Alton, Virginia. Even with the eyes hidden behind the black sunglasses and the face shaded by the feather-decorated cowboy hat, those around are immediately put at ease by the famous smile. It pushes up the corners of the trim mustache, a part of the trademark look of one of racing’s most famous figures for decades. The stories are almost as well known as he is; the 200-time NASCAR race winner walking through the infield offering a smile or a friendly greeting to the awed onlookers overwhelmed by the presence of a legend amidst them. Even as the crowd gathers the smile doesn’t fade, the flourish of his autograph doesn’t stale and his genuine personality and appreciation shines through. Despite a resume that no one will ever approach surpassing, he remains, locked in place until the last autograph is signed. This weekend those attending the Michelin GT Challenge at VIR will be in the presence of royalty, “The King” himself, Richard Petty, is coming to VIRginia International Raceway (VIR).
The seven-time NASCAR champion – a record shared with Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson – will act as Grand Marshall for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship weekend at the Southern Virginia race course on Sunday, August 27.
“I am thrilled to serve as Grand Marshal for the Michelin GT Challenge at VIR,” said Petty. “I couldn’t think of a better occasion to be back on a track than at the only mid-Atlantic stop of this premier North American sports car racing series. VIR is an amazing road course and I’m looking forward to kicking off the big event – it’s going to be a day full of excitement!”
As he hinted in his comments at the time of the announcement, Petty is not new to VIR. While best known for his dominance of stock car racing in the 1960s and ‘70s, the native of Randleman, North Carolina took some time on July 31, 1966 to visit the Alton, Virginia-area track. While NASCAR frowned upon its stars racing outside of the series, Petty – along with fellow stock aces David Pearson, Wendell Scott and Curtis Turner – was an invited guest of the North Carolina Region of the Sports Car Club Of America (SCCA) for a 400-mile race turning left and right in the coupes that contested SCCA Trans-Am series at that time.
Few considered the NASCAR drivers a real threat for victory but, despite a wet track and on-again, off-again downpours over the weekend, Petty turned heads in a Plymouth Barracuda built for Trans-Am competition. The lanky legend-to-be qualified on the second row of the grid and wasted little time showing that he meant to stay near the front for what would be a five-hour, 18-minute race. Petty charged up to second-place and held it until lap five when he took the Plymouth off course. Despite the soaked grass off the circuit, he returned to the track, now mired outside the top-20. Within five laps Petty was back within the top-ten and pressuring the top-five. Unfortunately, the Barracuda was back in the mud near the same location on the 13th lap. This time Petty was not able to continue and would retire from the race. Least you think Petty’s lack of road racing experience was what eliminated him from contention, among those who also came up short of the full race distance were legendary sports car racers like Sam Posey, Bob Tullius and Richard Atwood.
Petty’s career grew exponentially more legendary for the next two decades. One year after competing at VIR, in 1967, Petty went on to score 27 of his 200 NASCAR “Cup” wins. That amounted to over 50 percent of the races run that season against some of the greatest racecar drivers of the generation. Petty’s Plymouth Belvedere did one better than the unthinkable win percentage, he scored an unprecedented and never to be replicated ten consecutive victories in NASCAR’s top class that season. No one has been within five victories in a row in the history of NASCAR and Petty himself ranks as one of three to ever reach that five race number.
Unfortunately, with the hectic season in the world’s premier class of stock car racing, the legendary Southerner never had another shot at VIR’s twists and turns. Although, looking at him today one wouldn’t be surprised if he sneaks on the “Petty Blue” helmet again and tiptoes behind the wheel of a Porsche 911, Ford GT or Chevy Corvette on Sunday.
“It is an incredible honor to have ‘The King’ at VIR to kick off our largest and most exciting race of the season,” said Connie Nyholm, VIR owner and CEO. “Richard Petty is one of the most accomplished and respected figures in motorsports, and our fans and drivers are in for a race day they will truly never forget. We can’t wait to share this amazing experience with everyone!”
Petty’s last NASCAR victory came at the 1984 Firecracker 400 in Daytona. He took his final race start in 1992 at the “Cup” season finale held at Atlanta Motor Speedway. While being out of the cockpit for 25 years, he has remained a vital part of stock car racing. As a car owner, Petty has kept the celebrated number 43 on track and is an ambassador for NASCAR around the world. Having turned 80 years old in July, the hero among heroes continues to be one of the biggest draws for fans and media alike at every event he attends. His return to VIR is just one example of how the super men of racing’s greatest generation continue to draw fans… even those that never saw them race. With autograph sessions, meet-and-greets as well as an opportunity to call the most famous words in racing: “Drivers, Start Your Engines”, the newest generation of VIR fans will have a glimpse of what made their parents and grandparents subjects to “The King”.