With his big cowboy hat and the famous mustache, NASCAR Hall of Fame member Richard Petty is undoubtedly one of the most prominent NASCAR icons. His nickname ‘The King’ truly says it all - over the years, Petty has won seven NASCAR main series titles: three in Grand National and four in Winston Cup series, an achievement matched only by the late Dale Earnhardt. With 200 wins and 123 pole positions, he's still the record holder, but his impact on NASCAR is virtually incalculable and stretches far beyond the tracks.
Young Richard and Lee Petty
Richard Petty was born in a family of established NASCAR drivers
Richard Lee Petty was born on July 2nd, 1937, in a small town called Level Cross in North Carolina. His father Lee Petty was also a NASCAR driver, and it's no wonder that Richard followed his ways. He had his first race in Toronto, Canada, on July 18, 1958, just days after his 21st birthday. In the following year, he was named Rookie of the Year for finishing in Top 10 nine times, with six Top 5 finishes. In 1959, in Lakewood, Georgia, Richard Petty won his first event, beating even his father. But, Lee Petty protested and the victory was awarded to him due to a scoring error.
Richard Petty and his 426 HEMI
First Daytona 500 win and first NASCAR title in 1964
Behind the wheel of a HEMI-powered Plymouth Belvedere, Richard Petty made his big breakthrough in 1964. That year, he won his first Daytona 500 and first Grand National championship title as well. The HEMI engine was so potent that Richard led 184 out of 200 Daytona laps, and in the following year, NASCAR's organizing body issued a ban on the car, which led to Chrysler’s boycott. So, in 1965, Petty was mostly drag racing, which led to an incident when he killed a young boy named Wayne Dye in a crash. That accident remained the darkest moment in his long and glorious career and left a huge impact on Richard.
Petty was unstoppable in his Plymouth Belvedere
Second Daytona 500 win and second Grand National title
In 1966, Richard Petty returned to NASCAR and became the first driver ever to win Daytona 500 twice. In the following year, Petty won the second Grand National Championship title with 27 wins out of 48 events, ten of them in a row. Having dominated the season, Petty earned his regal nickname and his career continued to thrive.
Due to a disagreement with Chrysler executives, Petty spent 1969 in a Ford, but he was won back by the 1970 Plymouth Superbird. The awesome 43 Superbird now resides at The Richard Petty Museum in his hometown Level Cross, North Carolina.
Richard Petty driving the legendary Plymouth Superbird
The famous #43 Plymouth was victorious at Daytona
In 1971, Petty was behind the wheel of a #43 Plymouth Road Runner and became the first driver ever to win Daytona 500 three times. Despite winning his third title, the first in the Winston Cup, and being among the most popular NASCAR drivers, Petty was informed that he will no longer receive funds directly from Chrysler. That decision marked the end of an era of Petty's clean blue cars, but the beginning of a new one.
The Petty Blue paint job was replaced by a blue-orange STP Oil scheme. Richard Petty won his fourth NASCAR championship in 1972. It was the last year of his affiliation with Plymouth, but not with Mopar – halfway into the season, Richard Petty sat behind the wheel of a 1972 Dodge Charger. The following year, he drove a 1973 Charger and in it, he won his fourth Daytona 500, as well as the crisis-induced 1973 Daytona 450 and 1973 Winston Cup championship title.
Six titles in Mopars, one in a Chevy
Petty's first World 600 victory came in 1975, along with his sixth championship title. Unfortunately, in 1978, a new Dodge Magnum just couldn't be handled by the team, which caused Petty to switch to a four-year-old Chevrolet Monte Carlo after 17 races in a Dodge. Initially, the switch produced no results, but in 1979, Petty managed to win his seventh and final NASCAR Winston Cup title behind the wheel of a Chevrolet Monte Carlo.
Richard scoring his 200th and final win at Daytona International Speedway
"The King" had a perfect racing career
In the eighties, Petty's success slowly declined, but The King managed to win at the 1980 and 1981 Daytona 500. The 1981 win was his seventh and final at Daytona International Speedway. His 200th and final NASCAR victory was at the 1984 Firecracker 400, also at Daytona International Speedway. His memorable triumph was celebrated by Ronald Reagan, the first sitting American president to attend a NASCAR race.
Retirement at the end of 1992
After Petty retired at the end of the 1992 season, he continued his strong affiliation with NASCAR. He was a broadcaster and he still co-owns a racing team, Richard Petty Motorsports. The team was originally founded by Richard's father Lee Petty in 1949, and was later renamed to Petty Enterprises. It ran until 2008 and it merged with Gillett Evernham Motorsports in 2009, becoming Richard Petty Motorsports.
Petty Enterprises drivers earned 10 NASCAR titles and a total of 270 race wins. Currently, Richard Petty Motorsports runs two Sprint Cup cars, 43 and 44 with Aric Almirola and Brian Scott as their drivers. On May 23, 2010, Richard was inducted into the first NASCAR Hall of Fame class.
Video : Richard Petty's huge crash at the 1988 Daytona 500 race
NASCAR wouldn't be the same without Richard Petty
Richard Petty shaped NASCAR into a watched and loved national sport, and his iconic #43 Plymouths are among the most famous cars in the history of racing. With all his success in mind, a museum in his hometown is a true pilgrimage site to all NASCAR fans. To this day, Richard Petty is the most accomplished driver in NASCAR's history, but his true impact on the sport is even greater than the numbers may show.