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NASCAR’s long-reigning king is more of an ambassador

By George Diaz, The Orlando Sentinel –

He will climb atop of one of the team haulers Saturday night as he always does, finding solitude in the roar of 43 engines churning along Daytona’s super-speedway.

The moonlit skies will cast an iconic silhouette of a tall, slim man wearing sunglasses, a cowboy hat, long sleeve shirt, jeans with a big ‘ol belt buckle, and cowboy boots.

He will take off one of his signature Charlie 1 Horse feathery hats and replace it with a headset, filtering out the restrictor-plate noise. He will then pick out two cars, the 43 and the 9, and the two drivers who are unlikely partners keeping the family business going.

Marcos Ambrose is from Tasmania. Aric Almirola is a Florida native of Cuban descent. Reflective of America’s diverse melting pot, they are representing a name etched in NASCAR royalty, complete with the Southern twang and the occasional pinch of chewing tobacco.

Richard Petty.

The King.

The faithful call him that. The guys who stop by the old Petty shop in Level Cross, N.C., to bring him barbecue and a big cookie to commemorate his birthday every year. The little old lady in a nursing home who recently met the King at his shop because that is a big-ticket item on her bucket list. The guy who said he would never wash this T-shirt again after Petty signed it on the shoulder sleeve. All the folks who put STP in their Fords and Chevys and Plymouths because they wanted a little zip in their car, just like King Richard.

These are among the legion of fans who watched him rumble on dirt tracks and ovals and super-speedways like no one else in the history of the sport.

At 21, Petty got into a seat of a convertible in a dirt-track race in Columbia, S.C., in 1958 and didn’t stop until 1992, on a quad-oval in Atlanta. Appropriately, he went out in flames after his car was involved in an accident. Petty finished 35th and then took a final ceremonial lap for the NASCAR Nation.

For all those years, they screamed and whooped and cried as that fabled No. 43 Ford or Plymouth Superbird in Petty Blue kept on spinning ‘round, a blurry haze of greatness: Seven NASCAR Cup titles, seven Daytona 500 victories and a record 200 victories, including 27 in one season.

Richard was even better than his daddy, Lee, a former bootlegger and one of the pioneers of a once-fledging NASCAR empire. With 54 career wins in his pocket, Lee gave the car keys to Richard and told him to ramble on. The son eclipsed anything the old man ever did, until it became time for a third generation of Pettys to reach for greatness.

The odds were impossible. Richard’s son Kyle tried and failed. His grandson Adam was poised to make a run at it until a horrific day in May 12 years ago.

But reflection isn’t in Petty’s blood. As he says, “anything that happened 10 minutes ago is history.” The clock continues ticking as Richard Petty turns 75 on July 2. He moves forward as a man of Southern royalty, with pride and purpose.

That’s why he will make the short climb Saturday night at the Coke Zero 400, away from all the fans wanting pictures and handshakes and autographs. And like any good patriarch in a family-owned business, he will watch Ambrose and Almirola trying to recapture some of that Petty magic.

That vision once included a son and a grandson, spinning side by side. Now it’s an alternate reality. But this is what you do when you are King: You rise above the circumstances, never looking back at what could have been.

Jerry Harris and his four buddies arrive at the Richard Petty Garage in Level Cross, lunch goodies in their hands. They’ve brought chicken, pork, cornsticks, and slaw from Parker’s Barbeque in Greenville, N.C. A giant cookie that reads “#43 Happy Birthday King Richard” will be split for dessert.

For the last six years, Harris has been coming to the old team shop for Petty Enterprises to celebrate the King’s birthday. He had to stop by for a decade before he actually met Petty, but his persistence has now been rewarded: Lunch with the King.

This kind of quirky stuff goes on every day at the shop. Nobody ever gets turned away. Like Harris, people come and sit for hours, hoping the King shows up. Accessibility is the essence of Richard Petty’s popularity, why he remains one of the most beloved sports superstar of this generation. Petty doesn’t treat people like servants. The King never asks anyone to kiss his ring. Instead, he smiles, hugs them, poses for pictures, signs and signs, never asking for a penny.

The King is more of an ambassador.

Those fans have been making a pilgrimage to Petty’s place in Level Cross for decades, a sacred healing ground for the NASCAR disciples. They all want to be blessed by greatness.

“I fell in love with Richard Petty in 1966, the year after my daddy got killed,” Harris said. “I love the man because he’s such a humanitarian and for what he’s done for this country and his fellow man, and naturally we know he’s the greatest thing to sit behind a race car.”

The home where Petty was born still stands adjacent to the shop. Nobody lives there now, but there was a time when people would show up, unannounced, at suppertime. The knocked on the door, hoping to meet the King. Petty always obliged, politely met them at the door, posed for a picture on the front porch, then walked back to the dinner table to rejoin his family.

“It has always been that way,” Kyle said.

And so, after the lunch and small talk is over, Harris and his buddies start pulling out stuff for the King to sign — pictures, T-shirts, two guitars, model airplanes, and the piece de resistance, Harris’ truck parked in the backyard.

“I feel like the guy by the river with this ‘will work for food’ sign,” Petty says jokingly.

“I’ll never wash this shirt again,” Kenneth Meacomes says after Richard signs a sleeve on his T-shirt. “This is the high point of my life.”

Petty’s Garage, established in 1949, still has the vestiges of an old empire that has seen better days. Lee and Richard Petty won 254 races until Richard retired in 1992. Since then, Petty cars have won only 17 times. The total stood at 268 when George Gillett Jr. bought controlling interest of the team in 2009, and it morphed into Petty Motorsports, which has only three victories under the new business model.

Almirola and Ambrose have yet to win this season, although they have combined for three poles and are in the middle of the pack in the scrum to qualify for the Chase. Ambrose is 16th; Almirola 21st.

Competitive struggles mirror the company’s financial ones. Petty’s racing team almost went belly-up during Gillett’s short run. Two years later, they were rescued by Andy Murstein’s Medallion Financial and Doug Bergeron’s DGB Investments, which bought controlling interest a few weeks before the start of the season.

Petty sunk several million dollars — reportedly close to $10 million — to help save the business. The team — morphed from Petty Enterprises to Richard Petty Motorsports — now operates out of Concord, N.C., and the garage remains operational by restoring old cars.

“I felt we went as low as we could and still survive,” Petty said. “We got a long way to get to the top of the hill but we’re way farther than we were last year.”

The area remains the hub of the Petty name. Less than three miles away, another significant chunk of the Petty legacy is home to a magical place for children with chronic medical conditions or illnesses, some of them terminal.

It is 84 acres of pure bliss for kids who come here for one-week summer camps: Places where they can frolic in handicap-accessible tree houses, cool off in pools, bowl in gutter-free lanes, aim a bow and arrow at a bull’s eye, get their hair colored in all sorts of funky shades at the beauty parlor or dress up and perform in a talent show.

About 16,000 kids from 6 to 16 with cancer, spinal bifida, autism, diabetes, hemophilia, sickle cell anemia and other illnesses have come here since June 15, 2004, and their families have never paid a cent.

When they arrive, they will note the odd speed limit along the driveway — 4.5 mph, a tribute to Adam’s No. 45 racing number.

Petty’s generous NASCAR family have donated money to build much of it. Jimmie Johnson ‘s money help build a bowling center. Kurt Busch donated money for an indoor softball field. DaleEarnhardt Jr.’s foundation raised funds for an amphitheater. Kyle does an annual charity ride to continue the fund-raising efforts.

Adam was inspired to build a place like this after he went to Paul Newman’s Boggy Creek camp in Eustis, Fla., shortly after Adam started his racing career. But that vision went dark on May 12, 2000, when Adam was killed during practice for a NASCAR Nationwide Series race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon.

The throttle apparently stuck on his car, slamming into the turn-three wall, before the days of SAFER barriers. Adam was pronounced dead on arrival at a nearby hospital. He was only 19.

Adam made his first and only Cup start, at Texas Motor Speedway, 40 days before he died. Adam — the first four-generation driver in Cup history — was on a fast-track to greatness.

“Any passion that Kyle had for racing went away when Adam went away,” Richard said. “He just existed then. It took the wind out of him .. It stopped my world, too. I felt guilty. If it hadn’t been for me in the racing deal then Adam wouldn’t have been in a race car.

“Then a lady sent me a sympathy card that said ‘never put a question mark where God put a period.’ And that took everything away from me. I got back to my real life.”

Not long after his death, Kyle and his wife, Pattie, decided that building Adam’s dream was the best way to honor his memory.

“We get so caught up in our little world of going around in circles, it becomes the most important thing in the world to you,” Kyle said. “Sometimes it takes things to change your perspective . you can take all the races in the world and stand all the trophies end-to-end and in the big picture of life they’re just tokens.”

Drop by the camp and take a peek if you’d like. Dottie Payne graciously gives free tours on a golf cart to anybody who happens to stop by, including some folks from Italy in the area recently. Dottie asked them to bring back some Italian bread if they ever return.

If you come, be sure to pack some Kleenex. You’ll cry watching all those happy faces, doing things they never dreamed of doing.

“Every time I go over to the camp and see a smile, it’s Adam’s smile, Richard said, reflecting Kyle’s sentiments. “To see that keeps bringing it back. It’s the good part of looking back.

“Adam was one person. He was ours. We traded the Lord and gave Adam back to him and he gave us a chance to make 16,000 kids smile.”

Petty takes a visitor to one more stop — his museum in nearby Randleman, N.C. Established in 1988, the museum has a slew of knickknacks, from Richard’s belt buckles to his wife Lynda’s dolls to Richard’s championship trophies and old cars.

There is even a baseball bat signed by the reclusive Joe DiMaggio.

Stuff, Richard said, that he “accumulated.” This seemed like a good place to put all the stuff on display.

But the greatest symbol of the Petty legacy is the man himself. “I’ve been here so dag-gum long, I’m walking history,” he said. Predictably, a family of four shows up in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon at the museum, and hit the mother lode. Richard does his thing — pictures, autographs and smiles — and everybody walks away happy.

At his age, he could easy retire and kick back, enjoy some time in the family ranch — two miles away from Victory Junction — that includes a few buffalo Petty imported from Wyoming. He might be able to focus exclusively on Lynda, still struggling after being diagnosed with CNS (central nervous system) Lymphoma a few years ago.

But idle time would not suit him at all. Kyle looks at what happens to other icons — Paul “Bear” Bryant and Joe Paterno — both dead shortly after leaving the sport, and fears the same for his dad. So what’s the point of stopping?

Besides, the King has no interest in starting a new life. This is it, all he’s ever known. He tried going to business school shortly after high school, and that lasted a few months before he found his true calling.

And this nation’s sports history is far richer for it.

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