Snapshot: Lee Petty
Saturday, May. 21, 2011
Born: March 14, 1914, Randleman.
Died: April 5, 2000, Moses Cone Hospital, Greensboro, at age 86 of a stomach aneurysm.
Family: Wife Elizabeth, sons Richard and Maurice.
He started NASCAR's very first race for the Grand National Division (which has evolved into the Cup series) on June 19, 1949, at Charlotte Speedway, a three-quarter-mile dirt track off Wilkinson Boulevard. He barrel-rolled a borrowed Buick Roadmaster in a wild crash, destroying the car. Unhurt, he worried about how to tell the car's owner and also how to explain to his wife where he had been that afternoon.
Petty finished 17th in a 33-car field and won $25.
Despite his disappointment in the inaugural event, Petty sensed he might be able to make a living in racing. Figuring cars similar to the Buick were too heavy to run competitively at that time, he bought a much-lighter Plymouth coupe and began racing that. He won in his seventh start, at Heidelberg, Pa., near Pittsburgh, on Oct. 2, 1949. He finished five laps ahead in the 100-miler on a half-mile dirt track, earning $1,500.
He captured Grand National championships in 1954, '58 and '59, winning seven, seven and 11 races in those seasons, respectively.
He won in the much-ballyhooed inaugural Daytona 500 on Feb. 22, 1959. However, he wasn't declared the winner for three days after an incredibly close finish with Johnny Beauchamp. No photo-finish camera was in place, so NASCAR chief "Big Bill" France had to study newsreel footage and a variety of photos to make a decision.
In a cruel twist of fate, the cars of Petty and Beauchamp sailed out of Daytona International Speedway in the 500 of 1961. The crash between the track's third and fourth turns gravely injured Petty, essentially ending his driving career.
He recovered to lead Petty Enterprises, fielding most of the cars son Richard drove to 200 race victories and seven series championships.
Retired Observer motorsports reporter and ThatsRacin.com contributor Tom Higgins on Lee Petty:
I first saw him: At Asheville-Weaverville Speedway on Sept. 8, 1957, in a 100-mile race, the first I ever covered. He won, beating Buck Baker by 10 feet.
First impression: An outgoing, witty man, but very, very competitive and a fellow who abided no nonsense. Some people considered him an ornery cuss.
What people might not know about him: He became an avid, accomplished golfer with a low handicap. He built a golf hole behind his home so he could practice.
My favorite memory of him: Watching him take a golf rival's $1 bill into a pro shop for change so he could collect a 25-cent bet.
Most memorable quote: "If you kin't write about this, you kin't write about nothing." To reporters minutes after completion of the first Daytona 500.
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