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A Conversation with The King — The Richard Petty Q&A

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 racing’s highest level and decades as its most famous and beloved driver, NASCAR’s once and future king is a living link to the sport’s storied past and still an important voice in today’s 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 family’s relationship to it.

Your father, Lee, was in NASCAR’s first sanctioned race back in ’49, and you were there … and that’s 60 years between then and now. While there were turbulent times during the ’70s, with the manufacturer pullouts and gas shortages, have you ever seen the sport in such a precarious situation as it is today?
No, I don’t think I have. I’ve been here for 71 years. I’ve never seen the whole country as disturbed as it is right now. The financial deal really, really bleeds through the racing, because we’re in an entertainment business and we’re also in the advertising business. So, the sponsorship doesn’t come, because people are drying up on their advertising. And on the other hand, it’s going to be tough for the fan to have enough money to go to the races, so we’re getting blindsided from both sides.

How do you think the sport got to this point? Do you think it’s just competitiveness — that you’ve 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 we’ve got to go back to ground zero and say, “Okay, how do we survive under these conditions?”

With what you’ve 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 we’re trying to sell to a potential sponsor. It would give them a guarantee that you’re gonna be there. They’d be able to advertise six months or a year or two years ahead, knowing that you’re gonna be in the show, you’re 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.

We’ve determined that NASCAR is big money, it’s very corporate — and it has been for awhile. But the thing is, a lot of people feel like the sport’s kind of been neutered because of that. You know, it’s a Catch-22, because you’ve got to have big money and more technology to grow, but if you don’t 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?
We’re 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 that’s concerned. So this is the system, this is the system that we work within and we can’t really control a lot of things. Things just happen and then we make the best out of them and that’s the situation we’re in now.

Okay, so let’s talk about the future now, and first and foremost, we believe NASCAR needs Richard Petty … certainly more than Richard Petty needs NASCAR. You’re the common link that’s 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 … I’ve 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 I’ll 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, I’d have to change my whole lifestyle. It’s all built around what I’ve been doing for 60 years, and so I don’t 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. What’s current news today will be history 20 years down the road, and so that’s where we fit in.

We were there, we done our thing, and as time progresses we’re getting further away from the history of how NASCAR first started and more into the modern era, whatever era that was, whether it’s (the) ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s … you know, ’10s, ’20s, on out there. So we were just part of the growing, and we were here when NASCAR was growing.

We’re still here to try to bridge that gap, but when we’re 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 he’s not in the media conversation of what’s going on today, because we got the new breed coming in, we’ve 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 I’ll put it that way.

Let’s just talk nuts-and-bolts racing now. You have 200 wins. Untouchable record. Seven titles. Seven Daytona 500s. Is it possible for one moment — a highlight — to stand out above all the others in a career like you’ve had?
You know, it’s really tough. While I’m 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 you’ve had as many highlights as I’ve had, it’s hard to pick one above the rest of them.

Well, how about in the general sense? Like we talked about earlier, you’ve 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, “You know, this is a defining moment in the sport I’m watching right now?”
(Laughs) You know, it’s really hard to say. Again, I was involved in a bunch of that stuff. I mean, like the ’76 race at Daytona where me and (David) Pearson wrecked on the last corner. You know, that’s an exciting moment for anybody that’s 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. … 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 … it was easier for him. He didn’t 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 they’ve done?
They’ve just got it all together. I mean, we’ve 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 they’ve accomplished has been just really unreal. Knowing the money that’s behind (their team) and the experience and the engineers and — everything they’re trying to do to win — they’ve done a phenomenal job.

What’s been really good about Jimmie’s deal is they peaked at the time they needed to peak — they peaked the last 10 races the last three years. They didn’t really peak at the beginning of the year or the middle of the year — 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 didn’t happen in those 26 races started happening to (Busch). And Jimmie just hit the 10 races without having trouble. The planets just didn’t line up for (Busch). For Jimmie, they did line up. They’ve lined up for the last three years.

And, you know, I look back at my seven championships or Earnhardt’s 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 that’s the way the game’s played. Everybody knows going into the beginning of the season how it’s played, and Jimmie and his team has been able to put it together and win under the rules that we’re running under. So yeah, you’ve got to admire them for that.

Do you like the way the game’s 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 … 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 don’t seem as important. That’s the only thing about it that you’d 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. There’s different ways to look at it. I think from a PR standpoint, I think it’s been a pleasure. Let’s put it that way.

Okay, we’ve 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, it’s really hard to say. I mean, I watched Carl Edwards and … Carl drives a car I think more like I would, from a standpoint that if a car’s not working and running low, he’ll run in the middle. If it’s not working in the middle, he’ll run high. He looks all over the racetrack.

It’s two or three of ’em 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 I’d usually start low and then as the racetrack changed, I would change. And so, there’s a lot of ’em out there that don’t change their driving style, and there’s two or three of ’em, 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 they’re 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, “Son, listen up a minute, we need to talk. You need to straighten some things out …”
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 I’ve talked to two or three of the drivers that are driving now … just offer some suggestions. I said, “You don’t have to listen to me, but think about this.”

Know what I mean? And some of them took it to heart and some of them just said, “That old man don’t know what he’s talking about.”

Let’s talk about The Richard Petty Driving Experience for just a second. I’ve never participated, but the next time it comes to Nashville I’m going to.
You need to try that. It will give you the insight that, you know, you’re sitting there and you think you know a little bit about racing, you’ve been around it, but it gives you a deal of saying, “Okay, now I understand when these guys complain about their cars or when they don’t do real good with a car or why they don’t do good.”

And, you know, you’ll go out there with a couple or three cars, and then you’ll run eight laps or whatever you run. Then, all of a sudden, you come in and you’re white-knuckled and all this stuff and you say, “You mean these guys do that with 42 other cars, running 15 to 20 mph faster than I’m running, and they do it for three or four hours?” 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. That’s 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!