
Petty wrapped up the momentous day by meeting President Ronald Reagan after the race.
Here’s some excerpts from Petty’s interview with NBC Sports:
Q) Your 200th career Cup win came by just a few feet ahead of Cale Yarborough. What was that weekend like and what do you remember?
Richard Petty: Well, you know, going into the ’84 season at Daytona in July we won 199 races. And we had run three or four since I had won a race at Dover, I think, so the anticipation was there – just, you know, let’s get to the racetrack and get this over with and see what’s going on. It just happened to be Daytona in July on the 4th. The president of the United States was coming to the race.
“It was really built up to be a big fair no matter who won the race, just because the president was going to be there and it was July the 4th. Being fortunate enough to be able to come back and win the race and that being your 200th and winning by a couple of feet and winning on the last green flag lap deal, it was unreal. It was the pinnacle of my career, I guess, because it was the last race I won.”
Q) Did you think you could win that race going in or was it a little bit unexpected?
Petty: “No, we felt pretty good. We were having a decent season. Some of the races hadn’t been that good to us. The car was running good, (crew chief Buddy Parrott) was doing a good job with the crew and everything was sort of there, because like I said, before that, we won the race at Dover so that gave us that much more confidence. I mean we’d been building up, I thought, to win races. Then Daytona has been really a special race for the Petty family or for me and so we always look forward to going to Daytona. You know if there’s any race in the world that we have a chance to win, Daytona’s gonna be it.”
Q) President Reagan gave the command to start engines. Did you know ahead of time that if you won you would get the chance to meet and speak with him?
Petty: “Yeah, I think they had told us in the drivers meeting that whoever wins the race to stop on the racetrack, don’t go to the winners circle. Stop on the racetrack and go up in the announcers booth because that’s where the President is gonna be. So everybody knew that but then it was just forgotten and nobody worried about it, the president, seeing him, or even when he said, ‘Start your engines.’ Everybody was ready to go racing.
“And none of the presidential deal, being there or any of that, it never hit until the race was over. And then not only me because I won, but everybody around, other racers, drivers, crews and stuff, then they felt the presence because they had told everybody when the race was over that they were going to block off the garage area and everybody was welcome to come eat a little lunch with the president of the United States. So it ended up being a big deal but during the race, nobody was worried about that part of it.”
Q) You walked up through the grandstands to meet the president?
Petty: “Yeah, I got out of the car and people met us and then we hoppy-scotched up through the crowd and go up some steps and stuff and go up to meet him in the press box.”
Q) What was it like going through the crowd after you had just won the race?
Petty: “Well, it was one of them deals where I went from Point A to Point B, I think I was just floating. I mean people are hollering at you and snapping at you and you’re just grinning all over yourself. And you always had two or three people trying to help me. But we made it.”
Q) What moment stands out most to you about that weekend: the victory, meeting President Reagan, or beating Cale back to the line?
Petty: “Yeah, you know, it was great for the president to be there and to get to talk to him and stuff, but this is the 200th win, man. I mean, just to win is great, but when you won the 200th and beating someone like Cale, who had been very competitive against me, him and (David) Pearson and (Bobby) Allison, you know we all sort of came up together. Cale had a really, really good (car) at Daytona also.
“You know, he won five or six great races down there himself. So we wound up being pitted against each other. And we just got the break to win the race and it was just great from our standpoint but not too good on Cale.”
Q) To this day, do you think Cale’s still a little bit jealous about how that ended
Petty:“I think Cale had a strategy, okay, of how he was gonna try to win and draft by me on the last lap. Quick as we came through the dogleg, and they throw the caution … well, they’re getting ready … well they hadn’t throwed the caution. Somebody turned over in the first corner and Cale seen it.
“All of our strategy went out the window then everybody just opened it wide open and said, ‘We hope we get back first.’ … If you talk to (Yarborough), he thought he had the best car and should have been leading being the circumstances were that. The decision he made and the decision I made me win the race. So it was just meant to be.”