`King Richard' will lap stock car brethren with 1,000th start

By , Special to the Christian Science Monitor

Richard Petty's records have not been made to be broken. Petty has reached such a lofty plateau in stock car racing that no one figures to match his numbers. They call him ``the King'' of his sport -- a title he has earned by making 200 trips to the winner's circle.

And when he starts his STP Pontiac Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, with a national television audience watching on CBS, Petty will make more history by competing in his 1,000th NASCAR event.

But even such impressive numbers don't mean much unless they are placed in perspective. The second-highest number of wins, for example, is David Pearson's 105. And Bobby Allison, the runner-up in starts, would have to continue driving another decade -- or until he is nearly 60 -- to equal Petty's total.

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``I've been in a lot of wrecks, too,'' Petty said, offering yet another perspective on a 28-year career in a sport in which the penalty for mistakes can be measured in more costly terms than in most others.

``Make a mistake in football and they penalize you 15 yards, or in hockey and you go to the penalty box,'' he said. ``In our sport, they bring out a wrecker and come and get you.''

The native of Randleman, N.C., has been fortunate through the years in this respect, but has still spent his share of ``down'' time.

Petty, who celebrates his 49th birthday July 3, said he hopes to stay on the track ``as long as I can crawl through that window'' (for safety purposes, doors on stock cars are welded closed, so drivers must climb into the seat).

Petty followed his father through that window, and he, in turn, has been followed by his own son. When Richard won his 55th race in Darlington, S.C., 19 years ago to break the existing NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) record, the man he replaced as the winningest driver was his father, Lee. Now this season Richard's 26-year-old son, Kyle, became the third-generation Petty to win on the circuit.

``When World War II was over, there wasn't as much country in the boys [from the South] as before,'' Petty said in tracing his sport's history. ``They decided they needed a sport. They had the major league sports in the north. But there were no major league sports south of Washington, D.C. The Southeast was very rural and everybody had a car, so they started racing.''

Among them was Lee Petty, whose pit crew included sons Richard and Maurice and a nephew, Dale Inman.

``Daddy was my hero, my idol,'' Richard said. Daddy also was a three-time national champion.

Richard was 12 when Lee drove his first NASCAR race. At 21, Richard wanted to drive, too, and he made his debut in Toronto in 1958.

``Daddy was racing Cotton Owens [for the lead],'' Richard recalled. ``They came up behind me. Cotton slowed down but Daddy knocked me into the wall . . . and won the race.''

A year later, at Atlanta, it appeared Richard had won his first race. But Lee protested, claiming Richard really was a lap behind. Officials double-checked their figures, took the victory away from Richard, and gave it to Lee.

Richard finally got his first victory the next year.

``It's easy to start races,'' Petty says now of his 1,000-race milestone, ``but it's hard to win 'em.''

Indeed, Petty hasn't won now in nearly two years. But although he's not ready to rest on his laurels yet, he can easily do so anytime he wants to.

Winning the Daytona 500 just once is the dream of many stock car drivers; Petty has won it seven times.

Beginning in 1960, he won at least one race for 18 consecutive seasons; in 1967 he won 27 of 48 races, including a remarkable 10 in a row; he has won the season title seven times; and he was the first stock car driver to reach $1, $2, $3, $4, and $5 million in earnings.

Petty's career has been grand off the track, too.

Since 1959, he has been married to his high school sweetheart, the former Lynda Owens. They have four children -- Kyle and his sisters Sharon, Lisa, and Rebecca -- and four grandchildren. His cousin, Dale Inman, continues to be his crew chief.

The South is known as the Bible belt, but stock car races are held on Sundays, so drivers and their families have difficulty making it to church. Several years ago, therefore, Petty and fellow drivers Cale Yarborough and Benny Parsons persuaded a minister to hold regular worship services in one of the garages. It is not unusual for as many as 200 to attend each week.

But that number can't compare with the turnout every four or five years when the Pettys have an open house at Randleman for Richard's fans. The last one attracted 40,000 people, ``which is why we only do it once every four or five years,'' Richard explained.

Petty, nine times voted the most popular driver on the circuit, has one of the most artistic autographs in sports. While others hurriedly scribble illegibly, he creates a virtual work of art.

Richard lives in a rural area south of Greensboro.

``The county north of us is commercialized,'' he says. ``We didn't have strict regulations and they came in with mobile home parks and massage parlors. I said, `Boys, we need to get someone on the board [of commissioners] and see if we can't close some of that stuff down.' ''

In 1978, Petty, was elected a county commissioner. He is running this year for his third term, a fact that has not gone unnoticed, even at the White House. President Reagan was at Daytona in 1984 when Richard, a conservative Republican, won his 200th race.

There's talk, too, that Petty may someday enter a race for Congress -- that is, once he's done climbing through car windows to race for the checkered flag.

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