In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com
NASCAR legend Richard Petty runs his last race, finishing 35th and the Hooters 500 in Atlanta. Petty, who entered the NASCAR circuit in 1959, held numerous stock racing records, including 200 career wins and 712 top-ten finishes. Largely recognized as the greatest driver of all time, Petty was known as the King to legions of fans, winning the NASCAR season championship seven times in 1964, 1967, 1971, 1972, 1974, 1975, and 1979.
Born July 2, 1937, in North Carolina, Richard Petty grew up in a racing family. His father, Lee Petty, was one of the first stars in NASCAR, as it emerged from the shadow of moonshine runners in the early days of racing. Lee Petty won the first Daytona 500 in 1959. That same year, Richard Petty was named NASCAR Rookie of the Year, finishing in the Top Ten nine times. A year later, Petty won his first race in Charlotte. He would win 199 more times, setting records that will likely never be touched in his famous blue Plymouth with the number 43.
In 1964 Richard Petty won the Daytona 500 for the first time on the way to capturing his first NASCAR Cup Championship. Petty would not be able to defend his title, as he sat out the 1965 season due to NASCAR outlawing the Hemi engines made by Chrysler. After spending the year on the drag race circuit, Richard Petty returned in 1966 after the Hemi was reinstated, winning the Daytona 500 again. Richard Petty would win the “Great American Race” five more times in his career 1971, 1973, 1974, 1979, and 1981. The seven Daytona 500 victories helped make Richard Petty the unquestioned King of Racing. Richard Petty’s dominance did not end in Daytona as he won the season championship a record seven times, 1964, 1967, 1971, 1972, 1974, 1975, and 1979. A record that Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Jimmie Johnson have since equaled.
As Richard Petty won his final Winston Cup, his son Kyle Petty joined him on the circuit, continuing the family’s rich racing tradition. Richard Petty continued to race well past the age of 50, as he won his final at Daytona Motor Speedway in the 1984 Firecracker 400. It was the 200th win of his career, with President Ronald Reagan on hand to greet him after the win on the 4th of July. It was the first time a sitting president had attended a NASCAR race.
The final years of Richard Petty’s career were largely ceremonial as his skills diminished. He occasionally would lead a lap or finish in the Top Ten as fans never stopped appreciating their King. Before the 1992 season, Petty announced his retirement, turning the year into a grand farewell tour as fans raced out to get one last look at the King of Racing. In his final race at Daytona, the 1992 Pepsi 400, Richard Petty was honored by President George H.W. Bush with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It would be the final race that Petty led a lap in as he was in front for five laps. However, fatigue would force him from the race after 84 laps.
The 1992 Hooter’s 500 was a race for the legends. The night before the race, Richard Petty was honored in a concert by Alabama at the Georgia Dome. While Petty was the sentimental favorite in the race, the real action was surrounding the chase for the cup, which featured the closest points race in the history of NASCAR at the time. On the 95th lap, Ken Schrader and Dick Trickle tangled together and caused a big wreck that took out four other cars, including Richard Petty, who smashed his front end into the rear of Richard Bickle, who had crashed into Wally Dallenbach Jr. after Darrell Waltrip spun out trying to avoid Schrader and Trickle. Richard Petty’s car was severely damaged, though his crew worked tirelessly to get him back on the track for the final laps. Petty ran the final laps with no hood and was credited with a 35th-place finish. Four spots behind a fresh-faced rookie named Jeff Gordon, who was making his NASCAR debut. Bill Elliott would win the race, while Alan Kulwicki, thanks in part to a second-place finish, won the points title. After the race victory and season championship ceremonies, Richard Petty climbed back into his car for one last lap, waving to the crowd as the song “Richard Petty Fans” was played over the PA system.
While Richard Petty’s seven NASCAR season titles were equaled, his record 200 wins on the NASCAR circuit is unlikely ever to be approached. The second most wins all-time belongs to David Pearson with 105, with Jeff Gordon ranking third with 93 wins. No wonder he was called the King.