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At 85, Richard Petty’s long ride continues

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RANDLEMAN, North Carolina. Mario Andretti recalls racing behind Richard Petty in the 1967 Daytona 500, which Andretti won.

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“I remember one day he was very confused in front of me and caught the car,” said Andretti. “I thought, ‘That was a really good catch.’ ”

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It was 55 years ago. Andretti was 26, Petty 29. They were on the cusp of a racing career that would make them rich, world famous and iconic in the eyes of millions of fans and their peers.

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Andretti is now 82 years old. Petty will turn 85 on Saturday.

AJ Foyt, 87, Bobby Allison, 84, Cale Yarborough, 83.

The old guard Racing has become an even older guard. To imagine decades ago that they would all turn 80 years old would be contrary to common sense. They all cheated death many times, and their stressful, fuel-drenched lifestyle inches away from disaster was not one that usually results in long stays on Earth.

However, not only are many octogenarian former racers still moving above ground, some of them also remain key figures in the ever-changing, personality-driven, intense world of auto racing.

Petty clearly stands among – and above most – of them. He hasn’t driven in anger since the 1992 season, but a typical NASCAR weekend will see him signing autographs, meeting up with old friends, sharing the same stories with others who raced stock cars during his growing up years. .

He remains a co-owner of the racing team (Petty GMS Motorsports), but his role on the tracks is usually reduced to that of an ambassador and friend, a dedicated driver who took to the track as a child and never left.

Eighty-five to Richard Petty is just another number. Like the number 43 on the facade of the Level Cross Fire Station (Station 43) near the Petty store, after the number of the racing car that Petty drove for most of his glory years.

“Racing, being on the race track and interacting with the riders is who Richard Petty is,” said his son Kyle Petty, also a former race car driver. “If you took all this away from him, I am sure there is no doubt that he would sit in a chair and die. But he just took away the driver’s part. It took him a while to get over it, but once he did, he’s still Richard Petty. Here’s who he is and what he does.

“Racing was his only goal. Everything he ever wanted to do.

While most top level riders are obsessed with racing, most have other interests as well. Golf, maybe, or fishing. Restoration of old cars. Operating businesses that have little or no connection to racing.

For Petty, nothing else mattered.

“All he’s ever done all his life other than going to school and high school is racing,” Kyle said. “It’s the same with all the other Petties – my grandfather (Lee Petty), my uncle Maurice. None of them had hobbies. I am the anomaly of the group. All I had was a hobby. They didn’t have them.”

Those who thought that Richard might retire from the sport after his driving career ended were quite surprised. He remained with the team and rarely missed more than a few races in a season until the pandemic forced him to stay home.

“It was the toughest two years for him,” Kyle said.

Andretti’s life after driving was much the same. He still competes in various Andretti family races, attends almost every IndyCar race and continues to speak to sponsors.

“My passion for the sport has never faded,” Andretti said. “The fact that our family continues and is part of it gives me even more reason to stay close to her. It will be until the end of my days. It is our life.

“I believe Richard feels the same way. There were battles, but great battles with great memories. I only remember good things. This is what keeps me going. I continue to love what has been the most important part of my professional life.”

Petty’s weekly schedule is back to what it was before the pandemic. He typically visits the team’s store in Statesville, North Carolina on Tuesday, acts as a sponsor or charity during the week, spends time at the Petty Museum in Randleman signing hundreds of autographs, and travels to the Cup venue on weekends.

Richard Petty is still a frequent presence on NASCAR Cup Series tracks, such as the April 17 dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway (Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via ).

“I don’t really have to do anything other than keep the garage (Petty’s Garage, which repairs high-performance parts and cars), the museum, Victory Crossing (a children’s camp run by the Petty family) running. ) and for the racing team, I commit to do something,” said Petty.

“As for the 85th anniversary, it’s just another number. The way I look, the way I act, the way I dress, everything is the same as it was 15 or 20 years ago. What you see is what you get. In my opinion, I have not changed. My personality, what I do, where I go, has hardly changed. I don’t think I’ve changed, but obviously I have.

“I feel as good as I did 10 years ago. I can’t see or hear that well, but this change has been gradual, so you’re just adjusting to it.”

“What You See” with Richard Petty is a man in a cowboy hat and sunglasses, shirt with sponsors’ names, worn jeans and cowboy boots. It’s an image that will always scream RICHARD PETTY that adorns all sorts of memorabilia still popular with fans.

And an autograph. Petty has signed his cyclical signature millions of times over the years and people still crave it, even kids who have no idea about the man in the cowboy hat. On a recent Wednesday, he was sitting in his office signing over 1,000 materials for distribution at a future event. Daily mail, even 30 years after Petty last got behind the wheel of a racing car, usually brings between 20 and 100 requests for that autograph.

Darrell Waltrip, who retired from driving in 2000 and moved into NASCAR Fox Sports television almost immediately, took a different path than Petty’s. Waltrip has worked in racing television but said he rarely hangs out racing these days because many of the people he has raced with or against are no longer in garages. But he says he understands Petty’s position.

“That’s all he knows,” Waltrip said. “He knows racing. I just always felt that no matter who you are or what you do, stick to what you know. And he is still king. I think he will be king until his death, and there will never be another king. He has 200 wins, so many things that no one else has. This is what helped his longevity. He is King Richard. He is an icon.”

NASCAR Goodyear 400 Cup Series
Richard Petty laughs with a NASCAR official before Petty raises the green flag ahead of the May 8 race at Darlington Raceway (Emily Chinn/).

Continuing the long journey of Petty’s life is his cousin and former brigade chief Dale Inman. Inman, almost a year older than Petty, is as close to Richard’s brother as can be. They’ve traveled their careers together, been inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame together, and now the journey continues.

Almost everywhere Petty goes, Inman follows him. This is the longest friendly trip. The king leads, by the way, as always.

“When we were growing up, the 50-year-old was an old man,” Inman said. “Trends of the times change all that. We are older but we are still there. It keeps us both going. I traveled the whole planet with him, and it’s still amazing how they recognize him in this hat and sunglasses.

“Promoters of the track, sponsors, team owners, they still want him around because he attracts attention wherever he goes. He loves to race. He wants to be among people.”

Petty’s health is good considering his age and the trials he went through during his racing years. He broke his neck twice, broke most of the bones in his body, lost 40 percent of his stomach to an ulcer, and beat prostate cancer. He sees many doctors each year, and Petty says they tell him that he is physically 10 years younger than his age.

“I picked him up from the hospital after prostate surgery and he had to stop and buy ice cream,” Inman said. “He tells people he had two ulcers and they had names Linda and Dale.”

Linda. Petty’s wife and bright lights in garages and victory lanes during Petty’s championship years and beyond. Known as the first lady of racing, she died in 2014 after a long battle with cancer.

The Petty family has lost its center.

The following weeks were difficult moments for Richard, who, when Linda’s diagnosis was made public, asked members of the media at an emotional press conference at Daytona International Speedway to “pray for Linda.”

After her death, Petty retired from a life that had always been very public.

“I’m back in Richard Petty’s shell,” he said. “I didn’t go anywhere. Nothing interested me. One day all my daughters came and said, “Dad, you gotta get your ass up and do something.” You can’t sit here for the rest of your life. ”

Soon Petty was King again, the very public figure that his fans expected. Eventually, a new woman appeared in his life. He describes Ellen Hill, who grew up in the same neighborhood as Petty, as his companion.

“Ellen traveled with Linda when Linda was involved with the 4-H club, with Girl Scouts and so on, but I didn’t really know her,” Petty said. “One day she came to church and introduced herself. We should be friends. My girls knew her. In any case, they are upside down, but not as much as if I went out and got the girl somewhere else. They are still trying to protect dad, but they know her.

“Ellen lives life. I live life. She lives in her house. I live in mine. But we do things together. It amuses both me and her.”



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