Why No One Will Ever Replace Richard Petty as the King of NASCAR

There’s a good reason why his stock car is in the collections of the American History Museum

Richard Petty car
Mark Ulriksen

In America every car is a declaration of independence.

The special genius of this car lies not in what it is, but in what it did. Richard Petty, “The King,” won the Firecracker 400 behind the wheel of this car on July 4, 1984, down in Daytona Beach, Florida. It was his 200th Nascar career victory, an achievement unmatched in stock-car racing history, and he did it on the nation’s birthday in front of Ronald Reagan, the first sitting U.S. president to visit Nascar’s most famous track. This car carried the sport’s greatest star to what may have been the sport’s greatest moment.

Like every “stock car,” No. 43 is an outrage. It is coarse and loud and ill-mannered. It is a red, white and blue insult to civility and aerodynamics. It is a 630-horsepower brick through America’s living-room window.

“Stock” cars were originally exactly that, cars raced straight off the showroom floor with only minor modifications for safety and performance. By 1984 they were expensive hand-built specialty racing machines. But even then these cars were an unsophisticated anachronism—bad handling super-heavyweight carbureted V-8s with cast-iron blocks in an automotive world moving fast to nimble high-mileage subcompact aluminum and digital fuel injection. Part of the romance of Nascar then and now is the technological simplicity of its all-American excess.

Stock cars were also a sales tool for the big Detroit manufacturers. Hang around the tracks and garages long enough even now and you’ll still hear people say “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.”

This version of the famous No. 43 was a Pontiac Grand Prix owned by Curb Motorsports. Slow to anger and hard to turn, but capable of straight-line speeds well north of 200 miles per hour, it was purpose-built for the longer “super speedway” tracks at Daytona and Talladega, Alabama. The paint scheme was and is instantly recognizable to race fans. The number, the colors, that Petty Blue, that oval logo with the burly cartoon half-script. STP, a fuel additive, was Petty’s primary sponsor for decades. It stood for “Scientifically Treated Petroleum.” Or “Studebaker Tested Products.” No one seemed sure.

The King was a throwback, too, in his Stetson and his pipestem jeans and gator boots and those sunglasses like Chanel welding goggles. The North Carolina son of Nascar’s first great star, Lee Petty, he fathered the next generation of racing’s most famous dynasty. This race car and that racer and that 1984 race bridged the years from Nascar’s moonshine and red-dirt beginnings to its cork-lined helmet and bathing-beauty days to the clean-shaven, two-terabyte matinee idol brand strategy the sport has lately become. Drivers now are less Southern, more corporate, more camera-ready—and inauthentic in the way 21st-century country music feels inauthentic.

Richard Petty was the thing itself. He didn’t win again, but 200 is a round and beautiful number. And likely never to be equaled. Next man on the list has 105.

Look for Mr. Petty these days in the luxury suites at Daytona, the corrugated sheds at Martinsville or the pits at Bristol, still tall and lean as a picket. Smiling. Shaking hands with fans. He retired in 1992 with seven championships, the winningest driver in Nascar history.

Maybe stock car racing is what you get when you bend the American frontier back on itself, every one of us running wide open in circles trying to get back to where we started. The world roaring by in a blur. Real race fans of every generation, the true believers down in the chicken bone seats, understand the 43 is more than a car, or even a race car. It’s a promise, a contract, a binding agreement with sensation. An uprising. A revolution. Seven-thousand revolutions a minute, an ode to spectacle and sex and inefficiency, to upward mobility and economic freedom. To velocity and possibility. It is a time machine and a love affair, a prison break and a thunderclap and the first step west when you light out for the territories. It is good money and bad fun, necessity and opportunity, an anthem for Americans everywhere and anywhere without a voice of their own.

A writer for ESPN, Jeff MacGregor moved frequently as a child, and says his “earliest ideas about America were formulated from the window of a moving car.” Fittingly, his first book, Sunday Money, is an account of his year following the Nascar circuit.

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