Lee Petty, Stock Cars, Class of 1996
No family is as closely linked with any one form of motorsport as the Pettys with stock-car racing. Lee Petty, the patriarch, was born in 1914. Entering the sport at age 35, he was hardly a youngster for such an arduous form of racing. His first Grand National race, at the Old Charlotte fair grounds in 1949, was hardly an auspicious event for the elder Petty as he crashed the family Buick.
Petty's luck improved when he moved over to Plymouth. Lee always managed a strong showing throughout the 12 seasons of his career, never finishing lower than 6th in Grand National standings. He was Grand National champion in 1954, 1958 and 1959. His best season was 1959, where he finished 41 of 49 events, won 12 and amassed a then-unprecedented $46,000 in winnings.
The year 1959 was also important for Petty, his family and NASCAR as it marked two important debuts, son Richard at the wheel of an Oldsmobile and the introduction of the Daytona Speedway-NASCAR had come a long way from the sands of Daytona Beach. "When we saw the Daytona Speedway for the first time," Petty recalled later for Bob Cutter, "we knew stock-car racing was never going to be the same again. I had won the beach road course at Speed Weeks, but this track was really different, so big it made you wonder about things. It made Darlington look like a shoestring. We figured we'd have to learn how to prepare the car special, just like we prepare cars special for Indianapolis."
And what better way to enter the sport's second era than with a victory for Lee and Rookie of the Year honors for Richard. The following year, Lee and Richard managed to lead the event for 30 laps, but the underpowered Plymouths ultimately lost out to Junior Johnson's Chevy. In the 1961 Daytona running, Lee's luck took a far more serious turn for the worse when Petty locked bumpers with Johnny Beauchamp , sending both cars through the guard rails and on to the parking lot 20 feet below. Petty's injuries were serious: a punctured lung and serious leg damage, and they marked the end of his professional driving career.
The Daytona 500 was Lee's greatest personal thrill, but he claimed to derive equal satisfaction from each time he saw son Richard win. As the years passed, he became more and more of an overseer of the family business, taking time off to golf and to relax, letting Richard's brother Maurice handle the mechanical side of the business. But that didn't affect the basic facts about this man; Lee Petty was not only a great driver and manager, he founded a racing dynasty, and, incidentally, his 54 career wins still rank him seventh on the all-time winners list in 1996.