22: Creating a Dynasty of Values

22: Creating a Dynasty of Values

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tales of Golf and Sport

Creating a Dynasty of Values

Weave in faith and God will find the thread.

~Author Unknown

When I was born, Mother and Daddy lived with my grandmother and granddaddy. There were three brothers and four sisters all living in the same rural house with no running water or electricity. We had twelve or fourteen people living beside the shop. We were poor, but we didn’t know it because all the neighbors were the same way.

My little brother, Maurice, and I were always getting into scrapes with each other. I’ve got scars all over my head, and he has scars all over his. Our social lives were completely different, but when we were at home we played together and worked together.

I played football and basketball in high school. Most of the guys who played ball stayed after school for practice and games, then went home to plow a field or milk a cow or something. I’d go home and work on a race car.

My dad was pretty stern with us, but he could be very compassionate. In business dealings, he didn’t have contracts. He gave his word and made sure he got it done; it didn’t make a difference how much of a hardship it was on him. He taught us that you are responsible for what you say and for what you do.

Mother was a peacemaker. She tried to keep the home fires burning while Dad was out racing or doing other things, and she got us off to church every Sunday morning.

Daddy was always a mechanic. He had a bunch of trucks and hauled anything for anybody. He did a little truck farming, too, with a few things he raised. In 1949, when the NASCAR Winston Cup Series first started, he got his first race car—a ‘37 Plymouth with a straight 8 Buick motor in it. People came from Daytona, Atlanta and all around to race. It was big money even back then. Dad read in the paper that Bill France was having a race in Charlotte. Dad hung out at a service station on the south side of Greensboro with some of his buddies. One of them had a ‘47 or ‘48 Buick. It ran really fast on the road. Dad and his brother talked the guy into borrowing the thing so we could race it in Charlotte.

We drove that car over to Charlotte and pulled into a Texaco station, put it on a lift, changed the oil, greased it and got ready to race. That’s all there was at the time to make a race car. Dad got about halfway through the race when the sway bar broke. The thing turned over with them, tearing off all four doors. We had to thumb a ride back with my uncle to get home. Even after all that, my dad said, “You know, I think I might like this racin’.” He went out and bought the smallest car he could, which was a 1949 Plymouth Coupe. It didn’t even have a back seat. I think it went for $890 and they could win $1,500, so it was a great deal.

I don’t think that Mother thought a lot about what Daddy did when he sold his truck and trucking business and stopped farming the land. He said, “Okay, we’re goin’ in the racin’ business.” This was a new venture, and he didn’t know if it was going to work. The first year they only ran about eight races, but he had made the commitment. He was probably the first one to say, “I can make a living out of this if I watch what I do.” It was a family business from the beginning. We didn’t have help, and Daddy did all the work. As long as we got enough money racing on Sunday to get back to the race the next week, he was happy. When we first started racing, he was not that fast. He figured out that there were 200 laps, and he wanted to make it to the end of the 200 laps. If he led for 195 laps and then fell out, he wouldn’t make it back to race the next week. They called him “Mr. Consistency.” He might not win first, but he wound up winning more races than anybody at that time. He was always second, third or fourth. He won enough money to get us something to eat so that we could go to the next race.

I started working on the cars when I was about eleven years old. I wasn’t really interested in driving them. I graduated high school and went to King’s Business College in Greensboro. I took an eight-month business course, but it took me two years to get though it. I went four months during winter, and then when the ‘57 season started I came back and started working on the race car. Even when I went to school, I’d go during the day and work on the car at night. When we had to start going to the races, I couldn’t go to school at all.

When I turned eighteen, I went in one day and said, “Okay, Dad, I want to drive a race car.” He said, “You’re too young.” I told him, “Buddy Baker’s driving.” But he said it didn’t make a difference. He told me I couldn’t race until I was twenty-one. “You’ll do a lot of growing up between the years of eighteen and twenty-one,” he said, and he was right. I got out into the world and experienced a lot more during those years.

I walked in one day and said, “Okay, I’m twenty-one.” He said, “There’s a car over in the corner. Get it ready.” It was a convertible. Dale Inman, Red Myler and I loaded it up and headed for Columbia, South Carolina. I had never been in a race in my life, but they threw me right out there and away I went. It took me a long time to learn to drive, but we finally brought in a winner.

I met Linda early in my racing career. We dated a couple of years, but I was out of town a lot. One night I told her, “You know I love you, and if we are ever thinking about getting married, we need to do it now because I’m not going to have time later.” She said, “Okay.” We went to South Carolina and got married one night. When we came home she didn’t tell anybody besides her parents that we were married; not even my parents knew. It took about three months for me to get up the money to buy her a ring. After I gave her the ring, she told everybody.

A little over a year later, we were living with Mother and Daddy when Kyle was born in the same house that I was born in. Linda and I saved up some money and bought a mobile home and put it in their front yard. Within twelve months, our daughter, Sharon, came along, and that place seemed to get even smaller. We didn’t have air conditioning in the trailer, but we had a ‘60s Chrysler with air conditioning. We’d eat supper, put the kids in the car, and go out and ride around until they went to sleep. Then we’d come home and put them in bed.

When I was home, we did things together, like playing ball or taking them to the movies. When I was on the road, Linda took care of things. In the summertime, we took the family with us everywhere. I had one of the children in each hand, and Linda would have the third one along with the diaper bags. We put the little ones in the back seat, and we went because that was our family. We just did it the way my mother and daddy did it.

I was fortunate to be with NASCAR Winston Cup racing as it was growing. We were driving an offbeat car—a Plymouth. We won twenty-seven races in one year, and people screamed for us to win more. Right at the time that my career was taking off, Dad’s was winding down. He won the championship in ‘58 and ‘59. He was third or fourth in the points standing in ‘60, and then I think he won only one race in ‘61; then he got hurt at Daytona, and that was basically the end of his career. He and Johnny Beauchamp got together right at the end of a 100-mile race, and they went through the fence and turned the car over, demolishing everything. They carried him off to the hospital with a punctured lung, a torn-up knee and a broken leg. A bunch of people came in to donate blood. For two or three days he laid there, and they just tried to keep him alive. I went in, and he said, “Come here.” I leaned over. “You and Maurice go on home and go up to Greensboro and buy another car. Mother and me will be home about Friday.” He was home on Friday—about four months later. That’s how badly he was hurt, but he was ready to go. “Let’s go racin’ again.”

I’ve had some bad wrecks and been beaten up pretty badly, but if I can wake up and see the ceiling, I know that it’s okay. After some of the wrecks, I could remember everything that happened, and with others, I could only remember part of it. I think that the good Lord has got a little mechanism in us that, when you get close to death, causes you not to remember. It seems like he blocks that out of your memory so that you don’t wake up in the middle of the night screaming with the terror of it. The big wreck at Daytona in ‘88 was spectacular. But I felt like a guardian angel said, “This is going to be a bad wreck,” then took me out of the car, turned it over and then stuck me back in. I know this has happened more than once because I’ve seen some of the wrecks and I say, “No way are you going to get out of there without getting hurt.” I’m usually conscious of what’s going on, and most of the time I can get out of the car by myself. At Daytona I remember the doctor coming to the side of the car and asking, “Are you okay?” I said, “Yeah, I’m okay. I just can’t see anything.” I was blinded for probably five minutes, but the doctor said my sight would come back, and it did. It wasn’t until after I had seen the films of the accident that I knew that the car had turned over.

Linda came to the hospital, and I could tell she had been crying. Once she knew everything was fine, though, she was mad. She had gotten over the hurt part and moved on to anger. All the times we talked about racing and accidents that happened, we had reached an agreement. I always told her, “When we are not having fun anymore, I’m not going to do this.” She came in there gritting her teeth and said, “Are we having fun?” Everybody just broke up laughing, and any hurting I had just went away.

It hurts a lot more to see someone you love hurt than to be hurt yourself. When Kyle was hurt in Talledaga, Linda and I went in to see him. I felt like we were hurting even worse than he was, and we couldn’t help but wonder who was to blame.

After Kyle’s son Adam was killed in the accident, we got hundreds and hundreds of letters from fans. One lady wrote, “Never put a question mark where God has put a period.” I settled right down after I heard that. I said, “Okay, I’m not going to question anymore.” We have to go forward with our lives.

One thing I’ve never questioned is who’s responsible for my making it in this business. The racetracks have never paid Richard Petty a penny; the sponsors have never paid me anything. If it weren’t for the fans, I wouldn’t be out there in the first place. After my first race I signed one autograph; my second race I signed two. I have always looked at the fans as the guys who were paying the bills. Every time I sign an autograph, it’s like saying, “Thank you for letting me do what I want to do and make a living out of it.”

I thank God for my family.

I thank God for my fans.

~Richard Petty
Chicken Soup for the NASCAR Soul

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