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Lee Petty - Hard Times In The Rural South

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Lee Petty was born in 1914 in rural North Carolina. His parents scraped out a living on the family farm and Petty grew up dirt poor. With the hard times of the Great Depression in the 1930s, Petty accepted whatever jobs were available in order to support his young wife, the former Elizabeth Toomes, and his two sons, Richard and Maurice. For a time he was a biscuit salesman and later he owned a small trucking company. Hard luck, however, was never far away. In 1943, after a freak wood stove

Lee Petty

accident, the family house burned to the ground in front of the horrified eyes of his wife and sons. Petty and his family saw their way through the catastrophe and soon converted a trailer into a new house.

Petty was something of a natural athlete. He played minor league baseball as a young man, and in his retirement became a scratch golfer. His passion, however, was automobiles, driving them and working on them. He was constitutionally unable to leave a car alone and much to the chagrin of his wife, he was always tinkering with the family vehicle. He was "improving it," he told her.

In the 1930s and early 1940s stock car races were nothing more than illegal drag races held on back roads; the only prizes were whatever wagers one was able to win. By the time World War Two ended, informal but legal meets were being held on dirt tracks throughout the South. In 1948, when he was already in his mid-thirties, Lee entered—and won—a race in Danville Virginia in a 1937 Plymouth he and his brother Julie had rebuilt. He came in second in his next race, an event in Roanoke Virginia. From the very beginning he possessed the remarkable consistency that would be a hallmark of his racing career, finishing in the top five in more than half the races he entered.

Petty's success was due as much to his temperament as to his ability on the track. At a time when stock car racing was populated by men out for a good time, drivers who thought nothing of partying into the wee hours, before and after a race, Petty was different. Racing was much more than merely a hobby for him and he approached it with seriousness, calculation, and a singular determination to win. In his book King Richard I Petty's son Richard recalled his father telling him. "There ain't no second place, you win or you lose. That's the only two parts there are to racing." Petty had more than a fierce will to win. He also recognized that only the winners would be able to pay their way in 1940s racing, where expenses often ran into several thousand dollars while winner's purse rarely totaled more than $1000.


1914 Born March 14 in North Carolina
1948 Wins first race
1949 Founds Petty Enterprises
1949 Helps organize NASCAR event at Charlotte North Carolina
1953 First driver to install a roll bar on his car
1954, 1958-1959 Wins NASCAR championship
1960 Wins last race when he protests would-be first time victory of Richard Petty
1961 Critically injured in qualifying heat for the Daytona 500
1964 Retires from stock car racing
1969 Inducted into National Motorsports Press Association's Hall of Fame
1990 Inducted into International Motorsports Hall of Fame
2000 Dies following stomach surgery
Lee Petty - Chronology [next]

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