Richard Petty: All Hail the King
There have been some magnificent NASCAR drivers over the years but only one man is referred to as ‘The King’. His name is Richard Petty and, when we look back over a long career, we would suggest that his title is completely justified.
For longevity alone, Petty is a remarkable figure having raced professionally from 1958 right up to 1992 and in that time, he recorded many achievements that make him a true legend of the sport. Let’s take some time now to look back over that career and see just why Richard Petty has such a regal title attached to his name.
Out on Pole
NASCAR aficionados will know that the sport has a long history and has gone by previous names in the past. Richard Petty was a force in its predecessors - winning the Grand National series in 1964 and 1967 before claiming the Winston Cup Series on no fewer than five occasions between 1971 and 1979.
If we bracket those events and refer to them simply as the NASCAR Championship, that’s a total of seven wins and only two other drivers have achieved this feat. That leaves him on a par with Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt but there are many other achievements from Petty’s career that give him the edge.
If we take a look at the Daytona 500, we find that Richard Petty won this event an incredible seven times between 1964 and 1981. We can also mention that he’s the all-time record holder as far as series poles are concerned with 123 and he also holds the record for most wins in a season with 27 in 1967.
No wonder he’s seen as the greatest NASCAR driver to ever get behind a wheel but how did it all come about?
Racing was in Richard Petty’s blood and when you take a look at his family line, he was always going to follow a career behind the wheel. His father was Lee Petty, a NASCAR driver himself who won three national titles in the 1950s and was the first ever winner of the Daytona 500.
Lee Petty’s elder brother was Maurice Petty who also raced but was primarily known as a NASCAR crew chief. It’s fair to say, therefore, that Richard Petty was unlikely to do anything else with his professional life.
Richard Petty’s first race came in 1958 but he would have to be patient in terms of making a mark on the sport. 1960 was the breakthrough year as he claimed second place at the National Points Race before claiming his first win at the Charlotte Speedway. He was now being taken seriously as a competitor even though his rivals would have no idea just how good Petty would become.
1963 was to be marked down as his true breakout year but by 1964, Richard Petty was a champion. He led for 184 of 200 laps to win his first ever Daytona 500 and by the end of that season, he had claimed the first of his seven NASCAR series championships.
Petty took to drag racing in 1965 during a widespread boycott of NASCAR but he returned a year later to pick up from where he had left off. The remainder of the decade would see him slowly start to take a grip on the sport as he claimed two more Daytona 500 victories while taking out his second overall Grand National Series title in 1967.
It was a productive first 12 years as a professional driver but the best was yet to come.
The 1970s saw Richard Petty dominate the NASCAR scene. He was at the peak of his powers and would win five Winston Cup Series Championships across the decade. He was the dominant driver and, although he was clearly not unbeatable, Petty was the one they all wanted to see in their rear mirrors.
Along with those five championship titles, Petty would add four Daytona 500s and two World 600s to his huge trophy cabinet. The King was duly elected and while another Daytona 500 would come his way in 1981, the end of that dominance was just around the corner.
Later racing career
The seasons from 1980 onwards are referred to as Richard Petty’s twilight years. Changes in regulations and switching of cars made him less competitive on the circuit and, while he remained active, he was destined to never win another NASCAR series trophy.
He did, however, secure some isolated race wins and the last of these came in 1984 when Petty took out the Firecracker 400 in Daytona. Eventually, by 1992, he called time on a long and distinguished career.
Richard Petty’s story is an admirable one but in some ways it is unremarkable. We don’t have a ‘rags to riches’ success story or a tale of overcoming tragedy in order to achieve his goals. It’s just a case of one man, born into motor racing, fulfilling his destiny and becoming who many believe to be the best NASCAR driver of all time.
The fact that he was racing until his mid-40’s says a lot about his ability to compete and his sheer longevity on the track is another testament to his brilliance. In total, Richard Petty enjoyed 200 career wins and set marks that may never be beaten.
In the future, there may be some new pretenders but there will only ever be one true king.