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Higgins: Petty and the president

TOM HIGGINS' SCUFFS

- ThatsRacin.com Contributor
Thursday, Jul. 02, 2009

It was a day during which a county commissioner upstaged the President of The United States.

The date was July 4, 1984.

The county commissioner was Richard Petty.

The president was Ronald Reagan.

How did Petty, the “King” of NASCAR, do it?

By winning the Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway while Reagan, the first sitting chief executive ever to attend an auto race, was among the awe-struck throng looking on.

It was Petty's 200th victory on NASCAR's major circuit, an astounding accomplishment.

As I grow older, approaching age 72, I sometimes can’t recall everything that happened the day before.

But I vividly remember that Independence Day dating back 25 years, more than a quarter of life expectancy for most of us.

Me and my media buddies were up early to go to the track. We anticipated, correctly, that traffic would be snarled more than usual because of heightened security associated with Reagan’s visit.

We were right.

After finally getting parked, we found long lines at the gates into the grandstands and press box. Everyone entering had to go through metal detectors manned by Secret Service agents and local law enforcement.

Still more metal detectors waited inside the fence.

Finally, we reached the foot of the steps leading to the press box. A husky Secret Service agent was standing there.

“Okay, guys, take ‘em apart,” he said, pointing to our computers and offering a small screwdriver.

I panicked.

“Sir,” I said, “it’s all I can do to turn this durn thing on and off. I’ll never get it apart and back together.”

“I sympathize,” he said. “But I can’t let you up there to the box until you show me what’s inside the computer. There could be a bomb in that thing, and the President is going to be sitting in a nearby suite.”

Somehow, I managed to remove the cover from the bulky, early-model computer, called a Port-A-Bubble. And I got it back on.

President Reagan wasn’t present for the 400’s green flag, but he was en route to the famed 2.5-mile Florida track, where the Coke Zero 400 is scheduled this weekend. Reagan memorably gave the command to start engines by phone from Air Force One high above either South Carolina or Georgia.

In an incredible moment of luck, a photographer snapped an iconic picture of the president’s plane landing at the Daytona Beach airport just as Petty sped down the backstretch, which is parallel to the runway. It appeared Petty’s Pontiac was under the left wing of the beautiful aircraft.

Terry Labonte, Bobby Allison, Dale Earnhardt, Harry Gant, Petty and pole-winner Cale Yarborough took turns leading during the first half of the 160-lap race.

As the finish neared, it was Petty and Yarborough far ahead at the front, leading Gant by about a half-lap.

Starting the 157th lap, rookie driver Doug Heveron lost control just past the start/finish line and flipped into the grass separating the racing surface and pit road. The accident forced a yellow flag.

Since Petty and Yarborough had passed the line, both knew whoever got back first under caution would win the race. NASCAR did not freeze the field the first moment of yellow as it does now. Racing back was permitted.

Petty was the leader in his famed red, white and blue No. 43 Pontiac. Yarborough right behind in an orange and white No. 28 Chevrolet.

Down the backstretch Yarborough pulled an aerodynamic slingshot pass to forge ahead. Petty drew alongside coming off the fourth turn for a dash through the homestretch trioval to the flag.

Yarborough was on the outside, Petty the inside.

Their cars scraped sheet metal hard enough to send sparks and smoke spewing.

At the line Petty was ahead by less than a foot. Although two laps were left to go, King Richard had won his 200th race!

Me and other media members could see President Reagan next door in the VIP Suite owned by NASCAR’s ruling France Family. Like everyone else at the speedway, he appeared astonished in breathless excitement and was holding his chest.

As the field slowly circled the track on Lap 159, Yarborough drove onto pit road, only to be frantically waved back out by his crew.

One more lap and it was over. Richard Petty had claimed a 200th triumph in NASCAR’s big-time, a seemingly unachievable plateau.

Richard didn’t go to Victory Lane. Instead, he parked the car that was destined to be enshrined in the Smithsonian Institute on the start/finish line and was met by a jubilant Buddy Parrott-led pit crew.

Petty then was ushered up the steps to meet Reagan, who had been interviewed on TV by former driving champion Ned Jarrett just before the dramatic finish unfolded.

Reagan exuberantly shook hands in the France suite with Petty, a fellow Republican and member of the governing local commission in Randolph County, N.C. Petty and fellow NASCAR star Bobby Allison had arranged for Reagan’s visit to the Daytona speedway on Independence Day.

“The president said it blowed his mind that me and Cale would touch fenders going almost 200 miles an hour,” said a grinning Petty. “He couldn’t understand how we kept control of the cars.

“We touched fairly hard three or four times. The last ‘bam’ sort of squirted me out ahead. When the cars came apart, it seemed to give me the slightest edge.”

Proclaimed Reagan: “I feel the patriots of years ago would feel right at home in this atmosphere. Our founding fathers were gutsy like you, and we better not forget that. Patrick Henry, from what I read about him, would have been out in one of those cars in the race.”

Of his premature roll onto pit road, Yaborough said, “I guess in the excitement my brain blew up. I just flat messed up.”

Yarborough’s error set up one of the greatest trivia questions in NASCAR history: “Who finished second in the 1984 Pepsi 400 at Daytona?”

Most answer that it was Yarborough, because of a famous photo showing he and Petty side-by-side racing to the checkered flag.

However, the answer is Harry Gant. Yarborough’s dive onto pit road cost him second place. Cale finished third.

Yarborough praised his rival Petty.

“Richard drove a heck of a race,” said Cale. “I’m glad to see him get his 200th. Now he can work on 300.”

It wasn’t to be.

Although Petty continued to race through the 1992 season, he never triumphed as a driver again. I don’t view this as a negative.

Two-hundred is an impressive round number in terms of stock car racing victories, especially when the final triumph outshined the President of The United States.

I

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