Richard Petty: Racing Royalty Enters NASCAR Hall of Fame
by Mike Harris
How does a driver know he has reached the pinnacle of his racing career?
Is it being part of the inaugural inductee class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame? Is it the fact that you are referred to as "The King"? Is it that throngs of fans still want to shake your hand and get your picture even though you are no longer in the cockpit of the race car? Or is it when the owner of one of the most dominant teams in stock car racing today asks for your autograph? For Richard Petty — AKA "The King" — it is all of those and more.
In May of 2010, Richard Petty was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame with a stirring standing ovation from nearly 2,300 spectators, including many racing dignitaries, current drivers, a large number of fans and his family.
"He is a fan, first and foremost"
Caption: Richard Petty arrives at the grand opening in his old race car at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina, May 11, 2010.
Anyone and everyone wanted the iconic driver to sign their ticket or program so they could share the moment and own a piece of history. A smiling Petty signed hundreds of autographs and took dozens of pictures with fans and friends both before and after the ceremony. Many of the most famous people at the induction sought out Petty to sign their tickets as a remembrance of the big day. That included team owner Rick Hendrick, who has won more championships than anyone else in NASCAR history. "I got his autograph at Martinsville Speedway when I was 12,” Hendrick said. “I’m going to put this one right next to that one."
Petty, who first signed a contract with STP in 1972 and has been associated with the company ever since, is a true ambassador for the brand and his sport. His accomplishments on the racetrack would have been enough to get Petty into the Hall, but it was as much who the man is as what he has done that earned Petty a spot in the inaugural class along with NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., his son and heir, Bill France Jr., and fellow driving legends Dale Earnhardt and Junior Johnson. No other person has had the impact on the sport and on the fans that the tall, humble man from Randleman, N.C., has had for the past half century.
Kyle Petty introduced his father, telling several heart-warming stories about his life, both at the track and at home. "One thing about The King," he commented, "he was always the same, even keel, whether he won or lost." Kyle also revealed a big reason for the way his father has represented the sport for all these years, first as a mechanic on his father, Lee Petty's car, then as the leading driver and, finally, as a long time car owner.
"He is a fan, first and foremost," Kyle said. "Bringing that passion to this sport has made him the legend that he is."
"It’s the pinnacle and I’ve got here"
Caption: Richard Petty speaks during the Inaugural Induction Ceremony at the NASCAR Hall of Fame on May 23, 2010 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Dale Inman, Richard’s cousin and long-time crew chief on the STP-sponsored Petty Enterprises team, also helped introduce the new Hall of Famer and extolled the generosity of his long time boss, particularly when it came to the fans and his sponsors. "He knew what it meant to be good to people and he has lived by that his whole career," Inman said. Inman has said in the past that Petty's long, happy relationship with STP is a great example of how much sponsors appreciate him and how much The King appreciates them.
"He really believes in doing things the right way and treating people the right way," Inman said. "He’ll sign every last autograph for the fans and shake the hand of every company executive and worker with a smile. And it’s sincere."
Petty, resplendent in his trademark feathered cowboy hat and dark glasses, said his induction into the Hall of Fame with the inaugural class is something special. "You look at all the people who helped NASCAR get here and I'm one of them," he said. "The opening of this Hall of Fame means there is a place that everyone in the sport wants to get to from the start of their career. It’s the pinnacle and I've got here." And in true Petty form, he closed his acceptance speech with, "I guess I'm going to do like Gomer Pyle. I'm just going to say, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you.'"