The Most Watched Sportsman

November 22, 1992

Richard Petty retired last weekend. His name doesn't usually show up on editorial pages, but social historians who want to understand this age need to take careful note of his career and his fans. He's a stock car driver.

Except for major league baseball and horse racing, no professional sport in America draws the crowds that auto racing does. And no baseball players and very few jockeys have had a career as long as Richard Petty's. His last race Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, at age 55, came 35 years after his first. More so even than golf, stock car racing is a competition in which grown men can excel (and make a good living well past their prime).

There were 165,000 race fans in the stands at the Atlanta event. That's roughly equal to three World Series game sell-outs. Sandra McKee, The Sun's auto racing writer, has cited attendance and marketing surveys that show auto racing is "the fastest growing spectator sport in the country."

There have been many changes in stock car racing. It is not the rough and rowdy and slightly disreputable sport of yore. Track owners, broadcasters and, especially, the sponsors and advertisers who are concerned about corporate images won't allow it. Some of those corporations are in the cigarette and beer business, which is an image problem of another sort for auto racing, but the sport's reliance on such corporations may change, too, as it should, in the years ahead.

Richard Petty may well have been seen in action by more fans in the stands (not counting television audiences) than any other American sports figure. His unparalleled 200 victories (nearly double his nearest rival), his willingness to always take time for his legions of fans, and his honest, straightforward approach to his sport helped create stock-car racing's immense popularity in this country. He deserves a place in the history books as well as in the record books.

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