THE scene is Dover Downs International Speedway, but it could be anywhere along the NASCAR racing circuit.
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."
Car-owner Junie Donlavey, who remembers Petty as a boy hanging around his father's racing team, says, "Petty has always been the same whether he wins or loses - a true gentleman. People always say he is the greatest, and you know, he really is."
Seated next to his car wearing his trademark cowboy hat and dark glasses, Petty watches his crew at work. He says, "I still like to get in the car and go racing, but I can't concentrate the way I used to." The next day he raced in the Peak Antifreeze 500, but didn't finish when a 10-car crash sent him spinning into the wall.
"I used to come to the tracks and never let off," he says, grinning. "Now I figure out where the other drivers are backing off, and I let off before them. After so many races, this is just another race to me, but it's important to the fans."
Only Petty - with 200 wins and a record number of starts (1,178) - could get away with admitting publicly he's no longer the hard-charging driver he used to be. He raced in the early days in cars that were driven during the week and raced on Sundays. Today the cars cost a basic $45,000, are computerized, and specially built for speed and endurance.
Near his car, Petty grins with perfect white teeth, a warm grin that some women say makes their knees melt. When Susie Turnquist of Athol, Mass., gets his autograph on a T-shirt, she walks a few steps away and squeals with delight. "Kyle is my favorite driver," she says, "but Richard is a legend."
Over the next 20 minutes or so, Petty accommodates the adoring fans. A man takes a photo of his wife standing next to Petty, her arm around his shoulder; a man leans down and Petty writes his name on the back of his T-shirt. Petty signs photos, posters, books, even a blanket sold to commemorate his last tour of the racing circuit. A woman walks up with misty eyes and says, "Thank you for all the years of racing." Petty takes her hand in both of his big, knobby hands, smiles, and says, "Thank you." Legendary open house
Later he says, "I've tried to be the same every day of my life. I know where I've come from. I've learned a lot from racing, and met a lot of people, but I never forgot where home was and the people there, and what they mean."
Petty's annual family open house for fans in Randleman, N.C., has attracted over 20,000 fans. Petty has been known to sit on his front porch signing autographs while a line of thousands wait patiently to spend 8 or 9 seconds with the King.
"He's got a great attitude in public," says Darrell Waltrip, driving since 1972 on the NASCAR circuit and three times the top driver, "but I've seen him get upset behind closed doors. Yeah, he set the standard for dealing with the public. But in the early '70s he and Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison had the superior equipment. We were slow cars for them to pass. Things have evened out since then."
Now almost all cars have sponsors who pour millions into the racing teams, like Kodak, Havoline, Maxwell House Coffee, Tide, Kellogg's Corn Flakes, Mello Yello, and several beer companies, to name a few.
On Nov. 14, cable station TNN will air a live musical salute to Petty from Atlanta's Georgia Dome. The three-hour special, "Alabama Salutes Richard Petty," will be hosted by the singing group Alabama. Petty's last race will be Nov. 15 in Atlanta.