Petty’s autograph NASCAR's ultimate sign


Thursday, May. 20, 2010

Richard Petty’s signature is elaborate.

There are swirls. Curlicues. And so many circles that when I asked about them Thursday, Petty said he had secretly embedded a few of his favorite tracks into his signature.

“Nah, I’m just kiddin’,” Petty said.

Petty’s looping autograph looks like the signature a 10-year-old would come up with during English class while daydreaming about signing his name for a fan for the first time.

Petty is not 10, though. He’s 72. He has signed around a million autographs – up to 5,000 in a single day, he said.

Petty is not only NASCAR’s undisputed King, but also its undisputed King of Signatures.

When I asked Thursday if he carried his own Sharpies to sign with, Petty pulled out a pocketful and said, “Yessir! What color do you want?”

And when he signs: “I don’t use my wrist or fingers,” Petty said. “I sign with my arm. It’s like what they used to teach people back in the 1800s – a penmanship deal.

“See, I took a penmanship class in business college right after I got out of high school. And you could go into the fancy stuff if you wanted to. So that’s where that all came from.”

On Thursday, Petty was honored along with the other four inductees in the first class of NASCAR’s hall of fame. His signature was unveiled in a piece of granite tile outside the hall.

It was a fitting tribute. Petty’s signature looks like it should be part of a museum, and now it is.

Dressed in his signature wrap-around sunglasses, cowboy boots and cowboy hat, Petty looked the part of an icon. In a wheelchair beside him: his wife Lynda, resplendent in her blue dress.

They have been married more than 50 years. She has cancer, but treatments have gone well. This was one of her first public appearances in a long time.

While Richard Petty’s signature now graces the plaza outside the NASCAR Hall of Fame, if you’re a longtime racing fan it may grace your house already.

Petty has signed for everybody, for so long, that his autograph is worth very little monetarily. You can sometimes buy items he signed for 99 cents on eBay.

It is priceless, though, to some. Bill and Kim Chaffee, who obtained a Petty signature Thursday afternoon would attest. It wasn’t their first one, either.

Bill Chaffee got Petty to sign something for him in 1972, when at age 15 he visited the Petty Enterprises shop in Level Cross, N.C. He found Richard there, freshly arrived from a rained-out race in Pocono.

Richard signed then, of course, and he was nice, and that ensured that Bill Chaffee would be a lifelong Petty fan.

And, 38 years later, the man who won seven Cup championships and a record 200 races at NASCAR’s highest level signed again for the Chaffees on Thursday.

Said Kim Chaffee: “Amazing that he doesn’t get tired of autographs after all these years, isn’t it? And that you can still read it.”

The Chaffees are the sort of fans that NASCAR loves. They live in New Hampshire. They drove their van to Charlotte earlier this week and will stay 18 days in a hotel, going to everything until the last checkered flag has flown.

“We’re some of those people who drive 900 miles to watch the drivers race 600,” Kim Chaffee said.

Petty appreciates fans like that more than most. Always has.

“The initial deal was when we started running, the only way we got paid was if there were people in the grandstands,” Petty said.

“If they didn’t buy tickets, we didn’t get paid. An autograph was sort of like ‘Thank you for buying a ticket’ so that Richard Petty and his family can do what they want to do.”

Petty was legendary for signing for fans for hours after a race. He would talk to everyone who approached him and then sign something or take a picture with them.

One fan at a time, Petty became a figure much like Babe Ruth or Arnold Palmer – beloved, personable and larger than life.

Thankfully, Petty never learned the favorite move of today’s athlete: the “sign-and-move.”

When you sign and move – and almost everyone remotely famous in sports does this – you walk while you sign.

In this way, you autograph maybe 5 percent of all the items thrust at you. You still are perceived as a decent guy, you get where you’re going and you don’t waste a lot of time.

Petty never considered an autograph a waste of time, though. An autograph always served a valuable purpose to him – sometimes multiple purposes.

“We used to do a lot of 100-mile races,” Petty said. “My brother, my cousin and another boy would go. There’d be four of us. And while they was loadin’ up the truck – I’d done run the race – I’d sit on pit wall and people would come down out of the grandstand and I’d sit there and sign autographs.

"When they got the truck loaded up, they’d come pick me up and we’d go along. So it was kind of a way of me getting out of working on loading up the truck, OK? I never did tell ‘em that.”

Once, at a track in the 1970s, a tall African-American kid shyly approached Petty for an autograph. Petty not only signed for him, but talked to him awhile, too.

That conversation only took a couple of minutes, but it made an indelible impression. The kid decided to wear No.43, in honor of Petty’s car, on all his basketball teams.

Only in college, when he lost a coin flip for the number (Dean Smith flipped the coin, and Curtis Hunter won), was the kid forced to change to No. 42. But he quickly changed back to No. 43 in the pros, and played so well his NBA team eventually retired his – and Petty’s – number.

That kid was Brad Daugherty.

There are thousands more “I Met Richard Petty” stories like that out there. You may have one.

When I talked to Petty on Thursday, there were fans nearby. You could feel him wanting to go over there.

As we finished up, Petty pulled a blue Sharpie from his left pants pocket and tilted back his black cowboy hat with the two rattlesnake rattles on the brim. He pointed his black cowboy boots toward the fans and walked over.

“Just another day of bein’ Richard Petty,” he said to me over his shoulder.

And then he started to sign.

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140;