Richard Petty: The People’s Choice
by Mike Harris
NASCAR was in a very different place when Richard Petty and the STP® brand joined forces at the start of the 1972 season.
Stock car racing was born before World War II when bootleggers from the hills of the Carolinas and Georgia — transporting illegal homemade liquor to avoid federal taxes — began competing against each other to see whose souped-up car was fastest. Dirt tracks sprang up all over the South and local fans flocked to the events.
But the rest of America paid it no mind. NASCAR was little more than a rural, niche sport that was popular only in the Southeastern United States.
But that all changed when Petty and STP got together.
"If you believe in a product, people know it"
The STP® brand, NASCAR’s first truly national sponsor, took the driver already known to his fans as “The King” and turned him into a national phenomenon, bringing the previously niche sport into the homes of mainstream America.
It wasn’t long before even casual fans could identify Petty’s distinctive No. 43 race car with its eye-catching STP® Day-Glo Red and Petty Blue color scheme.
In Petty, STP saw the perfect ambassador for both the sport of NASCAR and for STP® products, because he understood cars and how to make them run better. In fact, Petty actually grew up wanting to be a mechanic, while working on the cars of his father, Lee, one of NASCAR’s first stars. “I knew cars,” Petty said. “I worked on them enough that I could tell people what STP could do and they could believe me. If you believe in a product, people know it. I would never of signed a lifetime contract with STP® products if I didn’t believe in them. And, over the years, people just put us together, I guess.” You didn’t hardly see Richard Petty without STP® or STP® without Richard Petty.
What made The King the perfect face for STP® products also made him a NASCAR icon. He loved the fans and always took the time to make contact with the people who backed the sport.
"Richard loved all stock car fans, even if they were rooting for Bobby Allison or David Pearson,” said Jim Hunter, a longtime NASCAR executive. “Other drivers would sign a few autographs when they had to, but Richard wanted to mingle with the fans whenever he had the chance."
"And the deal with the STP® brand gave him more opportunity to do just that,” Hunter added. “It was a great marriage and Richard has continued to be the best ambassador this sport has ever had."
"Richard has continued to be the best ambassador this sport has ever had"
And he wanted the fans to truly enjoy their moment with him.
"I practiced my signature over and over and over until it was always the same,” The King said. “And I took enough time with each one that whoever I was signing for could have his own personal moment with me and me with them."
Petty decided to retire from the cockpit at the end of the 1992 season. But The King, now a team owner, remains an icon of the sport and one of its most revered ambassadors.
"I could never walk away from it," Petty said. "It’s what I’ve known my whole life. And I’m still with the STP® brand, too, even if it’s only doing personal appearances and such. I’ll do that until they don’t want me anymore."