The numbers are staggering. Richard Petty has won 200 career NASCAR races. The next highest total is 105. He won seven series championships. In the 1967 season, he won 27 races, 10 of them consecutively. He won the Daytona 500 a record seven times. Newsday caught up with The King, now 73, prior to this year's Daytona 500.
Trading Paint: You won the Daytona 500 seven times. Which one sticks out most in your memory?
Richard Petty: I guess the first one in 1964. When I won it, I thought, nothing can get bigger than this. Then you get fortunate and win another and another. Two or three of them were pretty exciting races. Two or three of them were really bad races. Probably, if we talked to 10 peole, five people would talk about that finish with ??. It was so much different, I guess, and it was very exciting. In 1979, I won, but everyone remembers that Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough got into it.
TP: What does winning the Daytona 500 mean to a driver's career?
RP: It's like winning the Super Bowl. If you win Daytona, than you are winning all year long. It almost doesn't matter what else you do.
TP: NASCAR has it's most important race, first. Why?
RP: Yes, we have our biggest race as the first race. All the real racing fans can't wait to get started. At this time of year, we are the only racing going on so you get all the attention. Racing steps in and takes the ball and starts to run with it. You are starting out with a clean sheet and everyone is anxious to know what's going to happen.
TP: You've raced here on Long Island, what do you remember about that?
RP: We ran a couple of times out at Bridgehampton and we ran out at Islip. They had a litle old fifth-of-a-mile track in Islip. I remember starting at Islip one night and we had 30 cars. I sat on the pole. I started passing cars before they even had the green flag. They filled that little stadium up every time we ran out there. I never raced at Riverhead. In 1963 or '64, we were out at Bridgehampton. They had an eclipse of the sun. The moon went right across the sun during the race. People kept looking up at that and weren't really paying attention to the race.
TP: What do you think of what Jimmie Johnson has been able to accomplish, winning five straight titles?
RP: You look back in any history and you see people come along and have exceptional years for a while. If you look back at the Earnardts or a Richard Petty, we won two championships, lost a championship, won two more. Jimmie happened to put in that third year that me and Earnhardt werent capable of doing. All the stars are lined up for him right now. Fate plays into this deal. Right now, it's not that he's that much better than all the other guys, they are just putting it together. He has a good team around him. He's talented. A lot of it is talent and a lot of it is fate.
TP: Will there ever be a NASCAR track in or close to New York City?
RP: It would be great if we could get on there. You know politics and that's basically what it will take for a track in New York to work, politics. You have to get the politicians to make it work. You have everything you need but the place to put it. Everyone wants it, but no one wants it in their neighborhood. It's not that it can't be done. It's just going to take a lot politics to get it done. There are a lot of fans in New York and out there on Long Island. And they know our drivers.
TP: NASCAR drivers seem to have a great connection with its fans. How important are the fans to you guys?
RP: Really, when you first started, and NASCAR first started, if we had 5,000 people at a track, it was a humonguous crowd of people. You didn't have the press, the sponsors. The drivers were plain old people. We just drove the race cars. We took the time to get the know people. It grew that way and it continues today. They still realize that without the fans there is no racing. They buy tickets, they buy the sponsors products. The fans are still what drives NASCAR.
TP: In New York state, we have Watkins Glen. What are your memories of racing there?
RP: It was just a beautiful place, a neat place. I never did have good luck up there but I looked forward to going up there. You were way up on top of the hill, away from everybody. It was more of what we were used to down here in the South. It was country up there, no big grandstands. To us, it was like we were coming home.