'King Richard,' son Kyle swap tales

Jeff Bobo • Mar 23, 2007 at 1:12 AM

BRISTOL, Tenn. - Richard Petty's father, Lee, didn't make it easy for his son to start racing, on the track or off.

Lee wrecked Richard in his very first race, and later Lee protested Richard's first-ever stock car victory, and took the win away from the young "King."

Conversely, Kyle Petty's father Richard put him in a winning car at Daytona the very first time Kyle took a green flag anywhere. Richard and Kyle both got started in racing by their father, but they also both came up in very different eras of NASCAR history.

Father and son came together Thursday evening at Bristol Motor Speedway to share the stories of their family's nearly six decades in racing, and also help raise money for the National Storytelling Association.

Fox sports commentator Mike Joy moderated the storytelling session, which had the Pettys telling about their early careers, their bad wrecks, and their lives in NASCAR from the beginning.

Kyle had never competed in a race car before he made his first start at Daytona in 1979 in an ARCA race. He qualified second and was going to finish second before a seagull helped him pull out the victory.

"A guy named Phil Finney was going to win the race, and this is how long ago it's been, these cars had glass windshields," Kyle said. "He hit a seagull with about eight laps to go. Caused a caution. Knocked the windshield out. That used to happen all the time. That was a fairly common occurrence 25 years ago - there was so many seagulls in the infield that cars would hit them, knock holes in the front, knock windshields out. Anyway we were very blessed and ended up winning the race, and went to Charlotte and wiped out about six race cars."

Kyle joked that you've got to question a father's love when he sends you to Daytona over 190 mph for his very first race.

"(Before Kyle's race) I said, ‘You're starting on the outside pole and that's good,' and we all agreed that we'd sort of idle along and we'll let eight or 12 ahead of us and sort of follow along and learn to drive," Richard said. "The first lap he came by leading the damn race. I said, ‘Well strategy went out the window.'"

Richard also raced for his father at the beginning of his career. He had the option of taking a percentage of the prize money, but he decided he wanted the flat salary of $87.50 per week instead.

Richard learned what a tough competitor his father was in his first Grand National (now Nextel Cup) start in 1958 in Toronto.

"I'm out there running, and my dad and Cotton Owens were racing for the lead," Richard said. "They came up to lap me, and Cotton was leading the race, and I didn't really get out of his way, and the first thing you know Daddy gets by him because he's busy messing with me. I'm still in front of them, and when Daddy comes up on me he just knocked me into the wall. I was eliminated right there.

"Daddy went on to win the race, and I left a 1957 Oldsmobile bumper that weighed about 1,500 pounds hung on the fence up there. And he got mad at me because I bent the car."

The next year Richard was running a partial Cup schedule and won the first race of his career in Atlanta - almost.

"The track got so dusty the flagman got down and came to the infield where the scoring table was to find out how many laps they were running," Richard said. "When it all settled down they flagged me the winner, and we were a bunch of 21-year-old kids jumping around like we'd really done something. Somebody came by and said, ‘You've been protested.' Steam started coming out of my ears, and I went down there to the scorer's table, and Daddy's up there arguing with the scorers. He said, ‘I won the race,' and he ended up winning the race."

It was good for the team, Richard added, because Lee drove a 1959 Plymouth, and the company paid a $500 bonus for driving a new model.

Kyle told about his superstition against white uniforms and haircuts.

His former car owner, Felix Sabates, talked him into wearing a white uniform and cutting his hair, and Kyle proceeded to break his leg in a wreck at Talladega.

"I had a compound fracture of my left femur, which meant part of my bone was sticking out through my white uniform," Kyle said. "You kind of go into shock when something like that happens. Dale Jarrett comes over to the car, leans in and says, ‘Are you all right?' I said, ‘I broke my leg.' He said, ‘How do you know?' and I said, ‘Because the bone is sticking out right there.'

"He leaned in the car, turned around and threw up."

Another time Kyle was in a bad wreck at Indianapolis, was knocked senseless and literally didn't know if he was alive or dead.

"I was praying that I was alive but I couldn't move or open my eyes, and after what seemed like an eternity of this I realized that I wasn't alive," Kyle said. "So, my prayer instantly changed, and I started praying, ‘Please God when I open my eyes make sure Saint Peter is standing there.' I was praying, and I could hear people talking, and all of a sudden out of nowhere I hear Sterling (Marlin) talking.

"And y'all might be from Tennessee, and y'all might like Sterling a lot, but if I'm dead and Sterling is dead, we ain't in heaven. So then my prayer goes back to ‘Please God, let me be alive.'"

Kyle was still unconscious as they tried to lift him out of the car, but according to Marlin, every time they lifted him Kyle "screamed like a little girl."

"Sterling said, ‘They'd try to pick you up, and you'd scream like a girl, and they'd set you back down,'" Kyle said. "After they did it three times, the guy who was hooking the car up told the paramedic, ‘He won't scream if you'll get off his ponytail when you try to pick him up.'"

"I tell people all the time, you'd scream like a girl too if somebody did that to you. I still see that paramedic up there about every two or three years, and he's like, ‘Remember when I was stepping on your hair?'"

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