In Richard Petty's museum, even the stock-car driver's winning socks are sacred

September 06, 1992|By Dave Caldwell | Dave Caldwell,Knight-Ridder News Service

LEVEL CROSS, NORTH CAROLINA — LEVEL CROSS, N.C. --There they are. Behind glass. Under lock and key. Preserved for posterity. Two gen-yoo-ine pieces of American sports memorabilia:

Richard Petty's socks!

And not just any pair of Richard Petty's socks. These are the white, flame-retardant socks Mr. Petty wore when he posted the most recent victory of his long and distinguished career as a stock-car driver.

Some of the other souvenirs from his victory at the 1984 Firecracker 400 at Daytona are also behind glass at the Richard Petty Museum -- his uniform, the trophy, the empty bottle of champagne from which he sipped in Victory Lane.

But the socks catch your eye first. This guy is such a legend that even his hosiery is a treasured keepsake.

Mr. Petty, who says this is his last season as a driver on the NASCAR Winston Cup series, has won 200 races in his 34-year career -- more than twice as many as anyone else. In 1967, Mr. Petty not only won 27 of 48 races, but also posted 10 straight victories, and any stock-car expert worth his oil filter thinks both those records will stand forever.

Imagine Elvis Presley behind the wheel of a race car, and you have a pretty good idea of what Mr. Petty means to this sport. Stock-car fans call Mr. Petty the "King" of stock-car racing, and no other driver is presumptuous enough to borrow his title.

His red-and-blue Pontiac, with his famous No.43 on the side, gets bigger cheers at Winston Cup races than any other car. When Mr. Petty walks through the garage area, people stop dead in their tracks to revere him.

Although Mr. Petty has been winless for eight years, his loyal legion of fans shows up to cheer him on at every race -- sort of like the Arnie's Army of automobiles. More than 20,000 of Mr. Petty's fans last year visited the Petty Museum, one of only a few buildings in this sleepy North Carolina hamlet about 15 miles south of Greensboro.

The museum, owned by the Petty family, is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. except on Thanksgiving, Christmas and Sundays. It hunkers between two very important places in Mr. Petty's life: the house where he was born 55 years ago and his garage.

It is easy to find the museum. Swing off U.S. Route 220 south at the Level Cross exit, hang a left, go a mile or so on Branson Mill Road and there it is. The side of Petty's shop is covered with a gigantic painting of a smiling Mr. Petty, wearing his ever-present cowboy hat and wraparound shades.

The best part about the Richard Petty Museum -- admission is $3 for adults, $1.50 for students up to 17 years old -- is looking at the stuff that people have made for him over the years. One full wall of the museum, plus a part of another, is covered with trinkets his fans have given to him.

For those not into the hero-worship thing, the museum also has a lot of memorabilia from Mr. Petty's racing career. Three of his old race cars, including his famous 1970 Plymouth Superbird, are parked in the middle of the museum. Another wall is lined with many of the hundreds of trophies won by Mr. Petty, his daddy, Lee, and his son, Kyle, in their racing careers. The place is filled with old photos and newspaper clippings, a staple of any museum.

Also on display are such borderline-Petty things as the trophy that the Petty Enterprises-sponsored Little League team won in 1987 and a hat made of old STP Oil Treatment cans, the corporate sponsor of his famous red-and-blue Pontiac. Richard Petty barbecue sauce is on sale at the fully-stocked souvenir stand.

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