Richard Petty is best known as the lanky country boy from North Carolina who won a record 200 stock car races. Motorsports fans, who grow thicker than the crops in these parts, call him by his principal nickname: "The King."
But these days, Mr. Petty has traded his supercharged Pontiac for a custom van with a fax machine. His chief opponent is Elaine Marshall, a Democrat lawyer, and the trophy he now covets is an overstuffed chair at the State Capitol.
"You get one shot, one chance, and you're running one-on-one," Petty says of his unlikely bid to become North Carolina's secretary of state. "It's sort of like drag racing."
If so, Petty shouldn't have too much trouble. His nearly 100 percent name recognition in the Tarheel State gives him a huge advantage at the starting line. His opponent for the vacant post, Ms. Marshall, is a former state legislator who once appeared in a campaign commercial with a pig.
"There's no way Richard's going to lose," says Darlene Marshall (no relation to Elaine), a waitress at Bob's restaurant here in tiny Madison. "He's a legend. He's The King. If Elvis Presley was running, he'd get it, too."
But despite his folk-hero status, Petty has a lot of political forces aligned against him. First, he's a Republican in North Carolina, where Democrats still maintain control over most of the state's bureaucracy. Second, he's a relative political novice. And third, few politicians appear in commercials for Kentucky Fried Chicken or make campaign appearances in a cowboy hat, alligator boots, and dark wraparound sunglasses.
"There's no question about his popularity," says Thad Beyle, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina. "The question is, will it translate into votes?"
North Carolina's secretary of state is responsible for registering trademarks and corporations, administering securities regulations, and keeping track of lobbyists.
If elected, Petty vows to serve only one term, and to use his celebrity status as a tool to lure businesses to North Carolina. "I'd be able to talk to people and get in places that just a regular secretary of state probably couldn't," he says. If all goes well, aides say, Petty might consider a run for governor.
But the rap on Petty is that he's underqualified, and will not give the job his full attention. Although he's served as a commissioner in his native Randolph County for the last 16 years, Petty's primary activity since retiring from racing in 1992 has been marketing himself.
On television and radio, he hawks everything from Pepsi to STP Oil Treatment. In addition, he oversees Petty Enterprises - a business empire that includes two racing teams, a driving school, and a nonprofit museum.
Part of his attraction to the job of secretary of state, he says, is that its relatively limited responsibility will allow him time to continue his promotional regimen.
"I've been making a living, you know, being Richard Petty," he says. "Now I just want to be a public servant to North Carolina." The two roles, he insists, have nothing to do with each other.
Although nobody accuses Petty of trying to collect an $87,000 paycheck for doing nothing, some critics question the depth of his commitment. Asked what he plans to do if elected, he keeps it simple: "I want to modernize the secretary of state so everything will work a lot faster and more efficient than what it is today."
But Petty's apparent nonchalance doesn't seem to bother many people, least of all North Carolina Republicans. With his marquee name on the ballot, they hope to create excitement about Republican candidates further down the ticket, where Democrats have dominated since Reconstruction.
"Republicans love it," says Petty's campaign co-chairman, Bill Cobey. "They see friends and neighbors of theirs that they've never seen at a political event. They like the idea of capturing the interest of these people through Richard Petty."
His enormous popularity was evident last week at Bob's Restaurant, where about 300 people turned out to greet the candidate during his first day on the stump. Clad in his trademark hat and shades, Petty (he pronounces it 'Piddy') chatted with fans in his down-home drawl, and signed hundreds of autographs.
Children tugged at his pants, women clicked photographs, and men tested his steely grip. To fans here, Petty's entrepreneurial skills are proof enough that he can handle the job. And his country roots make him a refreshing antidote to the usual pack of slick politicians.
"He's a plain ordinary fella," says Willodae Smith, a homemaker from Mayodan, N.C. "He don't act like he's better than anybody else, and that means a lot to me."