Whether you know him by the dark sunglasses and cowboy hat, his warm smile, or his famous Petty blue paint scheme, Richard Petty is a true American icon.While my generation of NASCAR fans was not even born when he took his last green flag, any true fan of the sport knows that NASCAR would not be where it is today without the contributions of Richard Petty.
I had the honor to interview The King at during Charlotte Motor Speedway’s October race weekend.
Q: I started attending races when I was 3 years old. You had already retired, Dale Earnhardt had died, and Jeff Gordon had already won all five of his championships. I love learning new things about what NASCAR used to be like! What are some things you think someone who wants to really get into NASCAR should know about the history of the sport?
RP: (laughs) You’ve got to go all the way back to 1949, when the cars were strictly stock cars. And then,after a period of years, stock cars weren’t good enough to race anymore so they had to keep building them better and better. If you look back at history, about every ten years, we have a new group of drivers coming through as the leaders. To begin with, you go back to Lee Petty, Fireball Roberts, or Junior Johnson,then you had David Pearson and Cale Yarbrough, then (Darrell) Waltrip. You have (Dale) Earnhardt come in and lead the pack, then Jeff (Gordon), and Jimmie is there now. So you have a supporting cast of 8 or 10 drivers that lead the pack at a time. These drivers that are winning races now aren’t always going to be here.It’s an important thing to look at and say, ‘Okay, this is how it is now, but it is going to change.
Q: You see lots little kids with their parents and lots of adults come to races, but you don’t see as many teenagers. What do you think NASCAR can do to get younger fans involved in the sport?
RP: When kids get into their teens or early 20s, you’ve got so much begging for their attention, so much begging for their extra dollars - how you get them to spend it to watch cars, I don’t know. I’ve thought about it a lot. You used to have football, baseball, basketball, and racing. Racing is way down the list now as to what people walking up and down the street get interested in.
Q: NASCAR has been through a lot of changes since you first started racing. What is one change you’re glad has been made, and what is a change you wish had not been made?
RP: The thing that I see is it’s basically toocommercial now. Everything has gotten computerized. In other words, the guys working on the cars now don’t have to have an engineer to tell them what to do because that’s what the computer does. I don’t like that.All that takes so much more money now that it’s hard to get new owners to come in. It used to be that if you had a little bit of money or a little bit of a sponsor, you could come in and race. Now, when you start, you’re years behind the computer system that the other teams have so it makes it tough for other teams to come in.
Q: What made you want to own a team?
RP: Driving the car was my hobby. I worked on the cars because that was my job. On Sunday, I buckled myself in the car and it was just me and the car. I didn’t have to listen to somebody hollering at me. Then when I quit driving, that part of my life, my hobby, went away. I’m still looking for another hobby.
Q: I’m sure a lot of aspiring drivers have come to you for advice. What you told them probably applies to life in general. What pieces of advice have you given over the years?
RP: I tell them to go get a job. (laughs) No, seriously, racing is tough - whether you’re working on the car, in PR, working for sponsors, or driving the car. If you do the job right, it consumes all of your time. I tell the guys who are working on the cars and driving them that you have to set aside 4 or 5 years, and not look at anything but racing. Forget about everything; just think about racing 24 hours a day. After 4 or 5 years, you’re going to find out if that’s what you want to do.
Q: How did you like working on the movie Cars?
RP: My wife and I went to California a couple of timesand it was neat being around all those people and seeing how they animated everything. They had the grand opening over here (at Charlotte Motor Speedway) in front of 30,000 people.
Q: NASCAR is a big family between the drivers, the fans, and everybody in between, but -
RP: (quickly jumps in) NASCAR is the friendliest sport I’ve seen. You can go up and talk to the owners and mechanics. Drivers even go out of their way to talk to people sometimes. The sponsors come in and expose the drivers away from racing. None of the other sports really do that the way we do it. Also, a majority of the drivers winning races right now have kids so they relate to kids and families and a lot of the fans see that. Older fans that have kids of their own know that they can take their kids to the racetrack and meet their heroes. At a football or baseball game they’re sitting in the stands watching them, but they can’t talk to them. It’s easier to have a hero in racing because you can meet them at the track.
Q: That’s one of my favorite parts of NASCAR. The drivers are so accessible and easy to talk to. Like you said, you probably can’t go to a football game and get an autograph from your favorite player right before the game.
RP: You can’t get on the sidelines at a football game either. Here, you can get down in the garage, rightwhere everybody is working. No other sport lets you this close to the players during the games or after a win.
Q: Speaking of wins, what was your favorite race or championship you won?
RP: We were fortunate enough to win so many races that a lot of them got lost. One of the most exciting deals, one of the ones I can still remember, was the last race I won. It was at Daytona on July 4th in front of the President of the United States. But it was no more important than my first race, or my 14th, because if I had not gotten them I wouldn’t have gotten 200. All of them- whether they were big races or small races- were still important.