Lee Petty: Telling The Tale Of One Of NASCAR's Newest Hall of Famers
NASCAR has had it's share of superstars, but one of the first was racing late-bloomer Lee Petty. Petty didn't begin his racing career until he was 35-years-old. He was a quick study in the art of driving a stock car.
His first NASCAR race was at a track called Charlotte Speedway, not to be confused with Charlotte Motor Speedway. The year was 1949 and Petty finished in the top-five of the point standings for his first 11 seasons.
Petty set a precedent for exciting racing at the inaugural "Great American Race" at Daytona International Speedway. The race ended with a three-way photo finish between Petty, Johnny Beauchamp and Joe Weatherly.
NASCAR declared Beauchamp the winner, but Petty knew he won and hung around for three days until a decision was made by NASCAR. Petty was declared the winner.
Lee Petty was the patriarch of a dynasty that began with sons Richard and Maurice. Petty Enterprises was quite the respected name in NASCAR. Perhaps it is best that he did not see the twists and turns Petty Enterprises would take as it morphed to the current status of Richard Petty Motorsports, whose future remains unknown.
Lee Petty was the Grand National Champion (Sprint Cup) in 1954, 1958 and 1959. He had 54 wins to his credit, the most of any driver until his son Richard assumed that record. Lee still ranks ninth in all-time wins.
His son, "King Richard," was inducted in the first class of NASCAR's Hall of Fame in 2010. Certainly Lee Petty deserves to be in the second class to be inducted in May of 2011.
Let's take a look at some moments in the life of Lee Petty.
Petty Was Tough On Everyone Including Richard
Lee supported Richard's racing and in one of his earlier races his dad took him to the wall to try to pass. Richard thought he had won, but his dad filed a protest and won because Richard turned out to be a lap down.
Lee Petty said, "I would have protested even if it was my mother, " according to Joseph Slano of the New York Times. It was Lee Petty's last win.
In the picture shown here, Lee Petty, in his No. 42, collided with son Richard, in the No. 43, during a 1957 race.
It Was a Family Thing
Lee Petty is shown here with son, Richard, grandson, Kyle and great-grandson, Adam in a 1999 photo.
Sadly, Lee Petty passed away on April 5, 2000 and Adam died tragically about a month later in a racing incident when he was practicing with a Busch series car at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Racing was in their blood right on down the line from Lee.
Was This a Multi-Purpose Car?
This Lee Petty No. 42 special looks as though it may have come off the back roads and straight on to the race track.
They called them stock cars and they certainly were.
What Do You Suppose They Are Saying?
Lee Petty is offering some sage advice, most likely before an event at Bristol Motor Speedway in the early 1960's.
Note that Richard had the cool boots even then. And what about those seats in the background? Hard to believe that was Bristol.
What's With Squirrel Sr.?
Lee Petty started out running moonshine like so many racers of that era, because it was a way to support the family. Even Richard went on a few runs, or so it has been rumored.
When Richard started driving race cars, he was a little out of control and some guys said he was "squirrelly." The name stuck until he could prove his ability. But his dad added "Squirrel Sr." beside his name, though obviously it did not apply since he is holding the trophy.
Lee Had No Idea
Lee Petty had no idea back in the early days that his son would become such a legend. Even back then Richard had the cool factor, before the boots, cowboy hat and sunglasses became iconic.
A Day at The Beach
Lee Petty takes a turn on the beaches of Daytona in a 1954 picture. Little did he know that the Superspeedway known as Daytona International Speedway would be built, and he would win the inaugural 1959 Daytona 500.
The track on the beach used some of the paved road as part of the course. That is quite a transition—and they complain about set-ups now. Well, I guess the cars have changed just a tad.
Up and Out of Daytona
Lee Petty nearly lost his life in 1961 when he and Johnny Beauchamp collided, sending both cars soaring over the guardrail and some 150 feet to the parking lot, while practicing for the Daytona 500.
Petty's car was destroyed and they took his broken, apparently lifeless body to the hospital. It was some time before he could have the broken bones fixed. They waited to see if he would stabilize as he lay in a coma. He spent some four months in the hospital. Beauchamp was not as seriously injured, though he had trauma to his head.
Petty did return to racing, but he was never quite as competitive again. Some three years later, he ran his final race at Watkins Glen.
The Original Daytona 500
It is hard to believe this is Daytona International Speedway, but indeed it is the inaugural race seen in the picture. The first "Great American Race" was run in 1959.
Lee Petty is shown in the No. 42 at the start/finish line. He won the race.
Ready to Race
Lee Petty is strapped into his state of the art racing machine. Note the barely two-point harness chained to the floor or frame.
The seats were padded but lacked much support. The roll cage appears to be missing, but at least it looks like a tachometer might have been in place. Did they have tachs then? Let's hope he wore a helmet.
It is a far cry from today's equipment and all the modern safety features. It is hard to believe we didn't lose many more drivers back in the day.
The Hat Gene
It appears Lee Petty not only fathered the racing gene on to his son, Richard, but there might have also been a hat gene.
Lee is seen here looking pretty stylish. But his son Richard became known for his elaborate cowboy hats.
In Memory of a Legend
Lee Arnold Petty will be remembered for many things by many people. We can never forget the contributions he gave us in NASCAR racing. including another hero, his son, "King Richard."
We must always remember the sacrifices men like Lee Petty made to help us build the sport of NASCAR. He is a man who well deserves to be in the second class inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.