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‘Silent Petty’ built engines that roared

By Scott Fowler
sfowler@charlotteobserver.com
Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.

When your big brother is known as “The King,” you live in a pretty large shadow.

Maurice Petty emerged from that shadow on Wednesday night, however, earning a membership into the fifth class of NASCAR’s Hall of Fame. “I’m on top of the world,” Petty said in a Southern accent thicker than honey taken from the refrigerator.

His older brother Richard lobbied hard for the longtime chief engine builder at Petty Enterprises – known as “Chief” for short. It paid off, as Chief solidified the Pettys’ stature as the First Family of the NASCAR Hall of Fame by becoming the fourth member of the family to get in.

“We’ve got a whole tribe of them in there now,” Richard would say moments after the vote. His father, Lee Petty, was a member of the second NASCAR class. Longtime Petty crew chief Dale Inman – a family cousin – was in the third class.

Maurice Petty is 74, a year younger than Richard. He came to Wednesday’s announcement on an electric scooter that he drove unerringly through the crowd.

He has always been good with machinery, working in the pits for his driving father by the time he was 11 and then becoming perhaps the most versatile Petty on the famous race team from Level Cross.

“He was the silent Petty,” Richard Petty said. “It was always about the driver or Dale Inman the crew chief, and he was back in the back working. So it’s good now that he’s getting a little PR out of it.”

Maurice Petty fought polio as a child – there was no vaccine back then – but later was healthy enough to play a couple of years of high school football.

Like most of the Pettys, he tried driving for a living, running 26 races in NASCAR’s premier series between 1960 and 1964. He never won a race, but finished in the top 10 in 61.5 percent of those races.

That sort of top-10 percentage as a kid in your 20s might get you a full-time ride these days. It got Petty a ticket back to the garage, where he found his calling as one of the best engine builders the sport has ever seen.

“Driving just didn’t work out for me,” Maurice Petty said. “Lee had turned it all over to Richard and myself by then, and we were struggling to make ends meet. So therefore it was better to field just one car.”

That one car was driven by Richard, who won 200 career races and seven NASCAR championships.

The silent Petty, meanwhile, just kept crafting one solid engine after another and then helped do every other thing that needed doing while Richard honed the fanciest (and most highly sought) autograph in the sport.

“Maurice helped drive the trucks to the race track,” Richard Petty said. “He tuned the car up at the race track. He pitted the car. He was a tire changer. So he was the complete package. It’s not that he just sat in an office and dictated what was going on. He was hands-on.”

Robin Pemberton is NASCAR’s vice president of competition, but before that he worked for years at Petty Enterprises as a fabricator and mechanic.

“Maurice and the Pettys kept their cars to a very, very high standard,” Pemberton said. “They never had mechanical failures. They taught us all how to race correctly.

“The old saying was that there’s a right way, a wrong way and the Petty way of doing things.”

Behind the scenes, Maurice knew the Petty way as well as anyone. On Wednesday, he got his turn in the spotlight.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler
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