The Richard Petty Museum
Four generations of a family from Level Cross, North Carolina have been a fixture on the nation’s racetracks since the early days of the sport. Even those who say they don’t like stockcar racing know the Petty family – NASCAR’s racing royalty.
Let’s head back in time to 1948 to see how the dynasty began.
At 35 years of age, Lee Petty seemed a little long in the tooth to be thinking of racing. But he and brother Julie rebuilt a 1937 Plymouth with a Chrysler inline engine and won the first race they ever entered. Soon NASCAR came into the picture and Lee’s ‘37 Plymouth was no longer competitive.
So, he borrowed a 1948 Buick Roadmaster from a friend for his first race at the old Charlotte Speedway. The elder Petty battled legends, Buck Baker and Curtis Turner, for the lead until his sway bar broke, sending him into a quadruple barrel roll. Lee suffered only minor injuries, but he learned an important lesson: Roadmasters were too heavy and clumsy for NASCAR.
So, it was back to Plymouth, a car that would be Petty’s signature vehicle for years. He won the first Daytona 500 in 1959, the outcome of which was not decided for three days because of a photo finish. Lee Petty would go on to win 54 of the 427 races he was in, finishing 332 times in the top ten. He retired from the competitive scene in 1964. Lee Petty was named one of NASCAR's 50 Greatest Drivers. He passed away at the age of 86 in April 2000.
Enter Richard Petty. A pit area regular, Richard watched and learned from his Dad, and began his own racing career when he was 21. This tall, lanky youngster took Winston Cup Rookie of the Year honors in 1959 and never looked back.
Richard, known now as “The King,” quickly eclipsed Lee’s record. He entered 1,185 NASCAR races in his Winston Cup career, competed in 513 consecutive NASCAR Winston Cup races, had 126 career pole starts, won Daytona seven times and had 27 victories in the 1967 season.
Competitive and hard driving, Richard often raced 50 to 60 times a season, eventually winning 200 Winston Cup races, seven Winston Cup championships, and nine Most Popular NASCAR Driver Of The Year awards.
The sport’s first million-dollar driver, who was inducted into the North Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame in 1973, retired in 1992 and now is a winning owner of NASCAR Winston Cup teams.
Next behind the wheel was Richard’s son, Kyle. Several colleges recruited this versatile young man as a scholarship quarterback out of high school. Nashville came calling, too, because of his talent as a country musician. Genetics won out, and Kyle climbed into a family car in 1979, winning his first major competition: the Daytona ARCA 200. He drove in five NASCAR Winston Cup events that year, taking his first top-ten finish. He picked up six more top-tens in the 15 races he entered in 1981. He earned his first NASCAR victory in 1986 at Richmond, the first third-generation driver to reach that milestone.
In nearly 600 starts Kyle has been first past the checkered flag eight times, and has a total of 51 top five finishes, 167 top tens and eight poles. Today, he runs the day-to-day operations of Petty Enterprises.
Sadly, the hopes for a promising fourth generation of Petty drivers were dashed one month after the family’s patriarch died. Adam Petty, practicing for a Busch race, was killed in a May 2000 wreck at New Hampshire International, only a few short weeks after Lee Petty was buried.
The story of this incredible racing family and more can be found at the Richard Petty Museum site.
added: December 30, 2008
updated: January 2, 2009