He cut a lean figure, tall, dark and utterly recognizable.
When you’re nicknamed The King, you have that responsibility, the one about transcending the sport, being an ambassador, adding your face and mystique to the culture.
“Back in the day it was racing,” The King, Richard Petty, told me Sunday before the big race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. “Now, it’s a lot like showtime. They have to do it to keep things going.”
If anyone has the right to reminisce about another time – The King turned 80 on July 2 – and talk about how much better the good old days were, it’s The King.
For one thing, they were. The sport wasn’t as popular as today’s brand, but that’s because The King was part of the sport’s evolution. He was in on the ground floor of the boom, and he’s the main reason today’s drivers earn million-dollar salaries.
Oh, yes, there’s another reason The King has the freedom to say what he wants: He won 200 Cup races, and no one will match that in our lifetime, perhaps ever.
Others on top of the all-time wins list? David Pearson, 105 wins, Jeff Gordon, 93, Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip, 84 apiece.
All are retired.
In fact, the only active driver who’s near this prestigious list is Jimmie Johnson, who, with 83 wins, would have to drive until he was 100 years old to come close.
It’s not even worth mentioning any other win totals. The King’s crown is safe.
I asked The King if anyone might threaten his record. “If they didn’t approach it when I was running,” The King told me, “they sure ain’t gonna approach it now.”
I ran into The King just by chance, as I made my way from the track infield and area where the haulers are parked.
The King was getting ready to eat in a shaded area near a shiny black hauler, the one that said “Richard Petty Motorsports” on the side. He uncovered a silver-colored tray of meatballs before fans began noticing that The King was near his castle.
He signed little toy race cars, posed for photos and seemed to enjoy seeing adults acting like kids once they had entered his court.
I wondered what The King thought about all this attention. NASCAR drivers who are 80 years old, have not competed since 1992 and have not won a race since 1984 are not asked to pose for photos or sign little toy cars.
The King, though, is. The King has a public relations job to do, and he does it well.
“I’ve been going to race tracks since 1949,” The King said, “so they know I’m gonna be here.”