Posted on September 8, 2011 at 1:39 PM
Thursday, Sep 8 at 1:40 PM
LEVEL CROSS, N.C. – Ask any photographer: it’s tough to get the lighting just right on a guy who’s wearing a cowboy hat. But I wasn’t about to ask Richard Petty to take his off.
We came up on Wednesday to talk to The King about The Rock, the speedway that’s getting a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race in 2012. We arrived at Petty’s Garage, where his mechanics soup up high-end cars and also do such low-end things as oil changes. As we unloaded the gear, there he was, about a hundred yards away, tan and lanky, unmistakable in his hat, sunglasses, jeans and boots, drifting on the asphalt between the buildings.
I asked him where I might find some chairs to use for the interview. Hm, he said. Let’s go see. I followed him around the garage. Here he was, Richard Petty, winner of 200 races and a NASCAR Hall of Famer. And here we were, wandering around his shop, looking for a place to sit. Other people have people. Petty is his own person.
We finally found a custom-made leather seat. He uses it for grueling autograph sessions that can last for hours. It’s built by the same company that makes the seats for his race cars. An assistant said he’s comfortable in it.
He cracked jokes. When John Gray, the photojournalist, went looking for a power outlet for his lights, Petty gave us that wide white toothy smile and asked us if we were really ready for the interview. I plopped his custom seat down in front of the camera. “If you’re sitting there,” he laughed, “where am I gonna sit?” John asked him not to move too much-- making sure the lights wouldn’t cast a shadow across his face. “I don’t need to be shady,” Petty said through a big grin. “I’m shady enough.”
I asked about the hat. He chuckled. He gets them from Charlie 1 Horse
, a manufacturer in Texas that also makes hats for Montgomery Gentry and George Strait. Every two or three months, they send him a new one. He signs the old one and donates it to charity. One of them surfaced on eBay. It features feathers, snakeskin and an animal jawbone. It’s going for $600.
He wore a custom-made belt buckle with a blue 43 on it. He sat among his customized cars, including a custom-made Dodge Challenger. Around the garage, he’s referred to with a custom-made moniker: “RP.” Everything that surrounds Petty, it seems, is custom-made.
He talked about his wins at Rockingham. Drivers liked the track, he said. The fans made the place fun. And as an added bonus, you could drive up U.S. 1 to Pinehurst and get a round of golf in.
He remembers his eleven victories at The Rock. But most of all, he recalls blowing an engine at Rockingham in 1973 and losing the championship because of it. He’s got more vivid memories of the bad times than the good. Don’t we all.
We talked for about 20 minutes, and then he was off to another appointment. At 74, The King is still very much in demand, with autographs to sign and appearances to make and a race team to run. He posed for a picture. He shook my hand and gave me that custom-made smile. And he looked me in the eye. I think. I wasn’t about to ask him to take his sunglasses off.