NASCAR’s King speaks: Richard Petty on Danica, Donald Trump, Brian France and more

When it comes to Trump, 'nobody knows deep down what his decisions might be'

The King seems perfectly at ease in his standard attire: boots, jeans, long-sleeve white shirt, sunglasses and Charlie 1 Horse cowboy hat. He stuffs a pinch between his cheek and gum, keeping an empty soft-drink bottle nearby for the debris. He’s tall, slim and well tanned, uncommonly fit for a 79-year-old. Truly, he looks great for someone who raced more than 1,200 times between 1958 and 1992, was seriously injured several times and keeps a schedule that would test men half his age.

It’s accepted that Richard Petty did as much for his sport as anyone—think Babe Ruth, Bill Russell—did for theirs. Numbers only hint at his legend: 123 Sprint Cup poles, 200 wins, seven championships, seven Daytona 500s, nine Most Popular Driver awards and more swirly autographs and smiling photos than anyone could ever count. He has been honored by everyone from infant fans to George H.W. Bush, who presented the newly retired legend the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992.

It hasn’t been all sunshine and roses, though. Petty’s brother-in-law, 20-year-old Randy Owens, died in a 1974 pit accident at Talladega, and his grandson, 19-year-old Adam, died in a 2000 accident during a practice session in New Hampshire. Petty was briefly estranged from his son Kyle—they’re reunited now. And all of racing mourned with the family when the King’s beloved wife, Lynda, died in 2014. All in all, though, Mr. 43 has enjoyed quite an extraordinary life. 

On a July afternoon at the Petty Museum in Level Cross, North Carolina, stock-car racing’s best-known personality and one of sport’s most recognizable figures spoke candidly about yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Autoweek: When did NASCAR go from a legitimate, competitive sport to show business and TV entertainment? And what caused that change?

Richard Petty: From the time this sport started, it was pure racing. Now, it’s show business. It’s changed a little at a time, without anybody realizing it. TV was a factor. When big sponsors came in, they changed it, too. When Winston (cigarettes) got involved, it changed things by exposing us all over the country (fewer races but bigger markets). TV exploded the show business part even more because they’re into show business; they’re not into the racing business. Fox and NBC dictate a lot of what goes on, so they’re covering it more like show business than racing. And that’s good because the sponsors get more attention. But sometimes the owners and drivers would rather not see so much of the show business part. From the first green flag to the checkered, all that is still racing. Everything else is show business.

AW: You raced a full-time Cup schedule until you were 55. How long did you race beyond what you should have?

RP: Probably 10 years … even though I was still winning some. Certainly, a good six or seven years. One of my downfalls was that Petty Enterprises suddenly didn’t have equipment as good as or better than everybody else’s; it wasn’t winning equipment. When I came back (after being with Mike Curb in 1984 and 1985), things had gotten away from us. Either I put out more than the equipment could take, or the equipment was good but I didn’t always put out like I should have. Age had a lot to do with it; age finally caught up with me. Circumstances, too. A lot of things just quit going right. 

AW: Who’s the best pure racer out there today?

RP: Probably Kyle Busch. Tony Stewart was until age and time caught up with him. And time will catch up with Busch, too. There are some young guys coming up, so Busch eventually will go off the top of the hill. Guys like the Dillon boys, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott. Ask me again in three or four years, when the older guys are gone and these young guys are the leaders. It seems like we get a big turnover every 10 or 12 years. It’ll be that way coming up, too.

AW: What do you think about the new Charter system?

RP: NASCAR would be better today if they’d done this earlier, and team owners would be in better shape to put on better shows. NASCAR never realized what our problems were, and we didn’t always realize what their problems were. They had all kinds of rules and regulations that we didn’t understand. There was government stuff and dealing with fans and sponsors and laws. And we had rules and regulations we had to compete with, and they didn’t always understand them. They’d make a rule change that didn’t cost them anything, but it’d cost us millions—and the racing didn’t get any better. It’s better now because we can all sit down together and go through that kind of stuff.

AW: Does it matter that NASCAR CEO and chairman Brian France isn’t in the garage area like his father and grandfather used to be?

RP: The question from the owners is, “Who’s running NASCAR?” I think everyone questions, “Where does the buck stop?” His granddad and dad were there every (race weekend). They looked at it like, “We have to take care of the racers, but we have to take care of the
fans, too.” I think Brian looks at it like, “What can we do to expand NASCAR? Not with race cars, but with all the electronic crap and the social media stuff that’s going on.” That’s not bad, because we need to generate new fans, but I don’t know if racing—pure racing by itself—will generate that many new fans. Brian’s probably doing what he needs to do while we’re over in the garage wondering if he’s even paying attention to the racing. We know what we’re after, but we don’t know what he’s after.

AW: Who was the best you ever raced against?

RP: David Pearson. Day in and day out, all different kind of tracks and all different kind of circumstances, he probably had more natural talent than anybody. He never tried anything hard (made everything look easy). Cale Yarborough would get all intense; Bobby Allison would get all intense. But Pearson would be over there just smoking his cigarettes, saying, “Hey, whatever’s next.” I think our personalities were probably closer than any two drivers back then.

AW: Who’s not in the NASCAR Hall of Fame who should be?

RP: I don’t remember everybody who’s available, but I know of four or five who shouldn’t have gone in ahead of some others. I don’t put Smokey Yunick way up there, but he still should be ahead of two or three who’re already there. He’ll eventually make it. Tim Rich-
mond? I don’t know; he has too much baggage. The ability is there, but what made the ability? It’s like guys who hit 800 home runs and aren’t in the baseball Hall of Fame: What helped them do that over somebody else?

AW: Are you worried about the upcoming presidential election?

RP: Sure. When Obama got in, his big deal was change. But the changes have gone the wrong way, so there needs to be more change. I’m not looking forward to anything staying the same. I’m looking for the changes that Obama promised. The deal with Trump is that nobody knows deep down what his decisions might be. They wouldn’t concern just the people in the United States; they’d concern Russia and Korea, too. Those people wouldn’t know when he’d pull the plug on them, and that’s good. We need that (uncertainty) because it’s gotten like, “Well, the United States isn’t going to do anything, so we’ll just do what we want to do. At least, they’ll keep sending us money.” Well, if nothing else, Trump would quit sending money, and they’d dry up. 

Wood Brothers Racing legend David Pearson (21) and Petty (43) tangle during the 1976 Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.
AW: Where would Richard Petty Motorsports be if Adam hadn’t died in New Hampshire in 2000?

RP: We don’t know. The basic deal was that Kyle and I were putting everything in Adam’s hands. He was going to be the one who rejuvenated Petty Enterprises. He had the personality and the ability and the smarts to be very competitive. It just didn’t work out. It was a way bigger personal loss for the family than it was a professional loss for racing.

AW: Is there any circumstance under which you would field Toyotas?

RP: (Long pause, then laughter). Or Volkswagens or Hondas? In my career, I drove six or seven different brands. Our decisions were never personal; they were always financial. Today, the financial deal would change my mind about a lot of things. Personally, I’d rather not field Toyotas. But from a business standpoint, you’d have to look at whatever’s available.

AW: Do you like the Chase for the Championship or did you like the full-season system more?

RP: I liked the full-season deal, but the Chase was a great PR move. It put NASCAR on the same scale as major-league sports that already had postseason playoffs for their championships. To me, it’s made us a major-league player. The Chase has been great, but it’s hard to look at my championships or Earnhardt’s or Pearson’s and see what we did to get ours, then see some guy maybe win just one race (the finale) to get his.

AW: Has your opinion of Danica Patrick changed in recent years?

RP: Yes. She’s marginally better. Because of her experience, she doesn’t get in as much trouble. But, no, she hasn’t made any drastic improvements.

AW: Assuming you’re one of them, what three other Americans are on your Mount Rushmore of racers?

RP: Wow! (A.J.) Foyt and (Mario) Andretti. (Long pause) And personally: Pearson, because look at what he accomplished and got done in circumstances not nearly as good as mine. Don Garlits or John Force? Yeah … as far as ability and stuff like that are concerned. But we’re looking at racers that the general public knows about. We’re looking for the impact of the names themselves.

AW: Is there a race you lost that still haunts you? And which win did you just flat luck into?

RP: ’76 Daytona 500 and ’79 Daytona 500. There are others, but they’ve stayed with me longer because they were the 500, and Daytona is such a big operation. I did what I thought was right in ’76, but Pearson didn’t leave me much room. And in ’79, I was 20 seconds behind when Cale (Yarborough) and Donnie (Allison) wrecked on the last lap. You lose some, but you win some, too. I guess they eventually even out. 


Source : http://autoweek.com/article/racing/nascars-king-speaks-richard-petty-danica-trump-brian-france-and-more

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