Compared with most other major pro sports, stock car racing is
still a kid. When NASCAR got started in 1949, baseball was
already the national pastime, and football was on the verge of
its breakout years. But those of us in North Carolina didn't
have any nearby major league or NFL teams to root for--the
closest franchises were in Washington, D.C. NASCAR was founded
and flourished in the South because racing was part of the
culture and because there was no pro sport around to rival it.
¬∂ Where I grew up, in Level Cross, a town of 3,000 near the
center of the state, automobiles were rare in the years after
World War II. A car--especially a new one--was a status symbol.
Having a faster car than the guy next door gave you even more
status. Having a car you could race 100 mph on one of North
Carolina's dirt tracks, well, that was like a dream come true.
The feeling of driving a race car is hard to describe, but once
you're hooked, it's a lifelong addiction.
I was drawn into the sport by my father, Lee, who was one of the
original NASCAR racers and who won 54 races over his career. In
1949, when I was 12, I began taking engines apart and rebuilding
them with my dad and my 10-year-old brother, Maurice, in our
garage. We lived in a farming area, but our family business was
stock car racing. In 1951 I started traveling the NASCAR circuit
as my dad's crew chief, even though I was just 14.
Only a few thousand fans came to the races at first, but the
crowds gradually picked up. In 1950 the first superspeedway
opened, in Darlington, S.C., and folks from both Carolinas
flocked there for the first Southern 500 that Labor Day. Soon
after, the beach races in Daytona became a big draw. Speedways
were built in Charlotte and Atlanta, and with each new venue,
more spectators started filling the stands. When those fans would
go home, they would talk about what they saw, spreading the love
I started competing in NASCAR in 1958, driving cars that I worked
on with Maurice and my cousin Dale Inman. Daddy taught us what we
needed to know, and we figured out the rest. I was named Rookie
of the Year in '59 and won the first of my seven driving titles
in '64. But nobody in my hometown ever treated me like a
celebrity. I was in racing to feed my family. Winning was
preferable because it paid more than losing.
Even though NASCAR was founded in Daytona and is still based
there, North Carolina has always been at the heart of the sport.
The first Grand National (now Nextel Cup) race was held at the
Charlotte Fairgrounds in 1949. The state has produced not only
four generations of racing Pettys but also the Earnhardts and the
Jarretts and other top racers. Today the vast majority of Nextel
Cup drivers live in the Charlotte area.
Charlotte is where I got my first victory, in 1960, in a 200-lap
race on the half-mile dirt track at the Fairgrounds. The crowd
was less than 8,000. When I got my 200th and final career win 24
years later, in the Firecracker 400 at Daytona (I beat Cale
Yarborough by less than a foot), more than 80,000 fans were on
hand. Those attendance figures tell you how much our sport has
We never thought much about corporate sponsors back in the
dirt-track days, but nowadays you can't walk into a grocery store
without seeing a product linked to NASCAR. Having my picture on a
box of Cheerios or my son's name (Kyle) on a package of Brawny
paper towels helps grow the sport even further. Folks might pick
up a box of Cheerios and have no clue who Richard Petty is, but
they'll probably figure he has to be something special if
Cheerios has him on the box!
When you consider where stock car racing was 50 years ago, it's
amazing how far the sport has come. Who knows? In another half
century NASCAR might have spread from the hills of North Carolina
to the entire globe.
A seven-time Daytona 500 champion and the alltime leader in
NASCAR victories, Richard Petty lives in Level Cross.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JOE CIARDIELLO