RANDLEMAN, N.C. — Mario Andretti remembers racing behind Richard Petty in the 1967 Daytona 500, which Andretti won.
“I remember one time him being very loose in front of me and catching the car,” Andretti said. “I thought, ‘That was a really good catch.’ ”
That was 55 years ago. Andretti was 26, Petty 29. They were near the start of auto racing careers that would make them wealthy, internationally famous and iconic in the eyes of millions of fans and their peers.
Andretti now is 82. On Saturday, Petty will be 85.
A.J. Foyt is 87. Bobby Allison 84. Cale Yarborough 83.
Racing’s Old Guard now is an Even Older Guard. To imagine decades ago that all of them would reach their 80s would be to defy good sense. All cheated death on many occasions, and their hard-charging, fuel-soaked, inches-from-disaster lifestyles weren’t the kind that typically lead to long residencies on Earth.
Yet, not only are many octogenarian former racers still moving above ground, but some also remain key pieces in the ever-changing, personality-driven, high-wire world of auto 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 area, signing autographs, meeting old friends, sharing the same stories with others who were there in stock car racing’s growing years.
He remains part owner of a race team (Petty GMS Motorsports), but his role at tracks generally is that of ambassador and friend, a devoted racer who stepped inside a race track as a young child 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 race car number Petty drove through most of his glory years.
“Racing and being at a race track and being around race people is who Richard Petty is,” said his son, Kyle Petty, also a retired driver. “If you took all of that away from him, I’m sure there’s no doubt he would have sat down in a chair and passed away. But he just had the driving part taken away. It took him a while to deal with that, but once he did, he’s still Richard Petty. That’s who he is and what he does.
“Racing was his single focus. All he’s ever wanted to do.”
Although most top-level drivers are obsessively devoted to racing, most also have other interests. Golf, maybe, or fishing. Restoring old cars. Operating businesses that have little or nothing to do with racing.
For Petty, nothing else has mattered.
“All he’s ever done his whole life besides go to school and high school is be around racing,” Kyle said. “Same with all the other Pettys – my grandfather (Lee Petty), my uncle Maurice. None of them had any hobbies. I’m the anomaly of the group. All I had was hobbies. They had none.”
Those who thought Richard might move away from the sport after his driving career ended were quite surprised. He remained in team ownership and rarely missed more than a few races per season until the pandemic forced him to stay home.
“That was the hardest two years ever on him,” Kyle said.
Andretti’s post-driving life has been much the same. He has remained involved in the Andretti family’s various racing pursuits, attends virtually every IndyCar race and continues to make appearances for sponsors.
“My passion for the sport never vanished in any way,” Andretti said. “The fact that we have family continuing and being part of it gives me even more reason to stay close to it. That will be for the rest of my days. It’s our life.
“I imagine Richard thinks the same way. There have been battles but great battles with great memories. I only remember the positive things. That’s what keeps me going. I keep loving what has been the most important part of my professional life.”
Petty’s weekly schedule has returned to what it was prior to the pandemic. He typically visits the team shop in Statesville, North Carolina, on Tuesday, makes sponsor or charity appearances during the week, spends time at the Petty Museum in Randleman signing hundreds of autographs and travels to the Cup race site during the weekend.
“I don’t really have to do anything, but to keep things going for the garage (Petty’s Garage, which deals in high-performance parts and vehicle restorations), for the museum, for Victory Junction (the children’s camp the Petty family runs) and for the race team, I obligate myself to do things,” Petty said.
“As far as turning 85, it’s just another number. The way I look, the way I act, the way I dress – it’s all the same as it was 15 or 20 years ago. What you see is what you get. In my mind, I haven’t changed. My personality, what I do, where I go – it hasn’t changed much. I don’t think I’ve changed, but obviously I have.
“I feel as good as I did 10 years ago. I can’t see as good or hear as good, but that change has been gradual so you just adjust to it.”
“What you see” with Richard Petty is a man in a cowboy hat and sunglasses, a shirt sprinkled with sponsor names, well-worn jeans and cowboy boots. It’s an image that will forever shout RICHARD PETTY, one that emblazons all manner of souvenir items still popular with fans.
And the autograph. Petty has signed his looping signature millions of times across the years, and people still covet it, even kids who have no concept of this man in the cowboy hat. On a recent Wednesday, he sat in his office and signed more than 1,000 items for distribution at a future event. The daily mail, even 30 years after Petty drove a race car for the final time, typically brings from 20 to 100 requests for that autograph.
Darrell Waltrip, who left driving in 2000 and almost immediately moved into television with Fox Sports’ NASCAR broadcasts, took a different track from that walked by Petty. Waltrip worked in racing television but said he rarely “hangs out” at races now because so many of the people he raced for, with and against are no longer in garage areas. But, he said, he understands Petty’s situation.
“This is all he knows,” Waltrip said. “He knows racing. 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’ll be the King until the day he dies, and there will never be another King. He’s got 200 wins, so many things he has that nobody else has. That’s what helped his longevity. He’s King Richard. He’s an icon.”
Continuing on the long road that has been Petty’s life is his cousin and former crew chief Dale Inman. Inman, almost a year older than Petty, is as close to being Richard’s brother as a cousin can be. They traveled together through their competition careers, wound up in the NASCAR Hall of Fame together, and now that ride continues.
Virtually everywhere Petty goes, Inman tags along. It’s the ultimate long-running buddy trip. The King drives, by the way, as he always has.
“As we were growing up, a 50-year-old man was an old man,” Inman said. “The trends of time change all that. We’re older, but we’re still out there. It keeps both of us going. I’ve been with him all over the planet, and it’s still amazing how he’s recognized with that hat and sunglasses.
“The track promoters, the sponsors, team owners – they still want him around because he draws attention wherever he goes. He enjoys going to the races. He wants to be around the people.”
Petty’s health is good considering his age and the gauntlet he pushed his body through over the racing years. He has broken his neck twice, broken most of the bones in his body, lost 40 percent of his stomach to ulcers and overcame prostate cancer. He has a checkup by a raft of doctors every year, and Petty says they tell him he’s physically 10 years younger than his age.
“I picked him up from the hospital after the prostate surgery, and he had to stop and get ice cream,” Inman said. “He tells people he had two ulcers and they had names – Lynda and Dale.”
Lynda. Petty’s wife and a bright light in garage areas and victory lanes across the Petty championship years and beyond. Known as the First Lady of racing, she died in 2014 after a long struggle with cancer.
The Petty family had lost its center.
The weeks that followed were low moments for Richard, who, when Lynda’s diagnosis was revealed to the public, asked media members in an emotional press conference at Daytona International Speedway, to “pray for Lynda.”
After her death, Petty retreated from a life that always had been very public.
“I got back in a Richard Petty shell,” he said. “I didn’t go anywhere. I wasn’t interested in anything. My daughters all came in one day and said, ‘Daddy, you have to get your butt up and do something. You can’t sit here for the rest of your life.’ ”
Petty soon returned to being The King, the very public figure his fans expected. Eventually, a new woman came into his life. He describes Ellen Hill, who grew up in the same area as the Pettys, as his companion.
“Ellen had been on trips with Lynda when Lynda was involved with the 4-H Club and the Girl Scouts and such, but I didn’t really know her,” Petty said. “She came up at church one day and introduced herself. We got to be friends. My girls knew her. They’re upside-down, anyway, but not as much as if I’d gone out and got a girlfriend somewhere else. They’re still trying to protect Daddy, but they know her.
“Ellen lives a life. I live a life. She lives in her house. I live in mine. But we do things together. It entertains me and her both.”
Racing has been everything to Petty, but it also has hit him in the heart. Randy Owens, Lynda’s brother, died in 1975 in a pit-road accident at Talladega Superspeedway (a track Petty generally avoids because of that incident). And then in 2000 there was the death of Adam Petty, Richard’s grandson and the bright and shining star of the Petty clan. 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’d get up in the morning and just sit there. My world quit. Then I got a letter from a lady 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. Before that, I was blaming myself for Adam’s death because if I hadn’t been in racing Adam wouldn’t have. She lifted a burden off 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 kids have gained from that camp. It was what he wanted.”
So, at 85, Petty rolls on. He has obligations to meet, hands to shake, photos to autograph. His days are much like they were at 65 and 75. For the King, the road seemingly goes on forever.