Richard Petty, Ford Motors forge lasting relationship
Back in the day, Plymouth designed and built a whole new race car, which looked like something few in motor sports had imagined, let alone seen, to woo Richard Petty back from Ford.
Petty turns 80 on July 2, amid his 59th NASCAR season of driving or ownership. He has been exclusively with Ford since 2009.
But there was a time when Plymouth, Ford and Dodge bid for Petty’s legendary skills as a driver, using automobile design and engineering as currency.
For the 1969 season, he left Plymouth, a now-defunct model manufactured from 1928 to 2001. He drove a Ford Torino Talladega.
Plymouth wanted him back.
“Yeah, the deal was that the Plymouth people come and talked, and they said ‘What would it take to get you out of the Ford and into the Plymouth?’ ” Petty said. “And I said, ‘Give me a wing.’
“And they said, ‘OK.’ And that’s the way it came out.”
“It” was the Superbird, a highly-modified version of a street car, the Plymouth Road Runner.
The nosecone tapered like a beak. A huge wing, mounted along the rear atop long vertical struts, deflected the calmer air available higher than the surface of the car.
It increased downforce over the back axle, making Petty even faster.
He already was racing royalty. Three seasons earlier, when he won 27 of the 48 NASCAR Grand National Races he entered, and a record 10 in a row from Aug. 12 to Oct. 1, folks started calling him “The King.”
They have never stopped.
“Having Richard Petty as a part of our family, and Ford being part of his family, is very important to me, personally,” said Edsel Ford II, a member of the automaker’s board of directors who is integral to Ford’s racing tradition. “And Richard and I have talked about that on many occasions, this whole notion of family and what it means.”
Ford’s fondness for motor sport is rooted in a trip to the 24 Hours of Le Mans with his father, Henry Ford II, in 1966. It was a famously triumphant race, with the Ford GT40s finishing first, second and third, astounding chief rival Ferrari and becoming the first American car to win the fabled race.
For decades, he has been a fixture at racetracks around the world, including the NASCAR circuits.
“Richard and I have known each other for many years and, frankly, to have him now is great,” Ford said. “To have the No. 43 car carry a Ford oval on it is about as good as it gets.”
It is as if the Petty family is part of the genetic coding of NASCAR.
Richard’s father, Lee Petty, raced in the pioneering, barnstorming days of the sport, beginning in 1949. He won an early NASCAR race at the Michigan State Fairgrounds on Aug. 12, 1951.
In his son’s rookie season, 1959, Richard appeared to finish first in a race in Lakewood, Ga., when he pulled away from his dad with 10 laps left after a long, side-by-side duel.
The younger Petty took the checkered flag for his first NASCAR win, the first time a rookie had ever won on the series.
But his father protested. His son’s laps had been miscounted, he asserted.
Father knew best. NASCAR checked and declared Lee Petty the winner. His son finished third.
“I would have protested to my mother, if I needed to,” newspapers quoted Lee Petty.
The way the son would race over the ensuing years, the father might have known to claim a win while he still could.
Richard Petty won the NASCAR Cup title seven times, tied for the record with Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Jimmie Johnson.
He won 200 races, the record.
He won the Daytona 500 seven times, the record.
His 27 wins, and 10 in a row, in 1967 are both records.
He won 127 poles, the record.
His dad won the championship three times. His son Kyle raced in the cup series. So did his late grandson Adam, killed May 12, 2000, practicing in New Hampshire five weeks after the death of Lee Petty from natural causes.
He said his father preached steadiness.
“He just said, be consistent,” Petty said. “If you run slow, run slow all of the time. And he said, if you run fast I want you to run fast all of the time.
“That was about the only advice he gave me, from that standpoint.
“I just learned by being around all of the drivers back then, and watching everybody and watching my dad,” he said.
“The deal is, if we run good and have a chance, then I feel real good about racing.”
‘He’s seen everything’
Richard Petty Motorsports, with its now-injured driver Aric Almirola, is a one-car shop this season. The King is much involved.
And when Petty walks around a NASCAR track these days, under that large, black cowboy hat, flashing his famous smile, his big belt buckle is the blue oval emblazoned with “Ford.”
“He knows what’s going on, because whenever I see him we always try to huddle and talk about Richard Petty Motorsports,” Ford said.
“He has a very clear understanding of what is going on, no doubt about that. He has a very close relationship with Doug Yates, who does our motors.”
Ford said he marvels at Petty’s legacy.
“He has been around. He’s seen everything,” Ford said.
“He’s seen racing on the beach at Daytona, he’s seen the sport change. He’s seen safety come in and play such an important role, like it does today.
“He’s seen manufacturers come in and go out.
“So, his perspective is really his legacy, I think, because he has a unique perspective,” Ford said. “He really is almost the last of a group of people who came in at the very start.”
They raced differently then.
“The cars we ran were a lot more stock,” Petty said. “They were way up off the ground. They didn’t have a lot of downforce. In fact, they lifted when you ran wide-open.
“So, it was just a different era at a different time, with different tires and different engines, different speedways.
“I guess you could look at it from the standpoint that racing kind of grew up, because it grew out of just having plain stock cars,” he said. “Basically, they are all race cars now.”
‘A different world’
Some fans pine for the old days, and across all forms of racing there is some agreement that the exactitude of modern technology has moved too much of the competition from the track to the design boards and the manufacturing shops, where it is described in words even enthusiasts find too technical.
Petty is consummately the face of an older, some would say purer, style of NASCAR racing. But, even ending his sixth decade in the sport, he seems less concerned about which era is better than with what is going on now.
“He knows all of the changes NASCAR makes, from a big perspective, from what’s going on with his car,” Ford said. “He’s involved.”
For Petty, it seems, the big differences in racing are just facts.
“It’s changed so much now that there’s so much engineering and that stuff, that way back when some of us did it out of the backyard there was no engineering except for what we could think of,” he said.
“Some of these teams got 40 or 50 engineers that don’t even go to the racetrack and work on race cars. It’s just a different world out there.”
And, to Ford, and millions of race fans, he is still The King.
“Richard has been for the most part very loyal to Ford, and we appreciate that,” Ford said.
“Being a part of a family that’s been around for a 116 years or so, this kind of thing is important, and not only to me. It’s important to Bill, my cousin, to the employees and the dealers.
“And we appreciate all this. We really do.”
NASCAR at MIS
What: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series FireKeepers Casino 400
When: June 18, 3 p.m.
2016 winner: Joey Logano
Support race: NASCAR Xfinity Series, June 17, 1:30 p.m. (FS1)
What: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Pure Michigan 400
When: Aug. 13, 3 p.m.
2016 winner: Kyle Larson
Support race: NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Aug. 12, 1 p.m. (FS1)