Lee Petty (1914 - 2000) - Three Time NASCAR Grand National Champion
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Lee Petty

Lee Petty
Nascar constructors have been, for many decades, arguably the most successful rule-benders in the world, which is why the sport evolved to a situation where the cars were far from being the standard production cars they were supposed to represent. Although it might have shared the same basic engine, the NASCAR stocker of the 1970s would be capable of reaching speeds of up to 200 mph, and its engine would have been developed to produce close to 600 horsepower.

The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing

In the early days, they were a lot closer to living up to their names - stock cars. The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, to give it its full title, officially came into being in February 1948. Its founder and leading light was Bill France, who later handed over full control of the NASCAR operation to his son, William Junior. It was at one of NASCAR's early races, at Charlotte Raceway on the 19th June 1949, that the name of Lee Petty first went onto a results sheet.

Petty came second that day, and went on to win the NASCAR Grand National Championship three times. By 1975 only one man had beaten that record, and his name was Petty, too. As the influence of NASCAR spread, so those first stock-car drivers - many of whom were reported to have gained their skill while trying to outrun the law in pursuit of their illicit whisky trade - had to travel further and further afield in the search for prize money.

Lee Petty, along with other famous drivers like Fireball Roberts, Curtis Turner, Joe Weatherly and so on, would drive overnight from one meeting to the next, trailing their race cars behind their trucks and having only their wives for company. The sport was strongest by far in the Southem states, and this is where the majority of top drivers have come from over the years.

Daytona Beach

The track that was to become regarded as the home of NASCAR was at Daytona Beach in Florida - first on the beach itself and, from 1959, on a new banked track conveniently located just a little further from the sea. It was Lee Petty who won the very first Daytona 500 race on this new track - it was also here that he had his biggest and most spectacular accident, which led to his retirement. Lee was not a particularly flamboyant driver, not when compared with the likes of Curtis Turner and Fireball Roberts, anyway. He usually won races with skilful and steady driving, although if other drivers ever mistook this for timidity, they usually discovered their mistake the hard way.

His accidents, though, were spectacular. History records that during one race on the old beach circuit at Daytona, his windscreen became so caked with sand that he lost sight of the track completely and drove straight out to sea! Realising his error, he rejoined the race to the astonishment of several other drivers on that part of the track, who were not mentally prepared for the sight of his big blue Dodge returning from the waves at full blast. There was another incredible accident as a result, involving Ralph Moody, who recovered to come third!

Lee's car was always blue, and carried the number 42 which was allocated to him for his entire career. Up until 1957, he always drove a Dodge, but in that year he made the switch to Oldsmobile. 1957 was also the year of what was possibly his most controversial victory. While tussling for the lead with Curtis Turner, it seems he somehow helped Turner's car into the wall. He did not win, but the incident caused a certain amount of acrimony in the Ford camp, as Turner had been driving the only surviving Ford in the race.

The Grand National Championship

1958 was a good year for Lee, though. He won the Grand National Championship for the second time, his race record including nine outright wins for Oldsmobile. He also won the NASCAR short-track championship. In 1958, too, he competed against his son Richard for the very first time. Junior blew his engine, but Pa won the race. 1959 saw Lee take that Grand National title for the third and final time. He had fourteen victories that year, four with his Oldsmobile and ten with a new Plymouth. 1960, though, started badly, when he got beaten by his son, who took third place at Daytona to Lee's fourth!

All in all it was not a particularly successful year for Lee, 1961, though, was worse. In a qualifying race for the Daytona 500, he tangled with another competitor on one of the high-speed banked turns, arid they both went clean over the banking to crash forty feet onto the ground below. Those NASCAR cars were pretty tough even in those days, and Lee got away with injuries restricted to his legs, while the other driver was virtually unhurt. Lee's career was pretty much ended by this incident - he did race a few more times but professed that he did not care for it anymore. So, it was left to Richard to keep the Petty name at the forefront. He had obviously had a good grounding, having attended meetings with his father for many years before getting to race himself.

The Petty Team

Unlike most fathers, Lee had actively encouraged his son to race, and kept that encouragement up even when his son started off his career with a series of impressive crashes. Richard's first recognition came in 1958, when he was dubbed NASCAR 'Rookie of the Year'. 1963 was his first year of real success, though. He did not win the Grand National Championship-Joe Weatherly just snatched it from him at the last race of the season. However, out of nineteen Plymouth victories that year, he won fourteen, and his revenge was to come the following year, when he became Champion for the first time and earned almost $100,000 in prize money. 1965 and 1966 were not so good, although he did win Daytona again the latter year.

1967, however, was probably his best year ever. He won the Championship together with over $130,000 in prize money, and took ten straight victories in a row. He raced forty-eight times, finished forty-one, and won twenty-seven. With sons Richard and Maurice Petty, he founded Petty Enterprises, which became NASCAR's most successful racing team. He was the grandfather of Kyle Petty, and great grandfather of the late Adam Petty who died in a racing accident during a NASCAR Busch Series practice session at New Hampshire International Speedway. His nephew Dale Inman worked for Petty Enterprises as Richard's crew chief from the early 1960s until 1981 and during the 1990s.

In 1971 and 1972 he won the Championship again, much to the delight of the STP Corporation who were his new sponsors after the Chrysler factory had withdrawn their support in 1970. Apparently, the Petty team was a little reluctant to change the color of their car from blue to STP red, but at least they were allowed to continue to use the famous 43 racing number allocated to Richard. The Petty team had long been based at Randleman in North Carolina, and it was here that the Petty workshops were also based. It was a family business with Lee still involved, and so were Richard's brother Maurice and cousin Dale.

Richard himself placed a great deal of importance in the family aspect of the team, and said that it was that which made it all worthwhile for him. It was also interesting to note that Richard just did not want to know about any other forms of motor racing. He was offered Grand Prix drives and Indianapolis cars to race, but he always turned them down with little hesitation. Petty took the Championship again in both 1974 and 1975 but the following year, despite earning over $300,000 in a season for the third time, he scored only three wins, taking the runner-up spot to Cale Yarborough's Chevrolet.

It was his worst ever season in terms of hard results and 1977 was little better, five wins again netting second place to Yarborough. As the famous Dodge was based on a 1974 - model Charger and Grand National rules ban cars more than four years older than the current model, the team had open options for 1978 and a Chevy was on the list of possibilities. In 1977, Richard was forty years old, but he did not race until he was 21 - that was his father's only stipulation about his involvement with the sport. In those nineteen years, he had won over two million dollars all told - probably as much as any other racing driver in the world. He also won over 170 races - a fantastic record.

Richard and Lee Petty are the only father and son team to have done so well in any form of motor sport, writing their names in the racing history books so many times that they are unlikely ever to be surpassed. In 1990, Lee Petty was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. He was inducted in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1996, elected to the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, selected as one of Nascar's 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998 along with his son, Richard Petty and inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on May 23, 2011.
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