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Fans Relate to a Racing Legend

Richard Petty, retiring this year, may have been the single most important factor in the growth of stockcar racing over the past two decades.

By David HolmstromStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 25, 1992


THE scene is Dover Downs International Speedway, but it could be anywhere along the NASCAR racing circuit.

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Richard Petty, the legendary stockcar driver with an unequaled 200 wins in 30 years of racing, has just thundered into the crowded infield garage area after a practice lap. His famous red-white-and-blue car sponsored by STP oil products is as sleek and gleaming as a jet fighter.

He shuts down the engine. Even before he can take off his helmet and disconnect his two-way radio, even before he can wipe his face and go through the contortions of getting his lanky frame out of the window of the car (both doors are sealed), a plump woman in shorts, a blue hat, and a Richard Petty T-shirt leans down by the window and says, "Can I have your autograph?"

Petty, with consummate grace and patience, says with a trace of his famous marquee smile, "Yeah, just a minute." Easy access by fans

This is the equivalent of someone walking onto a basketball court in Chicago and interrupting Michael Jordan while he's practicing slam dunks. Or wandering onto a football practice field in San Francisco, and approaching Joe Montana while he's throwing passes to Jerry Rice.

In all professional sports the fan is usually kept away from the players, away from the practice fields, and out of the locker rooms. Autographs of most athletes are sold these days, and signed baseballs or footballs are worth hundreds of dollars.

Not so along the highly popular NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) circuit of 29 stockcar races held throughout the South, California, and Arizona each year. Family-oriented crowds of more than 100,000 are common at each race, because they like the exciting racing, the popular drivers - and the autographs are free.

And it is Petty, retiring this year, who may have been the most important factor in the phenomenal growth and popularity of NASCAR racing over the last 20 years. Ask just about anybody in the South who "King Richard" is, and Petty is the answer. He has won the Daytona 500 seven times, and was voted "most popular driver" nine times by the fans in votes conducted each year. Won $8 million

He is, quite simply, a household name in the South and in racing circles. Through a combination of racing skills, his genuinely gregarious nature, and his understanding that it is the fans who keep racing alive, Petty has set the standard for the sport by being a winner, and accessible.

His swirling autograph takes about seven seconds to sign. "It's a chance for the fan to say something to me," he says, "and I can say something back."

Over the years he was won nearly $8 million in racing, and probably earned equally as much in selling merchandise to fans. Hats, T-shirts, plates, mugs, jackets, photo books, calendars, and miniature cars with his name and face on them sell by the thousands at all the tracks. His father before him was a successful driver, and Richard's son, Kyle, also races on the NASCAR circuit.

Veteran driver David Marcus says, "Richard Petty was the first driver to give interviews, to be on TV, and to give autographs to all the fans. He's the one who set the standard."