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Being Petty

13.7.06. Back in 1996, a new Republican candidate stood for the Secretary of State in North Carolina.  At 6’2”, he towered over his Democrat opposition, his infectious smile and pearly white teeth winning hearts and minds across the state. 

But not even his imposing height and warmth of character could stop his political nemesis, Elaine Marshall, from going on to win, and send her rival packing.

For Richard Petty, this was one of the rare occasions when he didn’t make the podium…

Relaxed, tanned, with trademark cowboy hat and sunglasses, Petty had time to reflect briefly on his political detour ten years ago, while holding joint pole position as one of the star-studded statesmen of motorsport at this year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed.

“Hell, if I’d won, I wouldn’t have had the fun doing what I’ve been doing for the last ten years”, he quipped.

And its equally unlikely that Petty would have been at Goodwood, giving fans a rare glimpse of one of the sports greatest - and most gracious - ambassadors, on the famous Goodwood hillclimb and backstage in the paddock.

Listening to Petty, it’s hard to understand how such a soft-spoken man could have cut it to the very top of NASCAR over a career spanning 34 years, with 1,184 races under his belt, 200 victories - including seven times in the Daytona 500 - and a record seven NASCAR Winston Cup victories on the way.

You get some inkling of his special powers when you take a look at one of his race cars.  Like a shark in a sea of plankton, Petty’s huge 1972 Dodge Charger basked in the Goodwood paddock, its legendary STP paintwork and immaculate presentation testimony to Wayne Smith’s restoration skills back at Petty Racing, North Carolina.

The spartan cockpit has enough room for briefing an entire NASCAR grid, and out front there’s a hood the size of a heliport. But there’s no mistaking the razor-sharp menace of the freshly-prepped V8 when it thunders into life.

‘Racing’s changed a whole lot’, said Petty, in an exemplary understatement. He revealed that the start of his relationship with major backer STP was a far cry from today’s contract-led blood-letting, and took place via an animated phone call on the way to a race in Riverside, California in 1972.

‘STP boss, Andy Granatelli, told me to paint the car STP blue’, said Petty. ‘Well, I told him it was going to be Petty blue, so we talked a deal and agreed to include STP red too.  Then we found an STP sticker somewhere, slapped it on the car and went racing.”

Needless to say, the Charger, and all Petty’s subsequent NASCAR challengers, soon morphed into fantastically successful 200mph advertising hoardings for USA engine saviour, STP, who remained with Petty throughout his career, and still sponsor the Petty Racing team in NASCAR’s Nextel Cup.

But despite the mega-dollar business that NASCAR has grown to become, you get the emphatic message that its undisputed ‘King’, Richard Petty - who was awarded the USA’s highest civilian award when he hung up his helmet in 1992 - is still a man guided by laser to the principle that he owes everything to his fans.

Just ask any one of the huge army who left Goodwood clutching their prized Petty autograph.

‘I always try to do something better today than I did yesterday’, was 69
year-young Richard Petty’s parting shot, as he clambered into the Charger and headed for the Hill.

And that’s a principle that takes some beating too.

Better Than New
Wayne Smith, has toiled away at Petty Enterprises for a number of years and being adept at turning his hand to most projects, wasn’t at all phased when given the task of revitalising Richard Petty’s infamous Dodge Charger for the Goodwood Festival of Speed. 

“Build the car as if we were taking it to the ‘72  Daytona 500," said Richard Petty. "So that’s exactly what we set about recreating," states Wayne.

“It took just one month to get the car ready for the Goodwood event with six of us working pretty much flat out on the project.  The Dodge was in pretty good shape to begin with, but had stood for around 30 years, so we had to go through everything systematically, replacing any items that had perished or were worn or fatigued, in order to get the car ready again for the track.”

“In actual fact, this eventually resulted in a complete restoration,” says Wayne.  “We took the car down to nuts and bolts, bead-blasted off several layers of paint from the body which had accumulated over the years and then set about finding a whole bunch of new parts to enable us to put it back in a driveable state.  We had a great deal of assistance from former NASCAR ace “Cotton” Owens and he supplied us with a new clutch and pressure plate, a ring and pinion for the axle and some other key components.”

Richard had a new 426 cu in Hemi crate motor in his shop and as the original car was Hemi-powered it was decided that this motor would be a logical fit – especially as it produced about 500hp – roughly the same as the actual ’72 race car.  “We added dry sump lubrication and cowl induction with a big fibreglass airbox,” adds Wayne.  Of course this Hemi is fuel-injected, rather than carburettored, but otherwise it’s pretty authentic and certainly sounds like the real thing.  Backing up the motor is a four-speed manual transmission and there’s a Detroit locker differential at the rear.

It’s perhaps hard to believe that primitive front torsion bars and multi-leaf springs helped to keep this car level as it cornered the Daytona banking at speeds close to 200mph, but it was commonplace at the time.  It’s perhaps even more worrying when you realise that this blunt-nosed 3800lb projectile relied on drum brakes front and rear to bring it to a halt.  “The way I understand it,” says Wayne, “disc brakes were not as durable as drums, so they used drums because, despite being less efficient, you knew you could always rely on them and they wouldn’t wear out.” 

Having established the fact that you needed to plan way ahead when wanting to bring this Charger to a halt, it also appears that you needed the biceps of a wrestler to turn the manually operated steering.  This probably wasn’t so much of a problem at speed on the ovals where only small inputs were required, but on road courses, this must have been almost unbearable lap after lap with 9.5inch wide bias belted Goodyear slicks (front and rear) to turn at lower speeds. 

From a driver’s point of view, it doesn’t get any easier when you take a look inside, with only a hip-hugging bucket seat providing a modicum of comfort on those 500 mile stints at the wheel.  It’s purely business-like, with an extensive roll cage forming a sturdy framework in an otherwise totally stripped out shell – all, of course, prepared in the interests of weight saving.  The acres of bare metal are painted ‘Petty blue’ - just as before - and contrast with custom aluminium panelling. Instrumentation is comprehensive with gauges for all of the engine's crucial fluids within eye view - essential no doubt when approaching speeds of up to 200mph. There’s a glass windshield and a Plexiglass rear screen and of course no side windows are fitted and the doors don’t open – though they can be removed for routine maintenance.

“So what’s it like to drive,” we asked Wayne.  “I’m no racing driver but I have some experience behind the wheel of this car and a modern Nascar racer,” he explained.  “I have to say the big difference between the two, as you might expect, are in the way the '72 car stops and the lack of power-steering. This car has enough power though, and test driver Barry George says it will spin the wheels through third gear.“

What makes this car very special however, is that it took Richard Petty to the NASCAR Championship title in 1972 - the first season of NASCAR involvement for backer STP and Dodge’s new race outfit.  It didn’t stop there though, as Petty, Dodge and STP then went on to take the title again in ‘74 and ‘75.  For race fans and the dedicated team who have recreated such a significant part of NASCAR history, seeing this car in the UK for the first time and under power with “the King” behind the wheel was a priceless moment.

Story:  Michael Hodges & Andy Kirk
Photos: Peter Robain

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