"I think it was the day after my 21st birthday when I walked up to Daddy and said, 'Pa, I'd really like to go racing.' He was working on a car and he turned his head and looked at me a little bit and motioned to an Olds convertible we had in a corner and said, 'All right, we'll fix this one up for you.' Then he asked me to hand him a wrench and that was that. Daddy wasn't much for emption ."
Richard Petty in his biography, "King Richard"
It was 20 years ago when Richard Petty went racing. His daddy is Lee Petty, who was the best driver of all. Stock car racing, in Lee's time, was a quasilegitimate extension of moonshine running through the Carolina hills. Three times, Lee Petty was the national champion and 54 times he won big races. Those were the records Richard Petty would break.
Richard has been national champion five times. He has won 185 races and more than $3 million. From its moonshine beginnings, stock car racing has become sophisticated competition of men and engineering at speeds near 200 miles per hour.
"For a month or so," said Kyle Petty, "we were cuttin' up about it. I'd say, 'Dad, I'm ready to race,' and he'd say, 'I didn't go 'til I was 21, boy, and that's when you're goin'.' I kept after him and be finally said I could take the Dodge Charger, but it didn't come up to the rules. So I had to start over on him to get him to let me in the Magnum. That's a 180 mile-per-hour car and that took some convincin'."
The three of them sat in the sun today: Kyle Petty, 18, with his father, Richard, 41, and his grandfather, Lee, 64. Four days ago, Kyle made the passage from teen-ager to professional racer. When Richard went running in 1959 it was on a dirt track in South Carolina and he "went every way but straight," at one point throwing his hands off the steering wheel to cover his eyes against imminent calamity. He finished sixth.
Kyle Petty won his first race, as his grandfather had won his first race 40 years ago, and he did it at speeds of 190 m.p.h. on his sport's most famous track, the Daytona International Speedway.
How, someone wondered, could a kid fresh out of high school and never in a race car not only drive 190 m.p.h. but win a 200-mile race on a 2 1/2-mile banked tri-oval that has left wizened oldtimers clutching their hearts?
"Maybe it's inborn," Kyle Petty said, and when he laughed and smiled, you knew he was right because in front of your eyes stood a clone of Richard Petty, from the dark curls to the brown eyes to that mile-wide smile full of teeth dazzling in their whiteness. Off and on, Richard Petty wears a mustache. He has let it grow this year. So has Kyle.
It is eerie, the way this is happening. Richard Petty is 41 years old and he has fought an ulcer for two years. "They chopped it out a couple months ago," he said, laying a hand on his stomach. Petty seems frail. His racing uniform hangs loosely on too-thin shoulders. Up close, you see the wrinkle-crevices of an old man's face, lines cutting deep into the corners of that glorious smile.
Whatever Jack Nicklaus is to golf, whatever Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg are to tennis, they are nothing next to Richard Petty in his game. They called him King Richard with reasons, for by his skill he created a kingdom without precedent. When David Pearson, his closest rival, wins 82 more races he will have won as many as Petty has won today.
But in 1978, Petty did not win a race. Not one. And while people saw nothing in his racing style to suggest he was drawing back from the flat out, next-to-the-wall technique that made him remarkable, they whispered about his strength. The ulcer. That must be it, they said. The ulcer is robbing Richard of the strength to finish the long races on the national stock car circuit.
On Dec. 6, he underwent surgery.
A month later, Kyle said it was time for him to go racing.
On Feb. 11, after a week of practice at $1,000 a day to rent the Daytona track, Kyle Petty won the Automobile Racing Club of America's 200-miler.
"That was like a Hollywood script," Richard said of his son's work that day. "It's hard to believe. He done super. Course, he made mistakes, but that's all I was lookin' for, his mistakes. Did I talk to him about his mistakes? Now, when you make a mistake at 180 miles per hour, you don't have to tell him about it. He's done learnt from it."
Besides driving fast on country roads, Kyle Petty's racing experience had been limited to what his eyes told him. He watched film of races and, as Richard said, "He's been seeing 500-mile racers since he was three weeks old."
The dues that Tex Cauthen paid in decades bouncing around bush tracks are as good an explanation as any for why his son, Steve, was able at 16 to win $6 million in his first year riding race horses. It was eerie, as if the father's experience had been passed on at the son's birth, and Kyle Petty, the grandson of a racer, the son of a racer, could say of his first race, "It was like driving 20 miles per hour on the highway."
Atop a trailer watching that race, A.J. Foyt, whose son grew up frightened to tears by the very sound of a race car, said, "Kyle will be stock cars' next superstar." The veteran Buddy Baker, the fastest qualifier for Sunday's Daytona 500 at over 194 m.p.h., said, "It looked like Kyle's been on the track for 20 years."
The Pettys are in no rush with the wunderkind on wheels. They don't know when Kyle will race next, but he likely will stay at stock car racing's second level for a while. The big boys, Richard Petty and Pearson and Yarborough, race in the Grand National division. Kyle said, "You just don't jump in a Grand National car. Might be two, three years before I do that."
A year ago, Kyle was the star center, at 6-foot-2, on the Randleman (n.c.) h/igh School basketball team and quarterback on the football team. "Kyle is a lot like me, lazy," Richard said in his biography. "He plays football. He plays basketball. He plays the guitar. He plays around. He likes girls. He hates to work. He's normal American boy. He's not the greatest player in the world, but he doesn't have to be as far as I'm concerned. I just want him to be the best he can be at whatever he does."
Four days ago, Kyle put on a racing uniform borrowed from his father. He carefully removed the stitching that spelled "Richard" in front of "Petty." And he said, "He don't drive the car for me. Sure, I have good equipment and we race first class, but Richard Petty don't drive for me. I'm Kyle Petty."
One thing more. The week before he went racing, Kyle married his high school sweetheart. "Might as well get everything done at once," he said.