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Lee Petty turned a modest operation into powerhouse racing team

Lee Petty was single-minded when it came to stock car racing as both driver and car owner. It would be his business, and he would make it a successful one.

Born in 1914, Lee Petty grew up dirt poor in rural North Carolina. He sold biscuits, operated a trucking company; rumors of his involvement in the whiskey business have been around for decades. Petty, like the heads of many rural southern families of the day did a bit of whatever he could to provide for his family, but his overriding passion was automobiles. A gifted mechanic he would tell his wife Elizabeth he was “just improving” cars.

Not only was Lee Petty a gifted mechanic, he could flat out drive a car. Among the many enterprises Petty engaged

in to put food on the table, was the not insignificant money earned from street racing on the back roads of Randolph County around Randleman and Level Cross.

His first attempt at organized stock car racing gave little indication that he was destined to become NASCAR’s first three-time champion. In 1949 at the already advanced age of 35, Petty heard of NASCAR’s inaugural race in Charlotte and the race’s $6000 purse. He borrowed an unsuspecting friend’s Buick Roadmaster, headed for Charlotte, and wound up rolling the Buick, demolishing it. History has not recorded how Petty explained the loss of the Buick to his friend. Or what became of the friendship.

The thrill of competition, the pre- and post-race camaraderie with friends and fellow competitors and the cheers of the crowd brought many to the sport, but not Petty. For Petty it was strictly business. The only way to survive was to win, and to win you had to finish. His son Richard, who was destined to eventually take over the family business and indeed take Petty Enterprises to an even higher level of success remembers his father saying, “There ain’t no second place. You win or you lose, that’s the only two parts there are to racing.”

Petty outworked and outraced his rivals. He brought sons Richard and Maurice into the family business while they were still in their teens. Petty was not always popular with his rivals, he even spun out his son Richard during one race. Many drivers of the era proclaimed him the most difficult driver to pass. But all gave Lee Petty his due.

“There wasn’t anybody better than Lee Petty in his day,” said the legendary Junior Johnson. Fellow competitor Glen Wood said, “There might have been more colorful drivers, but when it came down to winning the race, he had as much ability as I’ve ever seen. He was one of the toughest competitors at the time.”

As a driver Petty won 54 races in what was then called NASCAR’s Grand National Division, the forerunner of today’s Sprint Cup Series. His 54 wins still stand as the ninth most of all time. His first win came at Heidelberg Raceway near Pittsburgh, PA. He won on Daytona Beach’s famed beach and road course, and the inaugural Daytona 500 in a finish that took three days to determine the winner. He won the Grand National Championship in 1955, 1958 and 1959.

But Petty’s Hall of fame driving career was just the opening act at Petty Enterprises. Lee Petty was anything but retired as the owner of what became the flagship racing outlet for Chrysler Corporation during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Petty Enterprises fielded over 2800 entries over a 60 year period, ending in 2008 winning 268 races and ten championships.

Until Petty’s death in 2000, even in retirement, there was no doubt who was ultimately at the organization’s helm “Richard had his job to do, and I had mine,” said son Maurice.

“Then Lee told us what he wanted us to do and that’s what we did.”

The late Lee Petty, joins David Pearson, Ned Jarrett, Bobby Allison, and Bud Moore in the second class inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame this Monday May 23.

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