Life and times of The King

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“A song ain’t nothin’ in the world but a story just wrote with music to it.”

— Hank Williams

LEVEL CROSS, N.C. – They keep asking when he’ll stop, and they just don’t understand. There’s no stopping. There’s no crying.  There’s just another race.

Some people are walking country songs. Their lives move to that four-bar hypermeasure. Richard Petty walks gingerly through the museum that celebrates his life. His cowboy hat stands tall on his head. Sunglasses cover his eyes. He never shows in public without them. Most people, even his biggest fans, have never seen his eyes.

A couple has come to the Richard Petty Museum all the way from Ohio; it is their honeymoon. This was the only honeymoon site they ever considered; they had to come down south to where the King grew up. The groom explains that their wedding color had been Petty Blue, the tint of blue that Richard and his brother Maurice threw together back in 1959 to cover an Oldsmobile when they were running out of dark blue paint.

“Petty Blue, huh?” Richard says to the man, and he turns to the woman. “You were OK with that?”

“Oh yes,” she said. “It had to be Petty Blue.”

“Well, all right then,” Richard Petty says, and he smiles again, and begins to walk on.

“We’re sorry for the loss of your wife,” the man says suddenly.

Richard Petty stops. He turns slowly. “Thank you,” he says. “Thank you for that.” There is no reading what is happening under the hat or behind the sunglasses.

“Now you enjoy yourselves, ya hear?” he says suddenly. “You enjoy yourselves and best of luck to you in everything.”

And the King starts moving again, moving fast, on to the next person, on to the next task, on to the next thing, on to another race.

* * *

“Almost every country song is written around a ‘hook,’ a phrase that is repeated several times in a song and is easily remembered.”

— WikiHow on writing a good country song

The garage floor slants this way and that, like the floor of a funhouse, and Richard Petty remembers the day he and his brother Maurice paved it. He was 12 or so. Their daddy, Lee, had decided one day it might be easier to work on his race car if the garage floor was made concrete instead of dirt. So he told the boys: “Lay down some concrete in the garage.”

“Didn’t know what we was doing,” Richard Petty says as he looks over his floor work some 65 years later. “Well, you know, it’s sorta straight if you look at it right.”

And there you are, there is a country music hook. “It’s sorta straight if you look at it right.”

Petty looks at the floor a little longer, then he shuts the door of the A-frame garage where his daddy first came up with the crazy idea that he could make his living driving cars faster than other folks.

What is it about racing a car that gets in some people’s bloodstream? Even after all these years, Richard Petty can’t tell you. His daddy just needed it, that’s all. Everybody else in Randleman and Level Cross and the little towns around, well, they worked on a farm, or they worked at a mill. Lee Petty wanted a different life. He wanted to drive fast. He began tinkering around with his car, adjusting this and rounding off that and looking for ways to make his car faster.

The first NASCAR race was in Charlotte back in 1949, and Lee Petty piled the family into the Buick, and drove 90 or so miles down to an old dirt track called Charlotte Speedway. He told everybody to get out of the car, he ripped out the back of the passenger seat, and he got in the race. Lee Petty crashed the family car on lap 105. Everybody rode home with Uncle Julian.

Everything was new then, no rules, no roadmaps, no history to fall back on. “You just tried stuff until something worked,” Richard Petty would say, another country music hook, so Richard would come after school to the garage with the slanted floor and try stuff with his daddy’s car, mess with the wheels, the ball joints, the steering, the suspension, the brakes, until something worked.

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When Richard was 18, he asked his daddy if he could race his own car. Lee shook his head no. “Wait ‘til you’re 21,” Lee said. “You’ll be amazed how much you will learn between now and 21.”

When Richard was 21, he asked his daddy if he could race. Lee grunted, pointed at a busted up Oldsmobile in the corner of the garage and said: “Go ahead and get that one fixed up.”

In Richard’s first stock car race, up in Toronto, Lee Petty and Cot Owens were racing for the lead when they came upon young Richard’s car chugging along too slowly on Lap 55. So, Lee Petty wrecked his son, knocked him out of the race and beat Owens to the checkered flag and the $575 winner’s check.

You could call that song: “Daddy Wrecked Me In My First Race.”

Richard Petty offers the hook:

“Daddy wouldn’t say he hit me.

“He’d say: I got in his way.”

* * *

“Once it starts coming you can’t put it off anyway. It’s like labor pains.”

— Willie Nelson on when a country song comes to him

He brought her flowers until the day she died.  She didn’t know most of the time. After the strokes, Lynda would feel so far away, even when she was close.

Richard and Lynda had known each other most of their lives. He was 19, she was 15, when he picked her up in that Oldsmobile without a passenger seat. For their dates, he’d put a tire there and cover it with a blanket. The blanket was the romantic side of Richard.

They drove across the border into South Carolina on a date neither ever revealed and got themselves a marriage license. Their families disapproved. But there was nothing to be done. Richard and Lynda had chosen a life together. In her last interview, for a marvelous Speed Channel documentary called “Richard Petty: A Racer’s Life,” Lynda remembered that for a wedding present, Richard gave her a $100 bill. He told her to buy anything she wanted. Lynda used the money to pay off the pots and pans she had bought for their home.

Through the years, everyone thought Richard was the strong one. It wasn’t that way. Lynda raised their four kids. Lynda disciplined the kids. Lynda paid the bills. Lynda shooed off the pretty young things who came around. Lynda worried in her quiet way, and endured the heartbreaks that came, and volunteered always to help. Everyone around the racetracks called her Mrs. Lynda. Yes, more than anything, Lynda let Richard Petty be The King, let him live that racing life without all that real world stuff getting in the way.

When Lynda was pregnant with Sharon, she turned to Richard early one evening and said: “It’s time.”

“I know,” he said. “I’ve got to go to the race track.”

“No, I mean, it’s time for me to go to the hospital.”

“Well,” Richard said. “You better find someone to get you a ride.”

Lynda found the ride — she always did — and she had the baby, and after the race Richard Petty showed up at the hospital to see what his new daughter looked like. When it was time to go – to the races, to the shop, to the interviews, to the parties, to the White House – Richard went. Lynda held things together.

He always knew that, even if he didn’t say much about it. She always knew that he knew, even if she didn’t say much about it. In her final days, when the cancer had worn her down, he brought her flowers, and they sat together, and what was unspoken filled the air. When you talk about forever and a day, you never think about the day.

* * *

“Keep your thoughts happy and always have a hero in your song.”

— Songwriter Tom T. Hall

A man from Myrtle Beach looks over the dozens of pocketknives displayed behind glass at the Petty Museum, and next to the pocketknives are belt buckles, and the next to the belt buckles are giant keys, and the man says: “I love your collection.”

And Richard Petty, walking country song, offers another hook: “It’s not a collection, it’s an accumulation. I have never collected anything my whole life, I’ve accumulated stuff.”

He’s accumulated. Wins. Trophies. Honors. Here is the jukebox they gave him when he won the sixth of his seven NASCAR championships. There is the photo of him with President George H.W. Bush when he was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Here is the car in which he won his 199th race. The car he used to win No. 200 is at the Smithsonian. It’s been a life of accumulation.

Richard was handed the family business in 1961 after Lee went over the wall at Daytona and almost got himself killed. The three years before, Lee Petty had won more races and more money than any stock car driver, more than Junior Johnson and Fireball Roberts and Speedy Thompson and the rest. That accident ended the racing, and so Petty Racing was driven by Richard.

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And Richard Petty began winning even more than his father: eight times in 1962, 14 times in ’63, nine more times in ’64 when he won his first championship. People jealously grumbled that the Pettys had the best cars. Well, the Pettys DID have the best cars; they were building those cars themselves.

“For me, driving the car was the hobby,” Richard says. “It wasn’t a job. My job was working on a racecar all week. When I was in the car, I was on my own, it was me and the car. I could do what I wanted to do, nobody hollering at me.”

There was, in the turbulent 1960s, a certain kind of American sports star that appealed broadly, an everyman hero who was humble and accessible and relentless, someone who connected people to what seemed a simpler time. Arnold Palmer was like that – they called him the King, too. Ernie Banks was like that. Richard Petty just naturally became one of those heroes; it wasn’t something that he thought too much about. He signed every autograph, and he talked to every fan, and he drove the wheels off his cars.

“I’m no different from anybody else, except I race cars for a living,” he would often say.

* * *

“We lived for the song. It wasn’t for the fame.”

— Singer/songwriter Kris Kristofferson

He drove with a broken neck. He drove with concussions blurring his mind. He drove with broken ribs and broken fingers and, one time, with half his stomach taken out. He drove with makeshift body casts he and his team had fashioned in the race shop because the doctor’s casts just weren’t much good for racin’. The doctors knew their business, and Richard Petty knew his.

“We gotta fix this here deal,” he would say to his crew when he walked into the garage wearing a cast on his arm or his leg or his shoulder or whatever body part had busted up in the last race. And the crew would build hinges and joints out of steel and duct tape so that the King could drive in the next race because, it went without saying, the King WOULD drive in the next race.

“There just wasn’t no time for being hurt,” Richard Petty says. “There were no sponsors in those days. We didn’t race, we didn’t eat.” That sounds like another hook for a country song: “We didn’t race, we didn’t eat.”

And another:

“Pain and all that stuff is a mental deal, you know?”

And another:

“I was never scared in a race car. My philosophy is this: When you’re in a car, there’s no time to be scared. And when it’s over, there’s no point being scared.”

Yes, Richard Petty was tough. They were all tough in those days – Bobby Allison and brother Donnie and Cale Yarborough and David Pearson and all them guys. They were tough because there was nothing else to be, because the race cars then were death traps, because you had to win to make any real money, because stock-car racing was a Southern thing then, and the farmers and factory workers who came to the races were tough themselves.

But do you know who was even tougher?

“I mean something was bandaged or tied up tight all the time,” Lynda Petty said of Richard in “A Racer’s Life.” “A lot of times I didn’t know if it was really that bad as he made it out or he was just trying to be this big martyr.”

* * *

“I just sing like I hurt inside.”

— Patsy Cline

Physical pain is a sort that Richard Petty understood real well. He wouldn’t make time for it. He would tell dentists to skip the Novocaine; his daughters remember him refusing to take off his boot because he had a broken foot underneath. “He came from a generation of drivers who just didn’t accept pain,” his son Kyle says.

But there’s another kind of pain.

In the early 1960s, Chrysler invented something called the hemi engine. “It was light years ahead of anything that Chevy or Ford was doing,” Petty says. This obviously did not make the people at Chevrolet or Ford very happy – and in 1965, in an effort to keep the peace with the biggest automobile companies, Bill France of NASCAR banned the hemi.

In turn, Richard Petty boycotted NASCAR. He turned instead to drag racing. And this  led to the first great tragedy of his racing life, but hardly the last.

Petty was drag racing in Atlanta, he was on the line with his car nicknamed “Outlawed.” When the light went green, he hit the throttle and something broke in the car. Outlawed veered wildly to the left, jumped the hill and flew into the crowd. Petty had no control of it, and he could do nothing but watch the confusion and fear through the windshield. He saw an 8-year-old boy named Wayne Dye in front of the car. The boy had come to the race with his family. He died instantly.

Petty never shook that loss. Lynda would remember him the next day, sitting outside their home, staring into nothingness. Fifty years later, when that day comes up, he again stares into nothingness.

“You don’t put a question mark where God put a period,” is all Richard Petty will say about that terrible day, all he can say about the explosion that killed Lynda’s brother when he was serving on the pit crew, all he can say about the crash that killed Adam, his grandson. Adam was supposed to be the fourth generation Petty to drive; no one doubts he had the talent and the personality to be a star. He hit a wall during practice in New Hampshire in 2000. “God,” Richard Petty says, “had a different plan.”

The terrible things that happened, like the wonderful things, came from this racing life he had chosen, the racing life that had chosen him.

* * *

“Country music is about new love, and it’s about old love. It’s about getting drunk, and it’s about getting sober. It’s about leaving, and it’s about coming home.”

— Comedian Jeff Foxworthy

When the 1967 racing season began, Richard Petty drove a 1967 Plymouth. But something about that car just wasn’t right. Oh, it was a fast race car – Richard won with it down in Augusta, Ga., and then up in the mountains at Weaverville, N.C. – but there was something missing in that car, something he couldn’t describe.

One day, he turned to his cousin and crew chief Dale Inman and said: “Park her. That car ain’t got a good personality.”

So they parked the 1967 car and brought back their old 1966 Plymouth, the one they won with at Daytona. That car had soul. They put a 1967 body on it, they raced it, and they dominated NASCAR like no one ever had before and like no one ever would again. Richard Petty won 27 races that year, a record that won’t ever be broken. Richard Petty won 10 races in a row, from an August race in Winston Salem to an October race in North Wilkesboro. That won’t ever happen again either.

That was about the time they started calling Richard Petty the King.

“We never even thought about finishing second in those days,” Petty said. “We went into every race with the idea that we was going to win. That was my magic time. In anybody’s record, there’s a time when everything is working the way it’s supposed to work, you know? That was our time.”

When the King reigned, there were only two kinds of racin’ fans: People who loved Richard Petty and people who didn’t. He wasn’t just bigger than he sport; he WAS the sport. You rooted for him, you rooted against him, there wasn’t anything else to do. The people who loved King Richard were treated to one of the most accessible sports stars on earth. He signed every autograph he could sign, each of them beautifully scripted. “I always thought that if you give people an autograph, they ought to be able to read it,” Petty says.

And the people who disliked King Richard? Well, they had their own viewpoint. They would talk about how King Richard was the establishment. He just had more money, better equipment, faster cars. NASCAR bent its rules for him. STP Motor Oil came on to sponsor him (the first national sponsor of a NASCAR team), and that just gave him even more money. The Petty critics would swear up and down that Bobby Allison was a better driver, Cale Yarborough was a better driver, A.J. Foyt was a better driver. Richard Petty just had more car.

Richard Petty shrugs. He considers himself a pretty good driver of a racecar. He might not have done as many awe-inspiring things as Foyt or Allison, but he had something else: Patience. “Daddy told me, ‘The only lap that pays is the last one,’” he says. “I took that to heart. Going out there, leading races, setting records, they don’t pay for that. The only time that matters is when the checkered flag comes out. That’s when you have to be at your very best.”

Lee and Richard Petty (AP)

Another country hook. The only lap that pays is the last one. After his remarkable 1967 season, Richard Petty and his team kept on winning: He won 110 races over the next ten years. No other driver – not Pearson, not Earnhardt, not Gordon, not Jimmie or Junior Johnson – won that many races in a whole career. Petty won that many in the 10 years AFTER his greatest year.

When the checkered flag came out, something in Richard Petty turned on.

He won his last race thirty years ago, on the fourth of July, at Daytona, with President Ronald Reagan in the crowd. He raced for several more years after that without winning. But that something in Richard Petty never did turn off.

* * *

“If I’d done all the things I sing about, I’d be dead.”

— Singer/songwriter Moe Bandy

They keep asking when he’ll stop. And they just don’t understand. There’s no stopping. There’s no crying. There’s just another race.

Richard Petty is 77 years old now, and most days he will put on his cowboy hat and sunglasses and giant belt buckle and walk around his museum, next door to the house where he grew up, and he will shake hands with the people who call him an American hero and sign model cars people bring to him.

He might tell a few stories — he does a lot of interviews (“I’m walking history, if you can get it out of me,” he says, yet another country music hook). He works with many charities. When he can, King Richard goes to the back of the museum, the working shop, where the boys refurbish old cars and modify new ones. “They probably don’t like seeing me coming ’cause I still think I know what to do,” King Richard says. “But working on cars still brings me to life.”

Richard Petty still goes to the races, all of them, though he will tell you he doesn’t know a thing about stock cars these days now that there ain’t a speck of stock left in them. NASCAR is a sport run by the engineers now. King Richard will also tell you he doesn’t know what drivers are thinking about, he just can’t get in their heads and wouldn’t want to even if he could.

It’s all changed – not for the better, he says, not for the worse, just different. Still, he goes, because at this point in his life he wouldn’t know what else to do. “It’s in my blood, you know?” he says. “I couldn’t change if I wanted.”

One day, Richard Petty is walking through the museum and a rather round man walked up and said: “I have just one question for you. I’ve got this belly here. How do you stay so slim all the time?”

Richard Petty, who is as thin as he was the day he picked up Lynda in that Oldsmobile without a passenger seat, smiles.

“See that chair over there?” he says, and he points at a chair. “I don’t use them.”

The man looks at the chair and does not seem to get it. He says: “No, I’m seriously asking you, how do you stay in such good shape?”

Petty shrugs and begins walking. “I eat standing up,” he says without looking back. “That way the food’s got no place to stop.”

Behind him, he hears laughter, but he does not stop. He walks past some old racecars he’d run, past the garage where he poured the floor for his Daddy, past the field where he and Lynda lived when they first got married. He heads for his car, so he can go, somewhere, to the next interview, to the next task, to the next race. He always did go. Lynda Petty used to say that they were married for 58 years, and 50 of them they spent apart.

He says: “Guess I’ll keep moving ‘til I drop.”

That way the memories got no place to stop.