Home is where the heart is for this legendary racer.
They call him “The King.” His crown is his trademark Charlie 1 Horse wool cowboy hat. And with his genuine and approachable demeanor, he holds court wherever he goes.
As the most decorated driver in NASCAR history with 200 race wins that spanned three decades, Richard Petty is kind of a big deal. As the son of three-time NASCAR Grand National champion driver Lee Petty, the likelihood he would follow in his father’s footsteps was strong. He began his professional racing career in 1958 and quickly won his first professional race in 1959 at Columbia Speedway. He earned the NASCAR Grand National Rookie of the Year that same year.
While his legacy in the world of racing is undeniable, his impact on his community will ripple for generations. Petty has traveled the globe throughout his illustrious career, but his roots in his hometown of Level Cross, N.C., run deep.
“I’ve never been anywhere that I didn’t see something I liked,” he explains. “But I’ve never been anywhere that I liked as many things as I do right here in Randolph County. To me, it’s the perfect place because it’s home.”
Randolph County is certainly the perfect place to visit if you want to see firsthand the Petty family’s contributions both on and off the track. I arrived at the Petty Museum earlier than our appointed interview. It gave me the opportunity to tour the museum and really soak in the family’s history and Mr. Petty’s achievements.
Established in 1988, the museum is part of Petty Family Attractions, which includes the historic Toomes-Petty House and Petty’s Garage. Built in 1924, the Toomes-Petty House is the historic home of Lee Petty and birthplace of Richard Petty and his NASCAR Hall of Fame brother, Maurice.
The museum houses an impressive selection of family heirlooms, cars, NASCAR memorabilia, trophies and even the “Mrs. The King” and “Mr. The King” cars from Disney’s Cars. You’ll also find the Presidential Medal of Freedom that Petty was awarded in 1992 by President George H.W. Bush. It’s also Petty’s favorite item in the museum.
He explains why: “The Medal of Freedom is the biggest award you can get. You don’t win a race to get it — it just happened. It’s the highest honor any person in the United States can receive.”
Photos of the NASCAR legend with various presidents are also on display, including the iconic shot of his post-race fried chicken picnic with President Ronald Reagan. President Reagan was in attendance for Petty’s most memorable victory. Petty beat out Cale Yarborough to win the Firecracker 400 in Daytona Beach in 1984.
“I won it on the last green flag lap in front of the president of the United States on the Fourth of July,” Petty recalls. “That was pretty spectacular.”
Once you’ve explored the main museum, walk next door to Petty’s Garage, a high-performance speed shop where skilled professionals do custom builds and restorations for everyone from collectors to drivers who want to make a statement during their daily commute.
Situated next door and connected to Petty’s Garage, the Red Floor Shop is a continuation of the museum that showcases varied cars that played a prominent role in Petty racing history. You’ll find a replica of the first car Petty raced in NASCAR — a 1957 Oldsmobile 88 — as well as the Hemi powered Belvedere that helped deliver 27 wins (including 10 consecutives) in 1967 — the most successful car in the Petty family collection.
A large corner of the museum celebrates the life and achievements of Adam Petty, Richard Petty’s grandson, and son of Kyle Petty, former NASCAR Winston Cup driver. The first fourth-generation driver in NASCAR history, Adam was killed in 2000 during a practice session for the Busch 200 race in New Hampshire. The accelerator of his car got stuck at turn three, causing him to crash into the outside wall. The display includes Adam’s racing suits, the Chevrolet he used in the Busch Series and the Pontiac he drove in the ARCA series.
Before he died, Adam had begun to pursue the idea of creating a local summer camp for chronically ill children. Inspired after a visit to Florida’s Camp Boggy Creek, founded by Paul Newman, Adam began looking for land and sharing his vision with others. After Adam’s death, the Petty family rallied to find a way to honor him. The answer came quickly.
“This is something he would have eventually done if he’d stayed,” explains Petty. “So, the family got together and decided to do it. I had some property on the back side of some land that we had, so we started with that piece of property.”
And Victory Junction, the nation’s only NASCAR-themed children’s camp, was born.
“The kids get to come for nothing,” he continues. “Since we started, we’ve seen over 25,000 kids who wouldn’t get to go to a regular camp because of their illness.”
Camps run from mid-June to the first week in August. Each week is devoted to a particular medical condition including sickle cell disease, neuromuscular disorders, cerebral palsy and diabetes, among others. The counselor to camper ratio is 1:1, which provides continuous care for each camper.
“Someone is with the child 24 hours a day,” Petty shares. “The kids are never by themselves. You have to have so many people just to run the show. The counselors are all volunteer, so it’s been a real community operation. We couldn’t afford to pay everybody to do what needs to be done.”
Campers have access to a state-of-the-art medical facility and pharmacy staffed full-time by a pediatrician, a pediatric nurse practitioner and four registered nurses. Throughout the summer, additional medical staff join the team. The impact of Victory Junction on the campers is both immediate and far-reaching.
“When the kids get here, they see 125 other kids who have the same situation,” explains Petty. “All of a sudden, they’ve joined a new world. A week here changes their whole outlook on life. We’ve had kids who’ve come through when they were 8 or 9 and then come back as counselors when they’re older. It makes you feel good when you see stuff like that.”
No matter how full his calendar is with fundraising activities for the Petty Family Foundation, his work with Petty’s Garage and sponsor appearances, Petty always makes time for his fans — and that’s remarkably evident the day of Randleman’s NASCAR Day Festival, which pays homage to the town’s racing heritage.
This year, NASCAR Day Festival takes place Saturday, Oct. 13, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The festival features food vendors, locally made products, racing memorabilia and rides. For more details, call 336-495-1100 or visit RandlemanChamber.com.
Before the festival even begins, Petty meets members of his fan club at the Petty Museum for an autograph session and other special events. From 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. the same day, he signs autographs for festival goers. Between the two events, he makes time to participate in a fundraising event for Randleman High School Athletic Department where he signs more autographs and provides memorabilia to be auctioned off. He signs autographs for four-and-a-half hours in that day alone.
Petty quips: “I say ‘If you get me up, just keep me busy for the day.'” Petty celebrated his 81st birthday in July and shows no signs of slowing down. But then, for a legendary racer, is that really surprising?
Plan your road trip to the Petty Museum and NASCAR Day Festival. Visit AAA.com/TripTik to get started.