Athlon Sports sits down with NASCAR's once and future king to discuss the sport he made famous
In celebration of Athlon Sports' upcoming 10th annual Racing magazine, we've dug into the archives to uncover some of the most memorable features, profiles and Q&As that have graced our pages. Visit the site daily for more retrospective looks at NASCAR throughout the decade.
Article originally published in 2009 Athlon Sports Racing annual
After 200 career wins at racingâs highest level and decades as its most famous and beloved driver, NASCARâs once and future king is a living link to the sportâs storied past and still an important voice in todayâs uncertain environment. Athlon Sports Racing editor Matt Taliaferro was fortunate enough to sit down with King Richard to discuss the state of the sport he made famous, and the future of the Petty familyâs relationship to it.
Your father, Lee, was in NASCARâs first sanctioned race back in â49, and you were there â¦ and thatâs 60 years between then and now. While there were turbulent times during the â70s, with the manufacturer pullouts and gas shortages, have you ever seen the sport in such a precarious situation as it is today?
No, I donât think I have. Iâve been here for 71 years. Iâve never seen the whole country as disturbed as it is right now. The financial deal really, really bleeds through the racing, because weâre in an entertainment business and weâre also in the advertising business. So, the sponsorship doesnât come, because people are drying up on their advertising. And on the other hand, itâs going to be tough for the fan to have enough money to go to the races, so weâre getting blindsided from both sides.
How do you think the sport got to this point? Do you think itâs just competitiveness â that youâve got to keep one-upping each other? Or was it possibly greed?
Really what happens, the sport just grew as everything else grows, and actually it took more money to make it operate. But as long as you had cash flow in the front door, it was okay. But when the economy goes upside-down, then the cash flow quits, then weâve got to go back to ground zero and say, âOkay, how do we survive under these conditions?â
With what youâve been through with Petty Enterprises over the last few years, do you think franchising might be the way to right the ship for the sport?
I think franchising would just give all of us a guarantee. It would give us a team. It would give what weâre trying to sell to a potential sponsor. It would give them a guarantee that youâre gonna be there. Theyâd be able to advertise six months or a year or two years ahead, knowing that youâre gonna be in the show, youâre gonna be doing certain things. (When) I look at Cup racing, the only thing I see to keep it from being a major, major sport is the franchising deal. Everything else we got in place. We just need the franchising in place.
Weâve determined that NASCAR is big money, itâs very corporate â and it has been for awhile. But the thing is, a lot of people feel like the sportâs kind of been neutered because of that. You know, itâs a Catch-22, because youâve got to have big money and more technology to grow, but if you donât grow it dies. So at this point, how does the sport go about staying true to its roots while trying to keep its mass audience appeal? Or are we past that point?
Weâre in business, and this is a capitalist country, and it happens to all kinds of businesses. It happens to football teams or baseball teams or racing teams or corner grocery stores, as far as thatâs concerned. So this is the system, this is the system that we work within and we canât really control a lot of things. Things just happen and then we make the best out of them and thatâs the situation weâre in now.
Okay, so letâs talk about the future now, and first and foremost, we believe NASCAR needs Richard Petty â¦ certainly more than Richard Petty needs NASCAR. Youâre the common link thatâs existed between fans and the actual sport for decades, so what happens when you finally decide to hang up the old Charlie One Horse? What do you do? And who comes in as that link that carries on between the fans and the sport?
I guess you gotta look at â¦ Iâve been doing this since I was 11 years old. Been around racing, went to the very first Cup race with my dad, and been there ever since, and I guess as long as my toes are not turned up Iâll be going to the races and still be involved. So I guess my longevity is gonna figure out how long I stay around to go to the (races).
If I sort of got out of the racing mode, Iâd have to change my whole lifestyle. Itâs all built around what Iâve been doing for 60 years, and so I donât see me changing a whole lot of that part of it. As history or as time goes by, then what was done in the past gets to be more minor. Whatâs current news today will be history 20 years down the road, and so thatâs where we fit in.
We were there, we done our thing, and as time progresses weâre getting further away from the history of how NASCAR first started and more into the modern era, whatever era that was, whether itâs (the) â60s, â70s, â80s, â90s â¦ you know, â10s, â20s, on out there. So we were just part of the growing, and we were here when NASCAR was growing.
Weâre still here to try to bridge that gap, but when weâre not here, then the bridge to that gap will get closer to what it is today. In other words, George Washington started all this stuff, and we still talk about George Washington, but heâs not in the media conversation of whatâs going on today, because we got the new breed coming in, weâve still got some ex-presidents wandering around, they get a little publicity but, you know what I mean? Time just sort of takes care of everything. I guess Iâll put it that way.
Letâs just talk nuts-and-bolts racing now. You have 200 wins. Untouchable record. Seven titles. Seven Daytona 500s. Is it possible for one moment â a highlight â to stand out above all the others in a career like youâve had?
You know, itâs really tough. While Iâm saying that, I was so fortunate to be able to run for the 30-35 years and win races and have so many highlights, I guess. So when youâve had as many highlights as Iâve had, itâs hard to pick one above the rest of them.
Well, how about in the general sense? Like we talked about earlier, youâve seen more races than anybody on the planet. Is there one race that sticks out in your head, whether you were actually running in it or not, as a turning point where you thought, âYou know, this is a defining moment in the sport Iâm watching right now?â
(Laughs) You know, itâs really hard to say. Again, I was involved in a bunch of that stuff. I mean, like the â76 race at Daytona where me and (David) Pearson wrecked on the last corner. You know, thatâs an exciting moment for anybody thatâs not even a race fan, you know what I mean? Cause it was down to the nitty-gritty, the very last shot, the last pass. â¦ I won Daytona seven times; I probably remembered more about that race than I have any other thing that went on at Daytona.
Well, tell us about Pearson. Was he the toughest you ever raced against, or was it maybe Cale (Yarborough) or (Dale) Earnhardt (Sr.), or one of those guys?
As far as the winning part of it, and trying to beat him as far as winning races over him, Pearson was the toughest. Pearson was not the toughest driver. You have to go back to Yarborough or an Allison to get just tough. You know what I mean, as far as just manhandling the wheel and doing whatever needed to be done.
But the racing finesse and stuff, I always felt like Pearson was just a little bit â¦ it was easier for him. He didnât have to work at it. He was just a natural.
Speaking of naturals, how impressed are you with Jimmie (Johnson) and the 48, with what theyâve done?
Theyâve just got it all together. I mean, weâve had good years and bad years. I guess everybody has. You know, Earnhardt, I look at it this way: Earnhardt and myself had won four out of five years in the Championship. (Each of us) won two, lost one, then won two more, okay? Cale won three championships, and now Jimmie comes along and wins three championships. So where does he fit into the overall scheme of things? What it does from here on is tell him where he winds up on the list, if you know what I mean. And so what theyâve accomplished has been just really unreal. Knowing the money thatâs behind (their team) and the experience and the engineers and â everything theyâre trying to do to win â theyâve done a phenomenal job.
Whatâs been really good about Jimmieâs deal is they peaked at the time they needed to peak â they peaked the last 10 races the last three years. They didnât really peak at the beginning of the year or the middle of the year â they were just basically also-rans. They (were just) running good and had a good year going. But it was just like, if you look at last season, then you look at Kyle Busch. Kyle Busch was the deal for 26 races. He was the man. And then all of a sudden, everything that can happen that didnât happen in those 26 races started happening to (Busch). And Jimmie just hit the 10 races without having trouble. The planets just didnât line up for (Busch). For Jimmie, they did line up. Theyâve lined up for the last three years.
And, you know, I look back at my seven championships or Earnhardtâs seven championships. If (others had) won the last 10 races, would we have won those championships or would we have won other championships, you know what I mean? But thatâs the way the gameâs played. Everybody knows going into the beginning of the season how itâs played, and Jimmie and his team has been able to put it together and win under the rules that weâre running under. So yeah, youâve got to admire them for that.
Do you like the way the gameâs being played these days? Do you like the Chase? Is that something you think is a boon for the sport? Or is it something that maybe was just a novelty and the luster has worn off?
Well, you know, I guess â¦ I guess every other competitive sport, or most all of the competitive sports, have a playoff at the end of the year. And so this is basically our playoff. And, you know, football, they run 16 games to see if they make it to (the playoffs), you know what I mean?
We run 26 races just to see if we make it into the playoffs. So I think it probably brought on a little bit more excitement of really what the whole deal is. The only thing is, a lot of times, the first 26 races donât seem as important. Thatâs the only thing about it that youâd rather (have). A 36-race championship (in which) every race is just as important as any of the rest of them. The first is just as important as the last. Thereâs different ways to look at it. I think from a PR standpoint, I think itâs been a pleasure. Letâs put it that way.
Okay, weâve been talking about championship drivers. Is there anybody out there on the circuit today whose driving style, not necessarily his talent, but his driving style reminds you of yourself when you were behind the wheel?
(Laughs) You know, itâs really hard to say. I mean, I watched Carl Edwards and â¦ Carl drives a car I think more like I would, from a standpoint that if a carâs not working and running low, heâll run in the middle. If itâs not working in the middle, heâll run high. He looks all over the racetrack.
Itâs two or three of âem that look all over the racetrack, which is what I did. I was not a one-groove racecar driver. I even wound up against the wall by the end of the race, but Iâd usually start low and then as the racetrack changed, I would change. And so, thereâs a lot of âem out there that donât change their driving style, and thereâs two or three of âem, Carl, (Matt) Kenseth, you know, they change their attitude, they change. (Greg) Biffle is good about it. They change the way they look at what theyâre working at.
You mentioned a few younger guys in the sport just now. Is there a time when you, as Richard Petty, the most respected man in the business, go and put your arm around one of these up-and-coming drivers and say, âSon, listen up a minute, we need to talk. You need to straighten some things out â¦â
Uh, yeah, I probably done that. (Laughs) You know what I mean? I did that when I was driving, I did that after the deal, and Iâve talked to two or three of the drivers that are driving now â¦ just offer some suggestions. I said, âYou donât have to listen to me, but think about this.â
Know what I mean? And some of them took it to heart and some of them just said, âThat old man donât know what heâs talking about.â
Letâs talk about The Richard Petty Driving Experience for just a second. Iâve never participated, but the next time it comes to Nashville Iâm going to.
You need to try that. It will give you the insight that, you know, youâre sitting there and you think you know a little bit about racing, youâve been around it, but it gives you a deal of saying, âOkay, now I understand when these guys complain about their cars or when they donât do real good with a car or why they donât do good.â
And, you know, youâll go out there with a couple or three cars, and then youâll run eight laps or whatever you run. Then, all of a sudden, you come in and youâre white-knuckled and all this stuff and you say, âYou mean these guys do that with 42 other cars, running 15 to 20 mph faster than Iâm running, and they do it for three or four hours?â And then it gives you a lot more respect for the guys that do the job.
Well, you guys run some really cool tracks. I mean, Atlanta, Daytona, the Brickyard, Talladega, Bristol. Thatâs amazing in itself. But I have to ask: How many cars have you guys torn up with those people at Darlington?
(Laughs) Well, we could pay a purse, for sure!