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Lee Petty - A Nascar Pioneer

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When NASCAR was founded in December 1947, the purpose of the association was to promote stock car racing—races that used standard car makes rather than the special Formula One automobiles driven at other established races. The first NASCAR event was held on December 16, 1948 at the old Daytona Beach track, a course that made its way through the streets of the city before heading out onto the sands of the beach itself. Petty was there, but he was unable to win the race. Not long after, he and Julie took part in organizing the first NASCAR event in Charlotte North Carolina, held on June 19, 1949 with a purse of $6000. Leading up to the race, Petty did not have a car of his own, so he called an unsuspecting friend and asked to borrow his 1948 Buick Roadmaster for the weekend. His sons, Richard, age eleven, and Maurice, age ten, acted as his pit crew at Charlotte. Petty was well-placed near the front of the pack and was challenging to win when his radius bar broke. The car went into a barrel roll. When the dust cleared, Petty had suffered a minor cut on his face but the borrowed car was wrecked beyond repair. To make matters worse, the Petty family had no vehicle to drive home. The incident taught Petty two important lessons. First, he began towing his race car with another car so he would never again be stranded. Second, he learned to do whatever he had to do to win—but to always save the car. He had learned the hard way: If the car didn't finish the race, you can't win.

Petty finished up the eight-race 1949 season second in points only to Red Byron. After the first Charlotte race, Petty bought the first of several Plymouths he would race. Plymouths didn't have the horsepower of other makes, but they were highly dependable, maneuverable, and one of the lightest cars on the market. After he won his first race in a Plymouth at Heidelburg, Pennsylvania, the make became a trademark of Petty's for several years. He started winning in them regularly, to the dismay of drivers in more powerful cars, like Cadillacs. "He used to take those little old Plymouths and just outthink people," Mark Bechtel quoted Richard Petty in Sports Illustrated,. "When they got him in Oldsmobiles, he won races. He won championships. He was blowing people away." In 1953 he switched to Dodges, a car with twice the horsepower. He also installed a roll bar on his Dodge—the first one in NASCAR. Whatever he drove he won or came very close. Between 1949 and 1959, he finished no lower than fourth place in any NASCAR Grand National event and was the first driver ever to win three Grand National titles.

Petty impressed almost everyone who saw him drive. "There wasn't any better driver than Lee Petty in his day," legendary stock-car racer Junior Johnson told the Associated Press's Estes Thompson. "There might have been more colorful drivers, but when it came down to winning the race, he had as much as anyone I've ever seen." Glen Wood told Rea McLeroy of the Richmond Times Dispatch "He was one of the toughest competitors there was at that time." His desire to win could border on mania at times. At one race, Petty pulled out of a pit stop before he realized his son Richard was still on the hood wiping off the windshield. Already back on the track, Lee signaled his son to hold on. He did—for dear life—as his father roared around the track once and back into the pits to drop him off. Petty did whatever he thought necessary to win. Most infamously, he attached his door plates with bare bolt ends sticking out inches, designed to tear into opponents bodies or, better, their tires, reminding drivers and spectators of a 20th century version of the race in the film Ben Hur.

Lee Petty - The First Daytona 500 [next] [back] Lee Petty - Chronology

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