There are two reasons why Richard Petty is known as “The King.”
When he became the first driver to win two Daytona 500s, Atlanta sportswriter Bill Robinson dubbed him “King Richard the Hemi-Hearted” in reference to his success and the Chrysler engines with hemispherical pistons.
Then, the myth and the man quickly meshed. Tall, handsome and equipped with his 100-watt smile, Petty’s manner was at once benevolent and charismatic. He enjoyed playing the role as the driver with the most NASCAR victories and eventually backed it up by earning his 200th in front of President Ronald Reagan at Daytona in the summer of 1984.
Petty, The King, turns 80 on Sunday.
Petty won seven Daytona 500s — one of several significant records that will not be broken. But most of those victories came after his legend was first established in 1967, when he and his Petty Engineering team won 10 straight races. His popularity went way beyond the statistics, because the good ol’ star from North Carolina, whether chewing tobacco or smoking slender cigars, stayed close to his roots and worked hard at being accessible and open to fans. His dedication to expanding the popularity of stock car racing included an ornate signature that he has signed hundreds of thousands of times.
Petty’s openness extended to the media and coupled with his seven championships made him a regular feature in publications like Sports Illustrated as well as a fixture in the newspapers that covered NASCAR long before it was on TV regularly.
His longtime rivals David Pearson, Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough were popular, too, especially among those fans who favored Ford and Chevy over Chrysler. But Petty’s overwhelming statistics combined with his media appeal and openness to fans made him the leader by far when it came to spreading the word on stock car racing. Heck, The King was even popular in England, where he made regular appearances in his trademark Charlie 1 Horse feathered hats after retiring from driving.
Even in retirement, Petty dramatically moved the needle. His orchestrated Farewell Tour established a trend in racing and more significantly launched the souvenir market that would generate millions over the coming decades for team owners, manufacturers and drivers.
But it was never all about fame and fortune. At his retirement announcement in 1991 at the longtime team compound in Level Cross, N.C. — next to the house where Petty grew up and lived — his daughter Sharon…