A thoroughly uptown scene. Stock-car racing's hot dogs were mingling on the south lawn of the White House on a gentle September night, the grease scraped out from under their fingernails and scrubbed from their hands with generous applications of Go-Jo.
These speed fiends had come to Washington, dressed in their best suits and neckties and tooled cowboy boots, with their wives and their pit crews and their pig sponsors and the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing brass.
Though Richard Petty, hottest of the hot dogs, has never made a secret of his dislike for Jimmy Carter-even calls him "the peanut" in public-he is not one to turn down an invitation from the president of the United States.
So on this September night Richard Petty and his wife Lynda and his father Lee and his mother Leiza were there on the south lawn. Ironically, Jimmy Carter was not. He was holed up at Camp David with Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, and the task of making apologies to the 300 guests fell to the First Lady.
"It would take something of the utmost importance to keep Jimmy away from this," Rosalynn said. "He was looking forward to this for so long, and you know how much Jimmy admires each of you."
Especially South Carolinian Cale Yarborough, who was in the process of winning an unprecedented third straight NASCAR Grand National title last fall and had been an avid supporter of Carter in 1976.
"We've been race fans for so long," Rosalynn going to dirt-track races with Jimmy back in the late '40s. If had been possible at all, he would have been here tonight."
Undaunted, the guests sat down to a dinner of roast beef, southern baked ham, potato salad, cole slaw, mixed bean salad, Jalapeno cornbread, carrot cake and strawberry shortcake-a far cry from the "gut grenades" they sometimes ingest at the racetracks.
Just as the group was seated, a roar loud enough to make the baked ham squeal came from the far corner of the lawn: Bobby Allison's Thunderbird, Benny Parsons' Chevrolet, David Pearson's Mercury and Cale Yarborough's Oldsmobile had been kicked to life. And as the guests sat down to eat, the cars thundered slowly around the driveway, stopping at the entrance to the White House.
Petty had been asked to bring his red-and-blue STP Chevrolet, but it was being groomed for an upcoming race.
Willie Nelson, dressed in bluejeans and I-shirt, sang such favorites as "Whiskey River" and "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother."
Petty was enjoying himself. His delight was, no doubt, enhanced by the eats, by the familiar faces around him, by the phosphorescent flood-lighted White House and by the musical sounds of Willie Nelson and those mufflerless, brain-numbing V-8s. But none of it could erase the deeper differences between Jimmy Carter the politician and Richard Petty the political candidate. New South and Old south. Two men of similar geography-Plains, Ga. and Level Cross, N.C.-who took different roads ideologically.
One left home because he believed the things that matter happen in important. New South places like Atlanta and in glittering otherworldly places like Washington. The other stayed where he had been born and heard his first engines and where he will always stay, a place he wants to preserve from the interstate highways and shopping malls and labor unions and massage parlors.
Petty has no use for those Yankee notions of success and prosperity that are spreading like a virus all over a booming arc from Houston to Washington.
Richard Petty was driving. The other three political candidates were riding comforatbly in the high-backed seats of his custom Good Times van, which has No. 43, the number of Richard's race cars, painted on the hood.
When he guided the van up the long driveway in Cedar Grove, out in the lilting western part of Randolph County, N.C., growling dogs converged from several directions.
"That's mean there," said Thurman Hogan, like Petty a Republican county commissioner candidate, who looks more than a little like Jack Nicklaus and chews Red Man tobacco. A knot of it was packed between his upper teeth and his cheek.
"Democratic dogs," agreed Petty.
A few nights earlier, at a campaign rally featuring the customary fare of barbecued pork, cole slaw and political speeches, Petty had confided to some friends that the dogs on the campaign trial had been the most terrifying obstacles of all. At one house, he said, there were 14 dogs waiting as he stepped down from the van. Fourteen dogs! That house never did get visited by these Republican candidates. But the dogs in Cedar Grove retreated meekly when the doors of the van swung open.
"Elaine!" the mother hollered back into the house. "Here he is!"
The inevitable, the anointed, the visit from Petty. The mother apologized for the flu in the house and her children pressed close to the screen door.
Harold Brubaker, the incumbent state representative, introduced Petty first with his booming delivery: "That's all-right about the flu. We understand. We just wanted to stop by and say hellooooooo. I'd like you to meet Richard Petty . . ."
Brubaker introduced Thurman Hogan and Kenyon Davidson, another Republican county commissioner candidate, and motioned to Petty for three cards. On the cards, in the background, is the brimming grandstand at Daytona Speedway; on the infield grass, the red-and-blue STP Dodge Magnum; on one knee beside the car, Richard Petty with the big piano-key smile, white driver's suit, black curls boiling all over his head, black wraparound sunglasses. He finished the first autograph and handed it to Brubaker.
"We need three, Richard," Brubaker said urgently. But Petty took his time with his signature, a big flowery configuration, in blue ballpoint ink in the sky above the grandstands at Daytona, always punctuating the autograph with "No. 43." He finished two more cards. Hasty farewells, and the candidates were back on the road.
Like Petty's hometown, Level Cross, the name of Cedar Grove designates an indefinite place. Just a volunteer fire department, no local government to speak of, a homey country place where everyone used to know everyone else by name . Home to families for many generations. A place that somehow seems frozen in time, but thawing. A part of the South that is being squeezed by shopping malls and parking lots and somebody else's idea of prosperity. It's a vanishing part of the South that Petty has decided to save.
The old virtues. "I used to be not that interested in politics," Petty told a reporter during the 1978 North Carolina spring primary. "But I see things in this little old community that I didn't see five or 10 years ago." In the past, he said, "There were 100 people and everybody was kin. I used to know everybody in this whole end of the county. Now I got neighbors I don't even know."
As he drove, one of the fellows asked him about his ring, and Petty, a man of as few words as possible, wiggled the ring off his finger and handed it over. It was made by Josten's, the Mainnesota company that is among the world's largest makers of school rings. In the center is an enormous blue stone, which is awarded for five years of service to STP, the company with the large decals on the rear quarter-panels and hoods of Petty's cars, the company that pays him whopping sums to drive with their decals and wear their decals and be synonymous with their decals. Surrounding the big blue stone is a halo of 10 diamonds-real diamonds-one for each additional year of service to STP. For 15 years Petty and STP have prospered room until he hit the ignition and all those oversized pistons and cams and headers come blapping to life.
The house has a hugh front lawn which Lee, who has developed an almost daily habit of golf, keeps impeccable with a sit-down mower so he can hit golf balls. It's a full nine iron from the road to the front porch. By the time Lee's familiar No. 42 sailed through the wall at Daytona in 1961-a wreck that mashed a leg an punctured a lung and eventually ended his career-Richard had already spent three years chasing his father's records, building bigger and faster cars as the little garage gave way to a compound of blue prefab garages and offices and machine shops and paint rooms-Petty Enterprises, Inc., 30 or so full-time employes.
Back at the Community Center, the man with the microphone was letting the bearers of gifts make their own presentations. Nervously a fellow with a flat New Hampshire twang started talking, and heads craned closer at the sound of this odd voice. Obviously no seasoned public speaker, he wanted Petty to know he wouldn't have to eat his pancakes dry this winter. The New Hampshire chapter of the fan club wanted Richard to have a one-gallon can of pure New Hampshire maple syrup. Again the applauses, delighted at the regional flavor of the gift, began down in the bottom rows and rippled upward.
The time had come to raffle off prizes, so women in STP hats took over the microphone and Petty melted into the crowd over beside the parked vans where his only son, Kyle, dressed in cowboy boots and blue-jeans like his father, was munching an apple and talking to some of his old friends from Randleman High School.
Fans wanted Kyle to post for pictures and sign their hardcover books, too. After all, Kyle was fresh out of high school and had passed up several offers to play college football so he could start racing next year. No. 44?
The fans even wanted pictures of Richard's youngest daughter, 4-year-old Rebecca. She, too, obliged gladly. After all the she and her two sisters, high school freshman Lisa and high school senior Sharon, have spent all their lives in the warm glow of celebrity. It's as natural as breathing.
One topic in the front of these fan clubbers' minds was Richard's new car. As ironic, as baffling, as sacrilegious, as the sudden ascendance of the South itself was the news that Richard Petty was following the crowd and going over to Chevrolet. But in stock-car racing, as in the rest of the land, personalities have replaced products. As one fan put it: "We'd still support Richard if he started driving a tractor."
Then Petty started talking about Guilford County, the county just north, a place many native Randolph Countians see as an octopus of menacing growth that could send its tentacles down here-Level Cross would be one of the first places to go-if somebody doesn't do something about it. The threat was real enough for Richard Petty, the 41-year-old icon who doesn't drink, who goes to the Mount Lebanon Methodist Church (on the Sundays he's not at a racetrack), who is worth several million dollars, who has adoring fans in the Carolinas, California and Canada, to go out and file as a Republican candidate for one of the three vacant seats on the board of commissioners.
Alan Pugh, a boyish-looking lawyer in Asheboro who took over recently as chairman of the county GOP, remembered the day when Richard Petty called him to say he wanted to run for office. Pugh, aware that Richard Petty is a household word in certain kinds of houses, aware too of his glazed image among folks in his home together. The ring, which has heft, does not look too large on Petty's finger.
"Pull over," said Brubaker. "My wife's back with the groceries."
Petty obeyed, pulled the van onto the driveway of the Brubakers' new ranch house. The home, at the edge of a housing development, has trees in the yard and plenty of grass to mow. Harold's wife, Geraldine, came out carrying a white poodle, and she stuck it practically onto the console with Petty's tapes-"Top Hits of the Fabulous' 60s" . . . 'Pop Hits Easy Listening" . . . "Gentle on My Mind" . . . Jimmy Buffet . . . country & western "Various Artists."
"They must be the dumbest dog I've ever seen in my life." Petty said. Geraldine giggled, and Thurman and Kenyon chortled from the back seats. "I mean I hate to say that," Petty said. "But they are slow."
He sounds so sweet even when he's insulting a state representative's wife's dog. It's a quality that led Hogan to remark a few nights earlier: "Richard Petty's the most refreshing thing to come along in politics in a long time-because of his innocence."
When he made that remark, Hogan was standing in the lobby outside the cafeteria at Trindale School, which got its bybrid name from the two nearest towns, Trinity and Archdale, in the northwest corner of Randolph County. Thurman, an executive with the Federal Paper Board Company, was wearing glossy shoes and a fine double-knit suit, but he wasn't chewing tobacco because there wasn't anyplace in the lobby to spit. He could see Richard Petty in the cafeteria, seated over by the big fireproof curtains at one of the formica tables. Richard was rubbing the STP ring. He stared at the orange stain on his paper plate where the mound of barbecued pork used to be and at the crumpled paper napkin. Bob Mason, the Republican candidate for sheriff, was telling the crowd that they lived in the "meanest part of the county." Break-ins are the big problem. What we need is a 24-hour dispatcher system, he said. And as for the gamblers and bootleggers: "They're getting too powerful all over the county."
Bootleggers! Richard's daddy, Lee, is said to have run more than a few loads of corn liquor up from the stills around Level Cross to the outlets in Greensboro and High Point . . . souped-up cars, drivers who could get by without headlights, improvising their way over little dirt paths through pastures and thickets and cornfields while the police car, headlights ablaze, flashed past out on the paved road.
Bootleggers, the outlaws who make stock car racing possible, made it possible for Petty to follow his father into the cockpit of a souped-up car-not to run liquor, but to take part in the growing postwar circuit of races sponsored by NASCAR, the people who were bringing stock-car racing out of its Saturday night edge-of-town drinking and brawling stink and giving it a patina of respectability. In time, despite the howling of some preachers, it even became acceptable Sunday afternoon entertainment in the South.
Then, after the faithful had applauded Bob Mason, Petty shuffled up to the podium and dipped his head slightly to make sure his words went into the big silver Shure microphone. As in earlier campaign appearances, he stressed the metaphors of racing: "It takes a lot of teamwork in government, just like in racing. And we haven't had teamwork in a long time in this county." The sheriff and four of the five county commissioners are Democrats. "It's the kind of a deal where it's time for a change."
Despite his awkwardness in front of large crowds, which years of celebrity have not eased, Petty was having an easy time in his first political campaign, not because of what he was promising to do but because of what he is-a country boy just like these folks from Archdale and Trinity, a boy who grew up in Randolph County and couldn't imagine living anywhere else and who woke up one day and realized it is all in danger. Cities, those vile New South sinkholes, were squeezing closer.
At the podium Petty was working toward the bombshell. The racing metaphors kept coming and the crowd in the cafeteria sensed it. Everyone in the room knew that Petty hadn't won a race since Daytona, July 4, 1977, and they wanted to see if he'd dodge the losing streak, the longest and most frustrating a Petty had ever undergone since Lee started racing in the 1940s.
"I hope you'll get out and talk it up and vote," he said, nearing the end. Everyone poised. "And then maybe I'll win at least one race this year."
Brubaker signaled for Petty to turn the Good Times van into one last driveway. It was marked by a white mailbox with the word Thornburg. Reese Thornburg, an old man, came slowly out of the garage when the candidates climbed out of the van. He immediately walked up to Petty and, blinking his eyes as though the autumn light were too brights, held out his hand and sid, "I've seen you, but never up this close."
Thornburg insisted that the men come into the house. And because Brubaker knows the Thornburgs-knows a little about their daughter Patsy Jo who married a Persian and mansion in Iran before the marriage crumbled ("Nothin' over there 'cept sand and oil," Hogan had said as the candidates were driving toward the house)-they obliged and stepped into the house. That, Brubaker knew, is how you win votes.
Ollie Thornburg, Reese's wife, was wearing a bathrobe, and her hair was up in curlers and wrapped in a yellow cloth. The candidates split into two groups, one staying with Reese in the back bedroom the other moving with Ollie into the kitchen. It was full of Ollie's cooking smells and the evening news on the TV.
"You're all good-looking men," she said, "but Richard Petty-you're out of this world."
He smiled, smoked the cigar, smiled.
"I told him," Reese said proudly, "that I've seen him before, but never up this close."
Then, after Petty had signed cards for the grandchildren, the candidates started edging toward the back door. "Even if you don't drive a Plymouth anymore," said Reese, "I still like you."
Petty took the cigar from his mouth. He smiled.
As he backed the van around, he said he prefers this kind of campaigning to the door-to-door stuff in towns like Asheboro. "In the city," he said, "it's all business."
The Fan Club
The platter of grass beside the Level-Cross Community center was covered with cars. Cars with license plates that read: Pennsylvania ... Tennessee..."Jesus Saves" ... Indiana ... Georgia ... Richard Petty...New York...Delaware...North Carolina.
And the folks jamming the ballfield bleachers were wearing red-or blue-vinyl windbreakers and scarves and sweaters. Richard Petty, the object of all this, was standing in front of the bleachers now.
An oooh and some aaahs as the man with the microphone standing next to Petty declared that these two ladies from Alabama had spent two years weaving this quilt for Richard and his wife Lynda. The ooohs gave way to rippling applause that started at the bottom of the bleachers and climbed to the top until everyone was clapping and the two women who made the quilt came shyly out of the crowd and walked toward Petty so they could plant little cheeks while Hugh Carigg, the man who runs the 15,000 member Richard Petty Fan Club out of Raleigh, N.C., crouched on one knee and snap-snap-snap captured the moment on film.
Then more gifts from fan clubbers who had driven days to be out on the grass behind the little brown brick Level Cross Community Center, the only vaguely monumental landmark in all of Level Cross.
They are gathered less than a mile from where Lee Petty built his first race cars and the big white house where Richard Petty grew up, waiting until he was 21 to try his hand at the wheel of one of those machines that looked like something inside the Plymouth show-county, had trouble breathing. Richard Petty on the Republican ticket!
Petty would be feathers for young Pugh's cap as he worked his first election and tried to engineer a comeback for the struggling GOP in a solidly Democratic state, a GOP that had been asphyxiated in 1974 by Richard Nixon's exhaust.
It would also be a chance for people like Pugh and Petty to see that Randolph County remain something of an oddity, abystander holding its nose as central North Carolina rushes to become part of the New South.
Another North Carolinian who shares their views on this (but possibly no other) subject is Tom Wicker, who grew up in Hamlet, south of Level Crss. Wicker left the state long ago and will probably never come home again, except for visits and speaking engagements. Such an occasion was the Governor's Conference on Travel and Tourism in Winston-Salem last year, when conventioneers gathered to hear from a native son who had made good, gone all the way to The New York Times.
"If the South is being converted to concrete and plastic, that is to be deplored," Wicker told the conventioneers. He said the strips of taco joints, car washes, parking lots, burger stands, filling stations, motels, curb markets and shopping malls "are making it hard to tell whether you're in Raleigh or Columbia or Omaha."
The New South!
Richard Petty grew up here. His children are growing up here. And he doesn't want to see all that otherworldly crap from Greensboro and High Point and Thomasville and Burlington and Lexington spill over the county lines.
Petty recently built his version of a hot dog palace-an elaborate brown affair with white pillars holding up the front porch, with a large car-port at one end of the house and lots of breathing room around it. The long driveway is red dirt. He's got 24,000 chickens that rae cared for by his uncle, Bottle Millikan. He's got horses and cattle.
Employes have built more modest homes of their own on little parcels of the Pettys' vast feudal land holdings. It's a cozy part of the world, and the roots run deep. So Richard Petty doesn't want things like the Peacock Massage Salon ("You've Tried the Rest, Now Try the Best" ... "Prettiest Girls in the South") coming any farther south on U.S. 220.
We're county in transistion," said Pugh. "It's not a question of disliking growth. it's a question of whether we're going to become an adjunct of High Point and Greensboro-a small-scale megalopolis."
It's no more preposterous, in their view, than suggesting that the South could (or has) become 100 percent homogenized American-even though the biggest town, Asheboro, has a population of 16,674 and the rest of the county is like Petty's domain up on the northern edge.
But Petty doesn't even have words like "adjunct" and "megalopolis" in his vocabulary. The expression he uses most frequently is, "It's the kind of a deal where..." Justas his world is bounded by the thrills and tedium of stock-car racing, his political thinking is defined by what he sees happening in and around the turf he knows best, Randolph County.
Shortly before a race in Richmond last September, he offered his rarely voiced views on what's wrong with this country now that a New South Democrats are trying to help too many people who don't want to work for a living just because ther were born in America."
And: "Since Carter came in the country's just gone Blllllumphhh..." with finger diving downward. "I'd rather have Ford still in there." Then he paused-did he dare say it?-"We were better off when Nixon was in there."
He felt strongly enough about it last year to go out and endorse Jesse Helms, North Carolina's most visible right-wingers, in his bid to return to the U.S. Senate. He even did a television commercial for Jesse, as did basefabll pitchers Catfish Hunter and Gaylrod Perry.
Petty himself has some attributes that would endear him to right wingers. His political program, such as it is, is agraraian-conservative, limited government, preserve-the-family-and-the-farm stuff. When asked before the race at Richmond why he was running for political office, he pointed at a young man leaning against an oil drum a few feet away and said, "This is my son, Kyle." He had understood the question.
He is a man driven to excel but not interested in the predictable results, the hell raising, the woman-chasing. His one visible vice is the inexpensive cigar, a Muriel Coronella King, which he chain smokes. But in a state where the economy is buttressed by this year's billion-dollar tobacco crop, th habit of chainsmoking cheap cigars is hardly a vice. More like a civic service. And as Alan Pugh said, he ivestigated Petty's past thoroughly when Petty announced his desire to run for political office. And Pugh said his spadework turned up cothing that might have been damaging during the campaign: "There's just nothing there."
Finally, a Winner
But in the main room at Republican Party headquarters in Asheboro, bodies were scrunched together hot and uncomfortable, at least 200 Republican wearing boater hats and T-shirts that read, "Elect Republicans...Richard Petty, Thurman Hogan, Kenyon Davidson." It was election night, 1978.
Petty came into the back room through an alleyway door with his wife and Kyle and his three daughters.
Everyone wanted to know about the stock-car race in Atlanta two days before the election. The radio announcer had nearly hemorrhaged: Dave Marcis and Richard Petty, one and two, in a four-lap dash to checkered flag. They duelled lap by lap and all Petty's frustrations-broken rear ends, ignition problems, a new car, a crash, bruised ribs, failed brakes-all could have been wiped away. Petty finally over the hill?
When the red-and-blue Chevrolet slipped past Marcis on the last lap and they flashed under the checkered flag with Petty's front bumper a few feet ahead of Marcis' Petty howled to his pit crew over the two-way radio, "We finally won one!"
But after the cars coasted around the track once, the Hawaiian Tropic Chevrolet of Donnie Allison drove into victory lane and the STP Chevrolet drove into the garage area with the other losers. NASCAR declared the scoreboard was wrong and Allison was actually half a lap ahead of-not behind-Petty and Marcis.
"Crooks! Crooks! Crooks!" the Petty loyalists chanted.
Then NASCAR reversed itself and gav e the victory to Petty. Then, after the new winner had undergone the traditional interview in the press box, NASCAR reversed itself again and gave the victory back to Allison.
It reminded Petty of a remark he had made after the campaign rally at Trindale School: "There's nothing more political than racing."
But on election night Petty managed a smile when he told the first wave of questioners: "I think all that publicity on Sunday was even better than if we'd won."
Returns trickled in from the precincts, Old South geography with names like Tabernacle and Back Creek. As workers wrote totals on the large sheets with Magic Markers, young ladies busily served up frosted fudge brownies, sweetened iced tea in styrofoam cups, coffee, ham, cheese, Wonder Bread and slices of marble cake.
By 10 p.m. the race was over even though all the votes weren't yet in. The three Republicans had buried the Democrats in the county commissioner race. It was one, two, three-Petty, Davidson and Hogan. Republicans also won the races for sheriff, clerk of court and two seats in the state House of Representatives.
A Family Affair
'I plan one-of-a-kind weddings," boasted bridal shop manager Betty Highbaugh of High Point,N.C.
Indeed. Inside Kepley's Barn the atmosphere was rustic, the color scheme brown. Exposed beams, masonite ceiling, plywood floors. Up front, where more than 900 pairs of eyes were trained, the linen-draped altar glowed like a phosphorescent sugar cube. Candelabra, ferns, an electric organ tooting out Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Manhs Desiring." And standing there in full-dress cutaways and gray gloves were Richard Petty and his 18-year-old son Kyle.
The crowd had come to wtness the wedding of Kyle to Patty Huffman, a 28-year-old Randolph County kindergarten teacher who was once a "Winston girl," those ladies in red shirts and white hotpants who pose beside the red-and-white Winston promotion autos at racetracks while gentlemen fans snap pictures and get a peck on the cheek, then mutter happily, "Ain't she enough to make a man's wife jealous?"
Thoroughly uptown. Flossie Johnson, the wife of former driving great and modern-day car builder Junior Johnson, showed up at the sedding with Bill Hobbs, president of the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company. (Junior was home working on Cale Yarborough's car.) The bride had ordered her goven 16 months earlier while bridegroom was still in high school. It was hand-crocheted in Ireland by women who learned the craft from an ex-nun.
When the groom was instructed to kiss the bride, young Kyle, in typically obliging Petty fashion kept his lips pressed against his new wife's for an extra-long moment ehile flash-bulbs blazed.
After the kiss, the bride's and bridegroom's families came up on the white altar to lay hands on the newly weds.
The loose fit and stunning formality of his getup made Richard Petty look awkward. And underweight. Three months earier he had undergone "corrective" surgery for an old ulcer condition. Almost half of his stomach was removed. Though it was apparent he had not fully recovered, his smile would not go away.
Out in front of Kepley's Barn $66,000 wlorth of cobalt blue Rolls Royuce Siver Shadow II waited to shisk the newlyweds to the airport.
It was not to be an ordinary honey-moon. They went to Daytona Beach, where Kyle climbed into his father's discarded Dodge Magnum and drove in his first stock-car race one week later.
"Might a well get everything done at once," said Kyle, already exhibiting the to -the-point Petty style.
Media types swarmed over the three Petty men at Daytona. Sixty-four-year -old grandpa Lee (No. 42), 41-year-old daddy Rchard(no.43) and now 18-year-old newlywed rookie Kyle (no.44). The symmetry was not lost on the people who write the sports pages.
Especially when Kyle went out and did what his grandfather had done 400 years earlier-won his first race.
There on the tri-oval that nearly ended Lee's life, a star was born, A.J. Foyt said, "He could be one of your next stars in NASCAR racing." And not a moment too soon. Six days later, on the eve of the Daytona 500 race for the Grand National hot dogs, Richard Petty said he had rejected his doctor's advice that he retire from racing.
His doctor was quoted in a Florida newspaper as saying, "Richard thinks he's Superman. And he has been a remarkable patient. But he's putting himself under great strss. That was a serious operation, and it's asking too much of the body to come back this quick."
The next day, in one of the most spectacular finishes in stock-car racing history, Richard Petty used a last-lap crash between the two leaders to end his 45-race winless streak and win his sixth Daytona 500.
And with more than 100,000 fans watching from the stands and millions more around the world watching on television, the two wrecked leaders, Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough, brought back the good old edge-of-town-on-Saturday-night days of stock-car racing with a spontaneous fish-swinging, helmet-banging, kicking brawl. Donnie's brother Bobby joined in, right there in the infield beside the expensive twisted cars.
If Jimmy Carter was watching television that day, he saw his political supporter Yarborough's inflamed, grease-stained face right in the middle of the fray. Moonshine heritage.
"It looked like a Saturday night at a quarter-mile track in the old days," said Petty. "As anxious as I was to get to victory Lane, I was tempted to stop over there after getting the checkered flag and watch them cats go at it."
Even today, despite the air-planes and the STP rigns and the fat contracts, the essence of the sport still boils to the surface. New South money and trips to the White House can't change what will forever be an Old South game
Jimmy Carter should remember all this. It's where he came from. And it's a place that has a covice politician for a spokesman-a man with millions of dollars and half a stomach and million of admirers who agree with him that the Old South is a part of the country and a way of life that's worth fighting for. CAPTION: The cover photographs of Richard Petty are by Steve Marray.; Picture 1, Above, Richard Petty the stock-car racer blasts out of a turn at the Richmond 400 in his No. 43 Chevy.; Picture 2, Thurman Hogan, left, traveled with Petty in his "Good Times" van to stump for votes and sign autographs in rural Randolph County. Both won.; Picture 3, Right, Richard Petty the politican listens to discussion at a Randolph County Commissioners' meeting.; Picture 4, Top, Petty and his 18-year-old son Kyle discuss a new promotional license plate while leaning on a No. 43 body at Petty Enterprises, Inc.; Picture 5, Above, Petty commutes between the offices, prefab garages, machine shops and paint rooms at his compound on a bicycle complete with the familiar STP decal. Photographs by Steve Murray