The racing legend was in Jonesborough on Monday to promote Food City’s involvement with the Paralyzed Veterans of America charity. It had been eight days since Jimmie Johnson tied Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt as a seven-time NASCAR champion.
Asked if he was OK with Johnson tying the record, Petty pointed out that he was the original seven-time champion.
“The numbers are numbers, but I did mine before anybody did it,” Petty said. “I did it against the crowd I was running against, Earnhardt didn’t run against them. He ran against a different crowd. Jimmie is running different circumstances, different rules with different people. But, seven is seven. He could get eight. He’s a young guy and has a chance to do that. It’s good for racing that’s he’s able to challenge that particular record.”
It’s doubtful anyone will ever challenge some of the other records Petty set in the famed No. 43 car. His 200 Cup Series victories are 95 more than second-place David Pearson. Johnson is seventh on the all-time list with 80 wins and Earnhardt is eighth with 76. In addition, Petty holds the record of most wins in a season (27), most career poles (123) and most career starts (1,184).
More than records, there have been few people throughout the history of sports who have enjoyed the following of Petty. At 80 years old, nearly 25 years after he left the driver’s seat, he still draws a monster crowd. After signing autographs for the associates who work at the Jonesborough Food City store, the line to see Petty wrapped around several aisles of the grocery store.
It has been estimated that Petty has signed more autographs than anyone in human history. Known for going out of his way to please the fans, he has been critical of the availability of today’s drivers. But, he cut them some slack on Monday.
“It’s different circumstances and there are different demands on their time,” he said. When I came along with STP as a sponsor, we made a few appearances and that was it. People didn’t live in a motor home. They got out and socialized with people. Now, the demands on the drivers’ time is so much that I’m glad I'm not driving from that standpoint.”
Petty has seen some of the challenges today’s drivers face first hand. He also knows the challenges of the car owners.
His success behind the wheel hasn’t translated to the same success as an owner. Since the formation of Richard Petty Motorsports in 2009, his drivers have won just five races, the last being Aric Almirola at Daytona in July 2014.
This season with drivers Almirola and Brian Scott, RPM had finishes of 26th and 31st in the Cup Series point standings.
“It wasn’t a good year for us, points wise or winning rides,” Petty said. “It was a terrible year and we’re trying to regroup, move people around and figure out what we’ve got so we can get ready for Daytona.”
Heading into the new year, Petty’s team faces plenty of uncertainty.
The No. 43 Ford driven by Almirola is in fine shape with sponsorship from Smithfield Foods lined up for next season. But, the No. 44 team is looking for a new sponsor and new driver after Scott retired at the end of the season.
Petty has endured in the sport he grew up in. RPM is an off-shoot of the family-owned Petty Enterprises team and came as the result of mergers with other teams and restructuring of the organization. Petty’s team isn’t the only one hurting as NASCAR is yet to announce a new sponsor for the Cup Series. In the meantime, Petty keeps plugging along and being an ambassador for the sport. An example was College GameDay at Bristol Motor Speedway in September.
Before Tennessee and Virginia Tech played in front of the largest crowd to ever see a football game, Petty did a segment on GameDay with former North Carolina State quarterback Dr. Jerry Punch and former Louisville coach Lee Corso. It highlighted Petty’s days as a high school football player and culminated with Petty giving Corso one of his signature cowboy hats.
“That was neat. It looked like race day with people everywhere tailgating,” Petty said. “To see them fill up the stadium like we used to do, that brought good memories back.”
Petty continues to make memories for his loyal fans and new generations that come along. But, it’s about more than himself as he emphasized the importance of helping out the paralyzed veterans group.
“With the paralyzed veterans, all these people sacrificed,” Petty said. “You’ve seen people come back from service and sort of drop out of society. The paralyzed veterans have come in and said this can’t work. Food City has been behind this from the word go. They’ve been good to donate their time, money and their people. And the people in the community have been really good about helping them out whether it’s helping to find jobs, helping to purchase wheelchairs or whatever is needed. It’s always good to get back in this part of the country and say thank you to all these people. ”