It is an easy drive west from the Raleigh/Durham area and north from Charlotte but once you reach the town of Randleman, N.C., the quiet sounds and rolling country hills remind you that the busy path lies elsewhere. This is the home of NASCAR’s greatest driver, hall of famer Richard Petty.
The King, a nickname earned after winning 10 straight races in 1967, was born and raised in the Level Cross community. He still lives in his original home. Next door, the garage complex that launched his fast pace into stardom is now the Richard Petty Museum.
Inside, cars and artifacts from his 200 wins on NASCAR’s top circuit. Visitors are in awe, topped by the occasional handshake from the King himself.
In this week’s ‘Countdown to Daytona’, Dan Lucas discusses a memorable trip to the museum and spending an afternoon with Petty. The stories from his career could go on for days. But Petty’s Daytona 500 memories are mostly fond ones. They are stories that helped make racing an American staple today.
Of Petty’s seven Daytona 500 victories, his first win in 1964 stands as one of his favorites. He also won at Daytona in July of 1984 with the President of the United States on hand to watch.
But Petty won arguably the most famous race in NASCAR history at Daytona, the 1979 Daytona 500.
On the final lap, Petty found himself in a battle for third place, nearly 20 full seconds behind race leaders Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison. Crossing the line, the flag was a yellow caution and Petty had no idea what had happened in front. Yarborough and Wallace had bumped entering turn three and collided, coming to a stop on the infield grass. All of a sudden, Petty was the race leader and held off Darrell Waltrip for the win.
But the story does not end there. As Petty began to make his way to Victory Lane, the national television broadcast was focused instead on Yarborough and Wallace fighting, their cars still smoldering by turn three.
Years later, the incident grew into legendary status, gaining credit for NASCAR’s popularity in America.
As Petty reminds us, much of the nation did not have a choice. Most of the east coast was slammed by a winter storm. TV sets were on and the Daytona 500 happened to be the most interesting draw for the day. The fight and Petty’s unlikely victory sealed the deal. NASCAR was something to watch.
Now 81 years old, Petty remains a busy man. He signs autograph after autograph at the museum in North Carolina and makes sure to schedule appearances that will help market sponsors and events.
But the shop is home and Petty steals a glance at his own history as he makes his way to say hello to guests.
The 1979 Daytona 500 winning car is on display, as is his father’s 1959 Daytona 500 winning car. Lee Petty won the first race at Daytona’s super-speedway. Richard perfected the art of winning there.