Pioneer Lee Petty was chasing the money – and he caught it, too

Friday, May. 20, 2011

A NASCAR racing legacy was born out of necessity.

Lee Petty's passion was automobiles but his business was farming, and his weekend ventures to North Carolina short tracks started as a way to make extra money.

Eventually his hobby became the family business in the small town of Randleman. Petty developed into one of NASCAR's pioneers and established the foundation of one of the sport's most successful franchises.

"Unlike guys who drive today, and unlike even my father, my grandfather didn't drive for trophies or for glory," said Kyle Petty, a former Sprint Cup driver and now an analyst for Speed Channel. "He drove for money. That was essential to keeping the business going.

"The stuff that came later, like the hall of fame induction, didn't matter to him. He didn't drive a car to be in the hall of fame. He drove a car to make money."

Lee Petty, who died in 2000 and will be inducted into the Hall on Monday, was defined by his no-nonsense approach to racing and - like any good businessman - his fixation on the bottom line.

His son, seven-time Cup series champion Richard "The King" Petty, said his father believed there were only two parts to racing.

"There ain't no second place," he said. "You win or you lose."

Lee Petty did a lot of both.

He won 54 races in what is now known as the Cup series in 427 career starts. He remains ninth in career wins - a long way from his first start, when he won $25 and finished 17th in NASCAR's first Cup race, held June 19, 1949, at the old Charlotte Speedway.

Lee Petty's first win came in his fifth start, kicking off a successful career that spanned 15 years as driver, during which he finished in the top 10 an astounding 54 percent of the time.

His legacy as an owner can still be found in the sport today with the stake his son, Richard Petty, maintains in Richard Petty Motorsports, now based in Statesville.

He was the first driver in NASCAR history to win three championships in the Cup division (1954, 1958 and 1959) and was declared the winner of the inaugural Daytona 500 after a three-day review of newsreel footage and photos.

"There wasn't anybody better than Lee Petty in his day," said NASCAR Hall of Fame member Junior Johnson.

Petty's driving career eventually gave way to his role as an owner. Petty Enterprises fielded more than 2,800 entries over a 60-year period, winning more than 250 races and 10 championships.

"Richard had his job to do and I had mine," said Lee's other son, Maurice. "And then Lee told us what he wanted us to do and that's what we did."

Kyle Petty says he believes his grandfather's greatest legacy is not in statistics, but in the careers he helped build.

"There were so many great drivers that came out of that era, but he was as good or better than they were. He won more races and championships," Kyle Petty said.

"But at the same time, look at Marvin Panch, Jim Paschal, Tiny Lund, Pete Hamilton, Richard Petty, all those guys - think of the eventual Hall of Fame drivers that drove for Lee Petty.

"That's his biggest contribution - the guys that came through and drove for them and worked for them and went on to be a factor in the sport."

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