A stronger blend of styles could scarcely be imagined in any sport. First comes the Superstar—long, lean and laconic, a drawling epitome of Southern charm and dash, Jeb Stuart on wheels. Then there is Moneybags—short, round and loquacious, a trench-coated archetype of Chicago-style pushiness, fast with a checkbook. That's Richard Petty and Andy Granatelli, the Odd Couple of stock-car racing.
Last week at the Atlanta International Raceway, Petty and Granatelli once again pooled their disparate talents, this time in pursuit of victory in the $112,825 Atlanta 500, one of the Southland's richest and most hotly contested Grand National races.
They didn't get it. In fact, one might say they literally blew it as Petty exited the race spinning in a furious burst of smoke. But it was done in a style worthy of the king of the road and, as ever, Richard drew as many cheers in defeat as the ultimate winner, David Pearson, got in coasting home to an unspectacular victory.
But behind the smoke, as with all types of motor racing, there was a lot more to see at Atlanta last week than Petty and the boys chasing one another's tail pipes through the corners of the speedway's 1½-mile asphalt oval. A. J. Foyt was on hand, making one of his frequent forays into NASCAR country in hopes of winning even more money and acclaim at the expense of the good ole boys—but somehow Super Tex just didn't look right.
Petty had puzzled over the matter for awhile and then slapped his thigh. "Gol ding it," he said, "Foyt's wearin' a toupee! No wonder he looks about 16 years old." And sure enough, there it was—a nifty swatch of skull carpeting that soon had the regular NASCAR drivers honing their needles. "Hey, boy," they would yell as Foyt walked past, "where's yore daddy? You gotta be 21 to get in the pits." Foyt merely grinned and went about his business, which is simply preparing and driving a car, any kind of car, as fast as is humanly possible. To those who cared to see them, he showed photographs of his new Indy machine, a sleek, winged Coyote with which he plans to win his fourth Indianapolis 500 next month. "For awhile there, the fun had gone out of Indy for me," he said. "This year it's back."
Mark Donohue, another part-time participant in the NASCAR go-arounds and the winner of this season's opener at Riverside, also was present, nervous as usual about the intricacies of suspension setups. "This is such a short track compared to Daytona or Talladega that you're cornering nearly all the way around," he said, tinkering with his red, white and blue Matador. "It's going to be a real killer on tires."
Stock-car racing vets Buddy Baker and Cale Yarborough were more concerned with engines. Both of them seemed to have had the Daytona 500 sewed up last February when their motors cooked, leaving the door open for Petty's fourth win in stock-car racing's richest event—the most ever at that track. Of course, Richard is already the winningest driver in NASCAR history (in terms both of races and personality), and his 150 victories over 15 seasons amount to more than double those won by Pearson, his closest rival. "Atlanta's not one of my lucky tracks," Richard allowed early in race week. "I've never won the spring race here, and I've only won the fall race a couple of times."
He was seated behind the wheel of his Dodge 1000 transporter truck, munching popcorn and staring at the steady rain that beset Georgia nearly all week and profoundly fouled up qualifying for the race. Petty likes to fiddle with his image almost as much as he likes to fiddle with cars—and this season he is sporting a wicked gunfighter's mustache to match last season's long sideburns and riverboat-gambler's hair. When he added his high-crowned black cowboy hat he looked like one of the Wild Bunch and, indeed, the mustache has become a matter of concern to Granatelli and his STP minions. Not for reasons of propriety. It seems that all the STP commercials in which Petty appears were shot before he grew the stash, and to reshoot them would cost more than the oil-additive company pays for the whole Petty racing program.
"I got a little heat from the fans and the other drivers at first," Richard said, stroking the scruffy object of all this concern. "The fans don't like their heroes to change, and of course you can understand that. One of the real values of racing, or any sport for that matter, is that it gives the public some stability, something to watch that doesn't hardly ever change, while the world around them is flyin' every which way."
Another point of potential conflict between Petty and his new owner was a question of colors. During the years that Chrysler backed Petty Enterprises with full factory support, Richard painted his Plymouths a fine hard color that came to be known as Petty blue and became synonymous with his grand success. When Chrysler dropped out of racing and Granatelli picked up the major monetary role in 1972 (the Petty family still builds and prepares its cars), Andy naturally insisted that the cars be painted in his own favorite color—that garish, Day-Glo, STP red. "I don't give a damn what color Petty likes," he said. "I happen to like red."
The compromise they finally arrived at—after two days of debate and playing with crayons—leaves the cars Petty blue on the hood, roof and trunk, while the door panels and fenders are Granatelli gaudy. Since NASCAR's super-speedways are steeply banked most of the way around, what the fans see mainly is the blue of the upperworks—a nifty bit of ridge-runner cunning on Richard's part. "I offered him $50,000 finally to paint it all red," Andy says, "and, by God, he wouldn't."
The greatest potential for conflict, though, lay in the vast difference in personalities. Like the best of Southern hill folk, Richard Petty is reserved, gracious and possessed of an almost medieval courtliness—flavored with grits and ham hocks—that renders him larger than life. Andy is larger than life, period. A man whose ambition matches his girth, and whose bad luck at Indy has often exceeded them both, he is not afraid to be bumptious if it can get him publicity. Indeed, his carefully calculated gaucheries and low-brow approach to advertising have played a major part in elevating his Scientifically Treated Products from ninth place among oil additives in the early 1960s to a position of visual prominence second only to one other American product of any kind. "Think of it for a moment," says one of Andy's lieutenants. "The only other logo in America, if not in the entire world, that is better known than STP is Coca-Cola. We know. We pay good money for the recognition surveys."
Few racing fans will forget Granatelli's performance in Victory Circle at Indianapolis in 1969, when Mario Andretti finally brought home the bacon Andy had been seeking for the better part of his life—the kisses, the tears, the whoops and whinnies that embarrassed not only his driver but most of the stoical Indy Establishment as well.
Then Granatelli outdid himself at Daytona earlier this year, and Richard Petty lost face in the process. With Jordan's King Hussein in tow ("Howdja like it, King?" Andy would ask), Granatelli burst like a soft bowling ball into the winner's circle, beat his chest, poured champagne over himself, told the world that his ecstasy at this success was even more sublime than what he had experienced at Indy—and later snatched the microphone from Petty's hands to take most of the accolades for himself. When one of his aides then accused him of bad form, Andy asked that every newspaper sports page in America be scanned for stories and pictures of his ignominy in the name of STP. "So far," says the aide with a wry shake of his head, "we've given him 2,000 pages. That ain't bad for free advertising."
Petty himself is unconcerned about his owner's behavior; indeed, he is rather amused by it. "Andy does his way and I do mine," says Richard. "At first I was a bit embarrassed, but now I feel easy. If we were both flamboyant personalities, there'd likely be a bit of trouble. But I know who I am, the other drivers know who I am, and the fans know who I am. And they also know you can't go racin' without you got some money behind you. No, Andy's all right. He's just different, is all." With that, Richard crumpled his popcorn bag and dismounted from the big, Petty-blue tractor cab, heading for the track's infield restaurant, the Caution Café, where the lunch menu offered country fried steak, turnip greens and cherry cobbler for only $2. Petty limped as he walked, favoring his right leg.
"Yep," he said, "burned my heel good up at Bristol, Tennessee last weekend. Engine exhaust through the floorboards. Nothin' I could do about it—it was like some cat was down there with a blowtorch, treatin' me to a blister. A lot of folks, they sort of think race drivers aren't athaletes, that the car does all the work. Now in a pro football game the ball's in play for only about six or seven minutes, and there's two squads to split the time, offense and defense. A race driver's workin' for three or four hours with no time-outs, and his life is on the line ever second. Oh, they get bunged up good, those ballplayers, but I don't believe they ever get a hotfoot like this un."
Then, while the rain still poured down on the blossoming dogwoods of northwest Georgia, Richard cut out a couple of pads from a Styrofoam coffee cup to protect his sore heel and sat back to await Granatelli's arrival. If he winced at all while he waited, it was probably his heel talking.
Andy drifted in on the company jet, under the rain clouds, and he was quick to defend his Daytona behavior to those reporters who had ripped him off. "Sure, I was overjoyed at the victory," he said. "It's pretty much of a miracle for an owner to win at both Indy and Daytona—no other owner has ever done it. I was thinking, somebody's got to drop out, and usually it's me. Anyway, wow! When the checkered flag falls, I jump off the outside retaining wall, sprint down to the winner's circle—that's about 400 yards—and although I'm a fast runner, I'm not really in the best of shape. The reason I poured the champagne over my head is that it's the most readily available coolant. I'm hot—man! Any other evidence of excitement I won't even bother to explain."
Richard listened to the Granatelli irrationale with a straight face. Clearly he was more concerned about the weather. That night a frog-strangler of a rainstorm smashed into the area—a real dam-buster front laced with lightning, hail, thunder and twisters that ripped up nearby Athens and Jonesboro, killing at least three people and destroying both homes and chicken coops. The storm canceled any hope of qualifying and the drivers drew lots for their 40 positions on the starting grid.
The Lucky Number Pole ticket went to USAC's Gordon Johncock in a year-old Chevrolet. Cale Yarborough, in another Chevy, dominated the second row. Still two more Chevvies came right behind and for a time it looked like Gaston's big day. Richard wasn't as lucky: he drew the 16th spot on the starting lineup. "It don't really matter that much," he muttered through his mustache. "I should be able to reach the front in about 10 or 20 laps." And why not? That is one of the reasons the fans love NASCAR races—Richard's grand charges.
Once the tornadoes had spun through, the weather cooperated beautifully. Race day dawned cloudless and cool, and the Pettys were up with the blackbirds. Granatelli had already headed back to his Florida home. Left entirely to his own devices, Richard performed with his customary panache.
At the drop of the green flag, Yarborough surged into the lead, catching the collective eyes and throats of the crowd. But here came the king: during the first lap Petty swung into a high groove and roared from 16th to ninth place. By the third lap he was in seventh—and still blasting. Holding to the top of the banking, and with plenty of horses in hand, he scoffed up Bobby Isaac's 1973 Ford to take over third place on the 14th lap of the 328-lap race. Then he zeroed in on Pearson's red-and-white Mercury. Richard pushed the blue snout of his 1973 Dodge under Pearson's tail pipes and drafted him for the next 26 laps, utilizing to its maximum the technique he himself had advanced.
Meanwhile, other drivers were undergoing the usual attrition. Pete Hamilton, the young hot dog who was Petty's teammate back in 1970, retired on the 38th lap when his Plymouth just quit. Bobby Allison, last year's most consistent winner on this circuit, burned a piston. Contenders Foyt and Donohue dropped out. Then, on the 40th lap, Petty slingshotted his way past Pearson into second place and when Yarborough pitted a short time later, he took over the lead.
Pit stops complicate the scoring in this sport, and Yarborough regained the lead, but Petty's stops were quick enough to keep him near the front of the pack for the first third of the race, and he was breathing down Cale's neck all the way. Then, on lap 140, something happened.
In a gust of blue smoke, his engine let go as he entered Turn One. The red-and-blue Dodge skidded in its own oil, careened sideways and then hit the wall. Shredding paint and smoke, the Petty car spun once and then rolled backward into the infield. Other drivers missed him by the narrowest of margins during the slow descent. But Richard was safe—he leaped quickly out of the window and rode back to the garage area in a truck.
"It looked like I was trying to take a shortcut to Griffen," he said, referring to the nearby hamlet where he always stays during this race. "The engine just went POW! It was all my fault. Those other guys didn't have any place to go. Still, it was one hell of a ride."
When the engine failed, his car went sideways right in front of Buddy Baker. "He pushed me up on the wall," Petty said, "and I thought for a minute I was going out of the track. The danged pistons came right up through the engine wall and I saw them crackling there on the ground." Then he shook his head, donned his cowboy hat and lit up a stogie. That was the high point of the day.
Richard was out, soon Baker was out—and the race developed into a non-rousing duel between Yarborough and Pearson. Then Cale gave up with overheating problems, and Pearson coasted, inheriting his 68th victory. First-place purse was $16,185, but even though Petty had not finished, he was credited with 34th spot and paid a modest $1,430, piling up his winnings to $46,660 in this young season. As Granatelli likes to say, "The colors contrast. And so do we contrast. But, by golly, it works."
Under that" Wild Bunch" hat, behind the mustache and gambler's stogie—and under the blue rooftop—is the same Richard Petty.