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ROYAL FAMILY RACING HAS BEEN GOOD TO MAN WHO WOULD BE KING

ROYAL FAMILY RACING HAS BEEN GOOD TO MAN WHO WOULD BE KING

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Petty's car seemed to bobble as it came out of the fourth turn. A blown tire, maybe? A sway bar? He didn't have time to think about what was going wrong. But something was about to happen. That much he was sure of.

Richard Petty began racing stock cars in 1958, when Dwight D. Eisenhower was still president. The Beatles were still several years away from invading America. Elvis was begining his own reign. John Kennedy was 41 years old. James Dean had been dead for three years.Richard Lee Petty was 21 years old.

Richard's father, Lee Petty, was already a household name in the Southeast. He had made that name in racing. His son wanted to race, too. But the father had said 'no' for several years. ``Not until you're 21,' he said.

On July 2, 1958, Richard Petty turned 21. Ten days later, he was racing. His first race was a convertible event in Columbia, S.C. He finished fifth. It was an auspicious beginning.

``It was all I ever wanted to do,' Petty said of his start in racing. ``I never really thought about doing anything else.'

Thirty-two years later, he is still behind the wheel. The years have been good to him. He is, without a doubt, the most celebrated stock car race driver of all time and is often referred to simply as, ``The King.'

He has set NASCAR and Winston Cup circuit records that probably never will be matched: 200 career wins. More than 1,100 starts. 127 pole positions. Most wins in a season (27). Most consecutive wins (10). Most Daytona 500 wins (seven). Most annual driving championships (seven). Most superspeedway wins (55). Most short track wins (145). The records are countless. And they are, experts agree, practically untouchable.

The car suddenly lurched right. Hard. At about 200 mph, Petty suddenly found himself headed toward the wall at Daytona International Speedway. It was a short ride. Petty's red and blue Pontiac hit the wall almost head-on, immediately throwing pieces of the car into the air. Petty, strapped tightly into his seat, just closed his eyes.

Automobile racing was born on the dusty backroads of the South. Friday and Saturday nights, young boys in their fathers' cars would meet at a certain place at a certain time. In a blur of headlights - and sometimes police lights - the sport was developed.

But it grew up on Southern race tracks. Tight raceways in out-of-the-way places like Martinsville, Va., and Camden, S.C. Dirt tracks were dotted across the South, having replaced old plank-board tracks. There was even a one-mile track in Darlington, S.C., and there were rumors, in 1958, that someone was building a 2.5-mile track in Daytona Beach, Fla., a track the size of the storied Indianapolis Speedway. Only this one had banked turns.

Drivers would be able to travel 150 mph without applying the brakes. It was a frightening thought. Auto racing in the South was about to mature. Everything was in place. All it needed to be accepted by the multitudes was a draw. A driver.

He was there already. In the next decade, Richard Petty raised stock-car racing to a higher plane.

Milliseconds after the impact, Petty's car went airborne. It flipped in midair without touching the ground, still traveling some 150 mph. Looks of horror filled the grandstands. The King was flipping wildly down the frontstretch of Daytona International Speedway. The car flipped seven more times before it came to a halt in the middle of the track. As the car settled, time seemed to stand still. The sport had come to a halt.

Stock car racing is one of the fastest-growing sports in the U.S. today. The Winston Cup schedule stretches from February to late November. For 31 weekends, the most competitive stock car tour in the world, makes its stops at tracks across the country. There is little doubt as to the source of its popular appeal. It hinges on the drivers who compete each week. Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Bill Elliott ... and Richard Petty.

Thirty-two years after beginning his career, Petty is still a central figure in the sport. His records alone have branded him the best stock car driver ever. But it is more than that. Petty has not won a race since 1984 but his is still the No. 1 name in NASCAR racing. It is the foremost name in the history of the sport. To most people, he is racing.

Now racing in his fourth decade, Petty is certainly considering his retirement as a driver but he's still not ready to say when he plans to give it up.

``When it gets to the point that it's not any fun anymore, I'll quit,' he said. ``Until that time comes, I'll keep on racing. I have no idea when that will be. It could be in a race car one day or it could be standing in a line at the grocery store. But I'll know it.'

For now, he is having too much fun to quit. Racing has reached an all-time peak in popularity. Virtually every stop on the circuit is sold out. There are new and bigger markets. Tracks are being built across the nation, some with hopes of landing one of the Winston Cup races that can pay for a track in a short time.

Money, which was once hard to come by unless your name was Richard Petty, is suddenly everywhere. Corporate sponsors have flocked to the sport, pouring millions of dollars into the industry. Fortune 500 companies are there. The most powerful companies in the United States go racing every weekend. Exxon, General Motors, Proctor and Gamble. U.S. Tobacco. RJR-Nabisco. Auto racing has reached the big time.

Although there were still 40 cars circling the track, there was an eerie silence. As Petty's red and blue No. 43 sat helplessly in the middle of the racing groove, more than 100,000 people saw what was about to happen. Another car, with nowhere to go and with no time to stop, was about to slam into Petty's stalled car. The collision sent pieces of the two cars flying 100 feet into the air. Petty's car spun around three times, throwing parts 100 yards down the track.

The growth of the sport has outdistanced Richard Petty. Whereas it once depended on him, it now can prosper without him. His retirement would hurt racing, no doubt, but racing would recover. That might not have been true 20 years ago. In 1970, Petty was all much of the nation knew about stock-car racing. The tall, lanky man from Level Cross with the thick North Carolina drawl was all they needed to know. His wins made national news, particularly in 1967, when he lifted the sport to another level, winning 27 times and becoming NASCAR's all-time leading winner. Ironically, the person whose record he passed was his dad, Lee.

Petty's picture appeared on the covers of national magazines in a era when stock car drivers remained anonymous outside the South. He made national television appearances before racing was a televised sport.

In the late '60s, Petty was largely responsible for keeping the Chrysler Corporation's Plymouth division afloat. The company even adopted Petty blue as its official company color. It has not changed in 25 years.

In the '70s, Southern auto racing received a boost from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., the Winston-Salem-based corporation which decided to back the sport as a sponsor. Suddenly there was money and national exposure. It was Petty who became the sport's point man, winning the nationally televised Daytona 500 in 1971, '73, '74, '79, and '81. He was named the Martini & Rossi American Driver of the Year in 1971, an award previously reserved for Indianapolis winners and Formula One champions. NASCAR drivers captured it the next two years.

In 1979, the Daytona 500 became the first 500-mile race ever covered in its entirety on national television. Petty won. In 1984, President Reagan attended the Firecracker 400 in Daytona, the first time a U.S. president ever had witnessed a live NASCAR event. Petty won.

Even now, six years after that, his last win, he is the lifeblood of the sport. He is stock car racing's traveling wise man and public relations director. Everywhere he goes, people want to know what he thinks. The biggest question they ask now is, ``When will you retire?'

He tires of the question.

``Not today,' he'll say smiling. ``Maybe tomorrow. Check back with me. Know what I mean?'

The impact of being hit by another car seemed worse than the initial crash. Petty's car seemed to explode when it was hit. The force of the crash could be felt across the grandstand and in the garage area. In the press box, a low moan swept across the desks. Then silence. Dead silence. For seconds, not a word was spoken. For those few seconds - that seemed like hours - the sport's very balance seemed tilted. The greatest stock car racer of all time wasn't moving inside the car, a national sportscaster told us. He suggested that Petty was dead.

Petty's career cannot be equaled. But it is not the records he will think about when he hangs up his helmet for the last time.

``I've said for a long time that the records never did mean a thing to me,' Petty said. ``I'd like to think we brought something to racing. We sort of got involved over the years in improving safety features, making conditions better for the drivers, helping stock car racing to be recognized as a major-league sport.'

He has accomplished all those goals.

Petty was moving around. His first reaction after the car came to a stop was to reach to his helmet and pull out his radio ear plug. It wasn't working. He took the plug and flipped it under a pile of sheet metal that was once the interior of his race car. His crew chief, Dale Inman, said, ``We didn't find that ear plug for three days.'

Petty was pulled from the wreckage to cheers from the crowd. He gave the people a half-wave before the rescue workers put him in an ambulance.

Petty turned 53 last July. It was a birthday that he celebrated, like most of the others, at Daytona. It was a time to honor the sport's biggest hero. The man called King Richard. But other than the party, to which 100,000 people are unofficially invited, it is always just business as usual for Petty and his team.

Thirty-two years after he began, Petty is still a race car driver. All the other titles thrust upon him he tolerates.

Three days after the crash at Daytona, Petty was back in a race car. Seven days later, he was in a race. He finished third.

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