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Richard Petty delights local audience
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Richard Petty

One of NASCARs all-time greatest drivers, Richard Petty, said last Friday night that theres always been a connection between Dawson County and NASCAR.

Thered have to be a connection, he said, speaking exclusively with the Dawson News & Advertiser. You know, the guys out of Dawsonville, you go back to Gober Sosebee and then Bill Elliott come along in the 70s, so theres always been a connection out of that part of the country to NASCAR.

Known by NASCAR fans as The King, Petty delighted hundreds who paid $50 each to listen to his stories and to eat barbecue and sip sweet iced tea at the Taste of History: History of Auto Racing in Northeast Georgia, hosted by the Northeast Georgia History Center in Gainesville.

Petty, who began his professional racing career in 1958, was nicknamed The King after winning the Daytona 500 and the NASCAR national championship each seven times, 1964-1981. His wins are tied with Dale Earnhardts. In all, Petty accumulated 200 victories before retiring in 1992. His son, Kyle Petty, also became a NASCAR driver.

Along with Petty was longtime crew chief and first cousin, Dale Inman, who took the stage. Best-selling author Ronda Rich served as the mistress of ceremonies.

I have never seen Richard Petty turn down an autograph, said Rich in her opening remarks. I have never seen him be unkind to the legions of fans who trail him everywhere he is. Richard Petty is the best ambassador any sport has ever had.

Petty talked about his short-lived first win in 1959 at Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta. That same year, Petty was also named Rookie of the Year.

It was a 150-mile race on a dirt track, he said. I was running a 57 Oldsmobile convertible, and Dad (Lee Petty) had a 59 Plymouth hardtop. The race started and we run and run, and they flagged me the winner.

Pettys victory, however, was fleeting when someone protested just as the trophy was being brought out.

Wait a minute. Whos protesting the race? Petty asked.

Its your daddy, somebody told him.

Petty explained that with all the dirt and dust, someone miscounted the laps run by his father, who was later announced the winner.

When the whole deal was over, at the time, NASCAR was paying a $500 bonus for a current year model car, Richard Petty said. I had a 57. He had a 59. So, he convinced me it was a good deal him winning the race got us $500 more dollars.

Racing historian and president of the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame, Gordon Pirkle, said Pettys comments surprised him.

Id always heard it a little differently, said Pirkle. It was the first time I heard him admit that he did win the race usually he didnt have much to say about it. His father, Lee, would always say Richard knows how it come out.

Everyone in the Petty family participated in racing, including Pettys mother, Elizabeth, who did the accounting for the family.

Momma would give us just enough money to get to the race track, then expect us to win enough money to get back home, said Petty.

So I knew nothin was ever going to be handed to me. I learned that the harder you work, the better your chances are of havin somethin at the end of the day.

Petty also talked about the crash that ended his fathers racing career.

In 1961, before the start of the Daytona 500, Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp were racing for position during the second, 100-mile qualifying run.

Daddy was running for position, but he wasnt leading, the younger Petty said. Him and (Johnny) Beauchamp were racing and Beauchamp was behind him, and somebody spun out in the third or fourth corner; Daddy let off, but Beauchamp didnt. He stayed wide open. He took him right through the guard rail. He went over the tunnel, and he tore his leg up, busted his lung. He was in the hospital for four months. Bascially, that ended his racing career.

Petty said he didnt see it when it happened.

When my daddy started the second race, he said, I was having glass picked out of my eye.

He explained how he had gone over the guard rail during the first 100-mile qualifying race that same day.

Goin in the first corner, somebody blown up, and I run up over a crank shaft or something, he said. ... I went over the guard rail, and I landed on the outside of the race track, and when I did, something come through the windshield.

As Petty was released from his eye treatment, he got word about his fathers accident during the last part of the race.

I walked out and about that time my dad ran across the wall. I ran over to see what had happened, and hurt my ankle, he said, laughing. I didnt get hurt in the wreck.

After that, it was up to my brother Mauriceand I to take care of things.

Petty won his first Daytona 500 in 1964 with the help of Dale Inman.

That was a big day for us, said Inman. In 64, Plymouth came with a pretty good body. The cars were stock, and they had the Hemi engine.

Fast-forward to the 1979 Daytona 500, which was the first year for flag-to-flag television coverage.

We didnt do anything different, said Inman. We just won. It was such a big deal for the TV audience. At that time, you got to figure ABC, NBC, CBS anybody that had a TV turned on was probably watching us. It couldnt have been scripted better. It was the best thing that ever happened portraying us to the national audiences.

Things have changed.

I was disappointed that Kyle (Petty) was unable to attend the event, said Pirkle. I was gonna ask him about Fox Sports buying out Speed, said Pirkle. I think its going to hurt us.

Pirkle said he doesnt understand why Fox now has three programs: Fox Sports Alive, Fox Sports South, and Fox Sports One.

I like to show people that if I flip between all three stations, theyre carrying the same program, but theyve got different advertisers, he said. So, theyre collecting three times the money with one program. I think its a waste of two channels.

In addition to Pirkle, several other Dawson County fans enjoyed Pettys stories, including Chamber President Christie Haynes, Dawsonville Mayor James Grogan, David Sosebee, Vaudell Sosebee, and Tommy Hosea, with the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame.

The program wrapped up with a focus on the Petty Family Foundation, whose goal is to enrich the lives of families affected by serious illness and injury through a variety of charitable events and educational programs, according to the foundations website.

For information about the Northeast Georgia History Centers upcoming events, go to www.negahc.org.

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