Richard Petty smiles while talking with reporters after a press conference at the NASCAR championship at the Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla. Photo by Gary I Rothstein/UPI | License Photo
There are two reasons why Richard Petty is known as "The King."
When he became the first driver to win two Daytona 500s, Atlanta sportswriter Bill Robinson dubbed him "King Richard the Hemi-Hearted" in reference to his success and the Chrysler engines with hemispherical pistons.
Then, the myth and the man quickly meshed. Tall, handsome and equipped with his 100-watt smile, Petty's manner was at once benevolent and charismatic. He enjoyed playing the role as the driver with the most NASCAR victories and eventually backed it up by earning his 200th in front of President Ronald Reagan at Daytona in the summer of 1984.
Petty, The King, turns 80 on Sunday.
Petty won seven Daytona 500s -- one of several significant records that will not be broken. But most of those victories came after his legend was first established in 1967, when he and his Petty Engineering team won 10 straight races. His popularity went way beyond the statistics, because the good ol' star from North Carolina, whether chewing tobacco or smoking slender cigars, stayed close to his roots and worked hard at being accessible and open to fans. His dedication to expanding the popularity of stock car racing included an ornate signature that he has signed hundreds of thousands of times.
Petty's openness extended to the media and coupled with his seven championships made him a regular feature in publications like Sports Illustrated as well as a fixture in the newspapers that covered NASCAR long before it was on TV regularly.
His longtime rivals David Pearson, Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough were popular, too, especially among those fans who favored Ford and Chevy over Chrysler. But Petty's overwhelming statistics combined with his media appeal and openness to fans made him the leader by far when it came to spreading the word on stock car racing. Heck, The King was even popular in England, where he made regular appearances in his trademark Charlie 1 Horse feathered hats after retiring from driving.
Even in retirement, Petty dramatically moved the needle. His orchestrated Farewell Tour established a trend in racing and more significantly launched the souvenir market that would generate millions over the coming decades for team owners, manufacturers and drivers.
But it was never all about fame and fortune. At his retirement announcement in 1991 at the longtime team compound in Level Cross, N.C. -- next to the house where Petty grew up and lived -- his daughter Sharon summed things up during a series of speeches.
"We didn't get to see him as much as we wanted, but he loved racing and we all love him very much," she said. Despite the professional demands on him, which eventually forced him to undergo surgery for ulcers, Petty had taken the time to be a good father, too.
Petty has known tragedy as well as triumph early in his career and later in life. When NASCAR barred Chrysler's hemi engine in 1965, the manufacturer withdrew from stock car racing and Petty went into drag racing with a Plymouth Barracuda carrying the nickname "Outlawed." A broken suspension sent it into the crowd at the Southeastern Dragway near Atlanta, where a 10-year-old boy was killed.
"Nothing in my whole life has ever gotten to me like that," Petty wrote in his autobiography. "I couldn't stand to think about it. I tried drag racing again, but my heart wasn't in it. I kept thinking about the boy, so I quit."
The next year, NASCAR relented and Petty came back to win his second Daytona 500.
In the year 2000, tragedy hit close to home. The promising career of grandson Adam Petty ended in death at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway during a practice crash on board a Petty-built Dodge in what is now known as the Xfinity Series. After Adam's death, Camp Victory Junction, where critically ill children and their parents can share summer activities without charge, was located not far from Level Cross and stands as a tribute to the ongoing generosity of the Petty family.
Through it all, Petty has remained the handsome, humble, smiling good ol' star dedicated to stock car racing, although there have been ups and downs on the team ownership side, too.
A post-race inspection after his 1983 victory at the Charlotte Motor Speedway revealed a dramatically over-sized engine built by his brother Maurice without the knowledge of The King. The scandal resulted from the fact other teams were cheating without getting caught to gain an edge in the points at a time when only a winner's engine was inspected after the race.
NASCAR stripped Petty of the points for that race and fined him the total amount of the winner's purse, then radically changed its procedures on engine inspections and penalties.
Petty left Petty Enterprises in favor of the team owned by Mike Curb, where he won his final two victories. Rumors persisted Petty's narrow 200th victory over Yarborough at Daytona resulted from another over-sized engine sanctioned by NASCAR. But those rumors were vigorously plied by officials at the Charlotte track, which was constantly feuding with the NASCAR owners in Daytona at the time.
The rumors included specific information about the engine builder and a phone call from NASCAR; they were designed to make NASCAR look hypocritical when it came to rules enforcement. Although NASCAR was long known for favoritism, today such a rumor would be known as "fake news."
Like other legacy teams, Petty has struggled as a team owner versus the new generation of businessmen that bring millions from their success outside the sport. But Petty has remained a regular winner as a car owner, in part due to a purse structure from NASCAR that favors teams with more victories and championships. Richard Petty Motorsports has scored five victories with three different drivers since it was formed in 2009. Along the way, Petty escaped the disastrous financial boondoggle posed by charlatan sports team owner George Gillett, an initial partner.
This year, Jimmie Johnson is seeking to break a three-way tie with Petty and Dale Earnhardt, Sr. by winning an eighth championship. It's safe to say that Johnson and Earnhardt, Sr. would likely not have enjoyed the opportunities they had to perform in a major league sport absent what Petty had accomplished on and off the track before them.
What can you say? Happy 80th birthday to "The King!"