About this time last year they were saying that at 41, Richard Petty was washed up. King Richard Petty who had been driving stock cars for two full decades; who had competed in 774 Grand National races and won 185 of them, 82 more than any other driver; who had won six NASCAR championships, twice as many as any other driver; who started racing beside his father and is now racing beside his son—they were saying he was done and gone. About this time last year the King hadn't won a race in more than 12 months.
They were also saying the Kid had arrived. Darrell Waltrip, the intense young hot shoe the other drivers had nicknamed "Jaws," the maverick with the temerity to speak his mind although speaking out is against the unspoken rules, had backed up his mouth with his foot. Waltrip, then 31, had paid his dues. He had been lusting after the King's crown long enough. After 10 years of racing, Waltrip was still the Kid, but at least they were saying he had arrived. When Waltrip came on the Grand National scene in 1972, it was the King himself who had said that if the young man from Franklin, Tenn. could manage to keep his mouth shut and his nose clean, he just might become the Grand National champion someday. The King would probably not want to be reminded that 1979 was the year he said the Kid might become king.
So what happened in 1979 was that the King and the Kid hooked up in the most dramatic NASCAR title race in history—a race not decided until last Sunday at Ontario, Calif. in the final event of the season. There Petty finished fifth and Waltrip eighth, and so the King was the champion once more—by the minuscule margin of 11 points.
Waltrip had started the year with a hot streak while Petty's bad racing luck continued. But in the last couple of months Petty closed the gap spectacularly. Going into Sunday's Times 500 at Ontario, the score was Waltrip 4,672 points and Petty 4,670. Thus the real race in California would be a winner-take-all battle between Petty and Waltrip. The King would regain the crown he had not worn since 1975, or the Kid would stake his own claim at last.
Despite the pressure, Petty was and is the calmest, most diplomatic and most charming driver on the circuit. Also the best loved, by a mile: nine times stock-car racing fans have voted him NASCAR's most popular driver, including the last five years in a row. There is a Petty Fan Club which has more than 15,000 members. The Pettys hold an annual Fan Club Convention at their backyard shop in Level Cross, N.C. One year, more than 30,000 men, women and children showed up to spend the day jes' hangin' 'round. A guided tour of the facilities led to a receiving line on the Petty porch, with Richard himself shaking all those hands and smiling from morning to evening. He further endeared himself by saying things like, "I don't ever try to be nothin' I'm not. You don't ever want to get above your raisin's, you know."
The faithful also got to see a dynasty, with father Lee (the first three-time NASCAR champion) and son Kyle, who at 20 has five Grand National races under his belt, in attendance. And they bought a whole bunch of Petty racing doodads from the souvenir shop on the premises. Richard Petty is probably the most popular figure in the South today, which both Ronald Reagan and John Connally, Republicans like Richard (a county commissioner in his own right), know full well. They pay him court.
Unlike Petty, Waltrip keeps close company with controversy. No driver on the circuit is unhappier when he loses, though Cale Yarborough, champion the last three years, might argue with that. While Petty has no trouble sleeping nine hours the night before a race, Waltrip gets so excited he lies awake for hours. Respected by his fellow drivers on the track, Waltrip doesn't mix with them off it. "I don't want to go out to dinner with another driver," he says. "What are we going to talk about? Racing? I don't want to hear about his problems, and he doesn't want to hear about mine."
Waltrip has done a lot of time in the NASCAR doghouse for various malfeasances. "The racing's kind of simple," he says. "The hard part is the politics and the other things you have to learn." The politics and the other things come natural to Petty; Waltrip has been reluctant to learn them, and he has paid for his defiance. In fact, having received two black flags and been knocked into the wall in the three Grand National races leading up to Ontario, Waltrip believes he might be paying for his defiance still.
This year Petty has been driving more aggressively than he has for years. Waltrip has been driving more maturely. "Darrell's getting smarter and smarter," says his crew chief, Buddy Parrott. "The older he gets, the smarter he gets."
The respective changes have made both drivers faster and the racing more exciting. The week before the showdown in Ontario, Gene Granger, who has been reporting stock-car racing as long as Petty has been driving, said, "I've never seen Richard race this hard. When he won at Dover [Del.] in September"—one of the most notoriously demanding races on the schedule—"he ran 500 laps hard; Donnie Allison and Cale were on his tail all day. Richard beat Allison by half a car length. He has been driving like that all season. He has taken more chances; he has never been more daring. He has just flat been amazing. This could be the most satisfying championship of his career, and he can smell it."
Waltrip agreed. "Richard has been right in the thick of every race we've had lately," he said. "He hasn't been laying back. He has been bumping and banging and spinning out, doing everything. And he has been getting away with it."
That's not all Petty was getting away with. By exercising the charm that makes him so popular, Petty had orchestrated a masterful psych. He had directed the pressure squarely onto Waltrip's shoulders. Here was Petty, who had to have 40% of his ulcerous stomach removed after last season, who had not been on top for four long years, who had to listen to people saying he had lost it, who was nearing his last chance to prove otherwise and knew it—telling people the pressure was all on Waltrip, and getting away with it. Petty would hold court for reporters, from the rear fender of his STP-sponsored Monte Carlo, his eyes hidden behind his trademark wraparound black sunglasses, a thin cigar in his hand. He would gesture with the cigar, pointing to an imaginary ladder rung above his head, and say, "I'm already here, I can't get nowhere else." And he would say, "Pressure? I don't know how to spell the word." And when the reporters were gone he would take a hit of stomach medicine from a little plastic bottle.
It was not all that difficult for Petty to psych Waltrip, because people were so ready to believe Waltrip was ripe for choking.
He was relatively young and high-strung, had a reputation for being temperamental and had never been in the running for the NASCAR championship. And in the 10 races before Ontario, through assorted troubles, convenient to attribute to buckling under pressure, Waltrip had finished poorly five times. Waltrip wasn't buying the pressure story, and he was ticked off about the implications.
"I feel like I'm in one of those movies where the guy inherits a million dollars and all his relatives try to get him committed to the crazy house by constantly telling him he's crazy," he said recently. "Pretty soon he starts believing it. You wouldn't believe"—Waltrip almost shouted—"how much of that I've heard in the last few weeks. When Richard started gaining on me, all of a sudden everybody was saying, 'Well, Darrell's cracking up, don't bother him, he has gone crazy, leave him alone, he's under pressure.' People have come up to me and put their arm around my shoulder and looked at me with real concern in their faces and said, 'You all right?' I'd like to haul off and deck them when they do that.
"Richard's using good tactics. They all believe everything Richard says because he's the King. They don't bother him about his feeling any 'p-p-p-pressure'—see, I can't even get the word out. Here I am the Kid; I need all the help I can get, and they come over and worry me about pressure." Waltrip shook his head, a what-can-ya-do smile on his lips.
An inordinate amount of attention was being paid to the drivers anyway, for much of the credit for any NASCAR championship belongs to the winner's crew. "What it is now has gotten beyond me and Darrell," said Petty last week. "It's got down to the best equipment and the best luck."
Richard's brother Maurice and his cousin Dale Inman have been his crew for as long as he has been racing; they, too, were six-time national champions. Maurice builds the engines and Dale sets up the chassis. The electric-blue and fluorescent-red No. 43 is usually the most immaculate car at any race. Where other cars show pockmarks in the nose from slashing through the air at 200 mph, 43 gets fresh paint most weeks, in addition to treatment for more serious battle scars.
Under the hood, little parts like hose clamps seem to be replaced whenever they get scratched. The engine looks as if it couldn't possibly be lubricated by something as greasy as oil. Other cars may show tiny gaps, such as where, say, a bumper attaches to the fender, but the joints on 43 fit tightly and the seams can't be seen. When the King's car rolls off the truck it looks like a show car.
Inman is like a beautiful woman fishing for compliments. When he's told, as he often is, that his car is prettier than the others, he acts as if he's never heard it before. He smiles and replies, "Is that so?" inviting further flattery.
Maurice Petty (he pronounces it "Morris," but most people call him Chief) usually wears a mellow half-smile, plus a big brown beard and a tweed cap. He looks like a prosperous chef, and, in a way, he is. His kitchen is—literally—the engine compartment of Richard's race car, where he usually works sitting in an empty front wheel well, using the wheel spindle as a seat; the 500-hp engine before him might be a Thanksgiving turkey on a table. He wields a screwdriver and wrench like a knife and fork. A cylinder head is lifted off like a slice of white meat, a piston and connecting rod are disjointed like a drumstick.
Said Petty, "Our team has a lot more depth than Waltrip's, but sometimes that ain't enough. If you compare talents, we'd be a shoo-in, but it don't always work that way."
Waltrip's crew lacks the laurels and experience and family ties of Petty's, but it has proved itself among the best by its determination. All season long, in order to keep Waltrip in races and in the point lead, it did things a little out of the ordinary in NASCAR racing. It changed engines in midrace no fewer than four times, most recently in the Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville, Va., where it replaced a blown engine with a fresh one in 11 minutes and 26 seconds. The extra effort enabled Waltrip to finish that race in 11th position and earn 135 points. At Dover Waltrip blew a tire and hit the wall; his Monte Carlo was smashed so badly it took two wreckers, one hooked to each side of the car, to yank the chassis back into shape. Waltrip finished that race, too.
Waltrip and Parrott kept their cool. "I've sorted through the bad help and prima donnas," Waltrip says. "I've got a very stable bunch of guys now.
"Listen, I'm the leader of our team, and when there's a mistake made, I made it. However I want that race car prepared is how we do it, so if something goes wrong, 99% of the time it's my fault."
"I wasn't on the team the years he was so bad and so mean," says Parrott, "but I understand him. He demands perfection, which is fine with us. If something goes wrong, he's right in there hustling with us to fix it. There's not a driver in this garage I'd rather work for than Darrell Waltrip."
To further refute his reputation for being impossible to wrench for, two of Waltrip's former crew chiefs, Jake Elder and David Ifft, also speak highly of him. But, as Ifft said a few days before Ontario, "It's like if me and two other guys was gonna go over behind them garages and have a brawl, and we was fightin' three brothers, who do you think would win? You can't beat a family."
Not the Petty family last Sunday, anyway. Richard's strategy was to try to win at Ontario and forget Waltrip even existed. It turned out to be not very difficult for him to forget his rival, and easy for the fans, as well. Petty took off charging, driving the high groove like the King they knew so well, so close to the wall his Chevy smacked it two or three times. Meanwhile, Waltrip, in avoiding one kind of trouble—a car spinning ahead of him—ran into another kind. After flat-spotting his tires in dodging the other car, he pitted for fresh rubber and thus lost a lap that he was never able to regain. Later, Waltrip's crew contended they lost the lap because the pace car had held the Kid up. NASCAR officials contended that the alleged lost time was just a mental error. Said Director of Competition Bill Gazaway, "They weren't paying attention to where the leader was at all." However, showing class and good sportsmanship, Waltrip's crew didn't lodge an official protest; they conceded that Petty was faster on this day.
With 10 laps left, the King was on the rear bumper of the leader, Yarborough. Three other drivers were close behind 43—Bobby Allison, Benny Parsons and Buddy Baker. After a frantic final 25 miles, it was Parsons the winner by .42 second over Allison. Petty was at the end of the row in fifth place, only .78 second behind Parsons. Waltrip finished eighth. "It was the kind of deal where, when they throwed the green flag, I run just as hard as I could all day," said Petty. That was enough to edge out Waltrip, 4,830 points to 4,819, for his seventh—and most satisfying—championship.
Past, present and future in NASCAR: Lee Petty (left), the old champ, King Richard, son Kyle.
Waltrip seemed a good bet to take the championship in his white-and-green Chevy until Petty closed to within two points of him at Atlanta, the season's next-to-last race, then surged in front at Ontario.