#43 is 80!

Richard Petty

Richard Petty on the set of Triad Today with daughter Rebecca, grandson Thad, host Jim Longworth, and Jim's wife Pam Cook
I know this sounds silly, but I’ve come to believe that Richard Petty is the real-life Peter Pan. Throughout his career, Richard flew around tracks with ease. Kids of all ages followed him wherever he went. And, most importantly, he never grew old.

I first met the NASCAR King in 1979, and last month when we taped an interview for Triad Today, I realized that nothing had changed in all that time. He still takes flight, although now it’s in a jet. Kids of all ages still follow him around. And, he looks the same as he did 38 years ago. That’s why it’s difficult for me to believe that RP is 80 years old. Nevertheless, in honor of his birthday and of his groundbreaking career (which included 200 wins and seven championships), Triad Today will salute the ageless wonder in a special program this weekend. The half-hour tribute features an exclusive, in-depth interview with the King, as well as the first-ever joint appearance of Richard with his racing grandson Thad Moffitt, and Thad’s mom Rebecca Petty Moffitt. I began the show by asking Richard to recall the first time he got behind a wheel as a little boy.

Petty: The first time I ever remember driving at all was down on my uncle’s farm. He was getting up hay one day, and he had this old ’38 Ford flatbed truck, and they was throwing hay on the back of it. They put the truck in granny gear, and pulled out the throttle so it sort of crept along. They put me up there and I was standing in the seat, just holding the wheel straight ’till they got to the end of the road. Then they jumped in and turned it around, and I came back. And that was the first time I drove a truck.

Longworth: Did that upset your momma when she found out?

Petty: Well they didn’t tell her I don’t think (laughs). They got the field cleaned up, that was the main thing.

Longworth: Did your daddy encourage you to follow in his footsteps and become a race car driver?

Petty: I don’t think we ever had that conversation. When I was 18 I said, “Can I drive a race car?”. And he said, “Come back when you’re 21. You’re going to grow up a lot between now and the time you turn 21.” So I just kept working on his race car, and he was winning races and championships, and then one day, right before I turned 21, I said, “OK, I’m turning 21.” And he said, “There’s a car over there in the corner. Get it ready to go.” And off we went to Columbia, South Carolina.

Longworth: In 1959 you were running at a track in Georgia, and you thought you had your first victory until you heard someone say something.

Petty: They flagged me the winner and flagged my dad second. I was in a ’57 Oldsmobile convertible, and he was in a ’59 Oldsmobile. I hadn’t been racing but about six months, so I was tickled to death to win. Then they told me someone was protesting the race. Come to find out it was my dad protesting. Sure enough when they checked the cards, they had left him out of a lap. Back then if you had a new car, there was a $500 bonus. I had a 1957, Dad had a ’59, so our company made $500 more when HE won than if I had won.

Longworth: Your daddy was pretty smart.

Petty: Yeah, he was pretty good, and Mother was standing right there taking the check, you know what I mean? (laughs)

Longworth: On a race day did you always have fun, or was it more like a job?

Petty: It was fun. Driving a race car was a hobby. We had done all the work on it during the week, and I had done everything that I had done back when I was a mechanic, except when it was time for the race, they put me in the car, and away I went. So you work all week to be able to do your hobby, like you work all week so you can go play golf on Sunday. I worked all week so I could go racing on Sunday. That was the fun part.

Longworth: You had a lot of scary crashes. When you would get back in the saddle for the first race after a crash, were you ever a little bit afraid?

Petty: No. You was just that much more determined to overcome the problems you had before. I’ve never been afraid of a race car. Things happen so fast that you don’t have time to be scared. And when it’s over with, there’s no need of being scared.

Longworth: You always stayed around after each race to sign autographs, whether you finished first or tenth. Why did you do that when other drivers wouldn’t?

Petty: I look at it from the standpoint that the fans are the ones that’s paying me. The fans had to buy the tickets so the promoter would have money to pay us. So every time I would sign “Richard Petty”, I would say “Thank you for being a race fan”. I didn’t care if you were a Richard Petty fan or not. As long as you bought a ticket, then I would say, “Thank you.”

Longworth: You’re 80 years old now. What if the phone rang and they said, “Richard we have a problem and we need you to drive this Sunday.” Could you still race?

Petty: I’d try (laughs). I don’t think I’d tell ’em “No”. I think I’d go try.

Spoken like a good old boy who never grows old.

The complete interview with Richard, plus information about his family Foundation, the Petty Museum, Petty’s Garage, and Victory Junction Camp, can be seen this Saturday at 7:30am on abc45, and Sunday at 11:00am on MY48. Audio of the program will also be broadcast Saturday at 11:30am on 600AM WSJS.

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