Patriarch L. Petty dead at 86

Stock car pioneer was driven to succeed

April 06, 2000|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Winston Cup racing lost a pioneer yesterday when Lee Petty died at the age of 86.

Petty, patriarch of what is believed to be the only four-generation family of athletes in major American sports, died in Greensboro, N.C. He had remained in intensive care at Moses Cone Hospital after February surgery for a stomach aneurysm.

Petty was a part of stock car racing from the first days of NASCAR, beginning his career with an eight-race schedule in 1949 and going on to notch 55 career wins. He won the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959 and became the sport's first three-time champion in the Grand National Series, which later was renamed Winston Cup.

The Petty family made no statements yesterday, leaving it to others to talk about the man who founded the winningest organization in American motorsports. Petty Enterprises has won 10 Winston Cup championships and 271 races, having entered more than 2,140 cars in nearly 1,800 events.

"All of us at NASCAR are saddened to hear of Lee's passing and extend our deepest sympathy to his family," NASCAR president Bill France said.

When France's father, Bill Sr., founded the sport, Petty was one of his first stars. His 55 wins rank seventh on the all-time victory list. His son, Richard, has 200 wins to rank first. Lee Petty, who found victory lane on everything from dirt tracks to the biggest of the super speedways, finished in the top five 66 percent of the time.

During the past 20 years, Lee had grown more and more reclusive. He declined to attend celebrations in recognition of Richard when he retired as the first seven-time champion and the all-time race winner. He refused to participate in NASCAR's 50th anniversary season in 1998 and did not attend the Winston Cup banquet that year, when his grandson, Kyle, was named the sport's Man of the Year. He also didn't show up for planned activities around the celebration of great-grandson Adam's entry into major-league racing last year. And, for that matter, he didn't even go to his own induction into the Hall of Fame.

"They called Grandpa and invited him," Kyle Petty said during an interview last year. "He said, `No.' They called him back and offered him a free airplane ticket. He said, `No.' They called him back and offered him a free airplane ticket and money. He said, `I don't need your publicity or your money. I'm not in it anymore.' "

And Richard, explaining his father's reticence, said, "My daddy raced in the first [NASCAR] race. But my daddy has earned the right to stay home and do what he wants to do."

Right up until his surgery, Lee Petty did exactly that, which shows he really hadn't changed much through the years.

A year after Richard started racing under his father's tutelage in 1958, his first victory appeared to have been won at a North Carolina dirt track. It was his father whom he had beaten to the finish line that day, but the elder Petty protested loudly. When race officials took the victory away from his son and bestowed it on him, Lee Petty smiled.

"I would have protested even if it was my mother," he said, adding that when his son won he wanted him to have earned it.

Lee Petty's best season was 1959, when he captured the inaugural Daytona 500, beating Johnny Beauchamp in a photo finish that wasn't decided for three days.

"There wasn't any better driver than Lee Petty in his day," said Junior Johnson, another legendary driver who also starred in those early days before becoming an equally successful car owner. "There might have been more colorful drivers, but when it came down to winning the race, he had as much as anyone I've ever seen."

Lee retired from racing in 1964 to devote more time to the mechanics of racing.

A master mechanic, he was voted Mechanic of the Year in 1950 and most popular driver in 1953 and 1954.

He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth; two sons, Richard and Maurice; nine grandchildren; 17 great-grandchildren; and one brother.

A private graveside service for family members only has been scheduled this week. In lieu of flowers, the family has requested donations to the Level Cross United Methodist Church Building Fund, 10142 U.S. Highway Bus. #220 North, Randleman, N.C. 27317.

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