The King still rules NASCAR in retirement
LONG POND – Richard Petty tried resting on the green artificial turf that covered the stage used for driver introductions.
It didn’t last long: At a NASCAR track, The King never goes unnoticed.
“Richard! Richard! King! King!”
Petty craned his neck and waved toward fans who couldn’t resist shouting at the race’s grand marshal from the three-level structure at Pocono Raceway that rises high over the front stretch.
Behind those sunglasses, a design caught Petty’s eye. Yes, fans from kids to seniors had seats in the section labeled the Richard Petty 200 Victory Circle. The words were flanked by two images of Petty in his feathered Stetson hat and dark glasses.
“Well, look at that,” Petty said, eyes fixed on the sign. “I didn’t know that. That’s the first time I ever paid attention.”
Petty had no idea some of the best seats in the house had long been named in his honor.
But you don’t need to sit in a pricey suite to know The King.
Long removed from his era as perhaps the greatest driver in NASCAR history, Petty sill serves as an ambassador, corporate pitchman and team owner in the sport he’s called home since he was a boy. Now 77, Petty shows no signs of easing off the gas as he bounds around the track, all in the name of good business and giving back to the sport that helped make him a household name.
“I’m just idling along, trying to keep up with what they want me to do,” Petty said.
There are few fans at the track these days who even remember Petty from his final season in 1992. It doesn’t matter. Petty is still an A-lister around the garage, a bigger star than drivers on his race team or even the rest of the field for a Sprint Cup race.
Petty commanded a crowd during an appearance at a makeshift bowling alley set up inside a fan zone at Pocono by sponsor GoBowling.com. On his first roll, he knocked down three pins.
“That wasn’t too good,” he said.
With fans snapping pictures, Petty left no pin standing on his second attempt.
“I got a spare anyway,” he said, smiling.
After bowling another quick frame, it’s time for Petty to split, but not before he has to pilot his way through a clog of autograph hounds who want just one autograph, one photo, from the driver who has had to have signed and posed more than anyone in NASCAR history.
“He’s got a crazy life. He can’t go nowhere,” one fan remarked.
It’s a circus life Petty would never trade for weekends at home, certainly not after his fame got fresh juice when he voiced Strip “The King” Weathers in the 2006 hit movie “Cars.” Petty is warmly greeted by children in awe of the man they only know as the voice in a cartoon, not the seven-time NASCAR champion who won a record 200 races. Kids address the man in the hat as “Mr. The King.” He recalled a time in England when a boy approached and asked how many times he won the Piston Cup. The Piston Cup, of course, was the championship awarded to those frisky cars from the movie.
Petty’s true home is among the drivers, crew and fans that surround him at tracks from Daytona to Dover. He skipped a month this season because of the March death of his wife, Lynda, from cancer. The Pettys were married for almost six decades.
“Coming back to the racing blanked out some of the bad parts that I was having,” Petty said. “It was easier for me to get back. Instead of starting a new routine, I stayed in the same one. It’s just a little bit different.”
Petty has pushed past the pain and found comfort at the track. It’s always been the spot where he could be himself and hang up his hat — in his case, a Charlie 1 cowboy hat with a tuft of feathers in the front. Petty started wearing the hats around 1979 when he struck a deal with a manufacturer who sold them at a store operated by son Kyle Petty. Richard Petty wasn’t just trying to create an iconic fashion statement; he’d just grown weary of worrying he’d offend the wrong sponsor with the standard baseball cap most drivers wear around the track.
“I just really liked them because it was different,” he said.
Petty’s matted hair had a few stray curls when he removed the hat and sunglasses during a chat in his motorhome. He did wear a baseball cap under his headset when he stood atop an RPM hauler and had a bird’s-eye-view for last Sunday’s race. Petty was the lone figure standing on any of the 43 haulers, keeping tabs on the race through a scoring monitor and a close eye on the cars when they whizzed past the start/finish line a few hundred feet away.
Petty wouldn’t want to miss out on a resurgent season at Richard Petty Motorsports. RPM has driver Aric Almirola locked into the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field because of his July win at Daytona. There’s a chance RPM could have two drivers competing for the championship should Marcos Ambrose win a race, and he’s a good bet at this week’s stop at the road course in Watkins Glen.
Petty said the financial health and overall outlook at RPM is “as good as it’s even been,” though that could change a bit if Ambrose bolts the organization for a ride in Australia’s V8 Supercar Series. Petty said the team was waiting to hear from Ambrose on what he’d like to do next season.
Petty isn’t ready to wave goodbye to NASCAR, not by a long shot.
He’s as much a fixture in the sport as Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who are still driving. Petty is NASCAR’s walking Hall of Fame, synonymous with the sport, and along for the ride every mile along the way from its southern roots to its $8.2 billion TV deal.
“Every time I show up,” Petty said, “I bring my history with me.”