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NASCAR HOF inductee Maurice Petty quietly built engines that roared

Tom Sorensen
Tom Sorensen has been a columnist at The Observer for 20 years and has been at the paper for 25, writing about nearly every sport in the Carolinas.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/01/27/17/20/NaiBz.Em.138.jpeg|228
    Robert Lahser - rlahser@charlotteobserver.com
    Maurice Petty (right) isn’t as recognizable as his brother Richard – even when you can’t see Richard’s face – but was just as important to the success of Petty Enterprises. Maurice built engines that won more than 200 races.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/01/27/17/20/cdjar.Em.138.jpeg|232
    - Observer File Photo
    Maurice Petty (left) and Lee Petty check out an engine in the race garage on April 28, 1968. Petty built engines for Petty Enterprises that won Richard Petty 200 races.

LEVEL CROSS NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees will get eight minutes to talk during Wednesday night’s ceremony.

“Mine will be short and sweet,” engine builder Maurice Petty says. “It will be a minute at the most. I ain’t got much to say. I lived it. I went through it. I had a good life. They can sell ads with the rest of it.”

Or they can give the time to past inductees Rusty Wallace and Darrell Waltrip, who still haven’t finished their speeches.

I’d heard Petty doesn’t have much to say, that his answers are short and his temper is shorter.

He doesn’t waste words or introduce me to the other people in the kitchen or the adjoining living room. Petty, who has polio, parks his motorized chair next to the counter in his kitchen. A TV on his right is turned to the National Geographic Channel, and the sound is off.

“He’s very honest,” NASCAR President Mike Helton says Monday. “You can say sometimes brutally honest. He’s an all-around, interesting person.”

Worst job in the world: Maurice Petty’s public relations representative. The rep would offer gentle ways to make a point and Petty would ignore them.

You miss racing?

“Hell, no,” Petty says from beneath his NASCAR Hall of Fame cap. “If it was still like it was, I would. But there’re too many rules and regulations. They have laser beams now.”

When Petty began building engines the family shop didn’t even have a telephone.

Those engines helped older brother Richard win 200 races and seven championships. Maurice’s engines also won races for his father, Lee Petty, and for Buddy Baker, Jim Paschal and Pete Hamilton.

“Maurice was a mastermind under the hood,” says Helton.

His wrench talked for him.

“Daddy said, ‘You never learn with your mouth open,’ ” Petty says.

Despite a lifetime of listening, there are at least four things he doesn’t understand.

1. Engine builders and crew members whose uniforms are clean.

“They don’t get dirty,” Petty says, slapping his hands on the counter. “How do you do anything if you don’t get dirty? You mean to tell me they work on cars and don’t get dirty?”

2. Movies made after 1990.

“They leave you hanging,” says Petty. “What happened?”

If the old Westerns he favors leave anybody hanging, it’s a rustler.

3. Pyramids.

“I still don’t understand how the Egyptians built those pyramids,” Petty says.

4. Race team members who share secrets with other teams.

During the 1960s and ’70s, says Petty, racers had secrets. Back then NASCAR’s rules were carved in red clay, and not too deeply. People figured out what they could get away with and tried to get away with more.

“You kept everything in your group,” says Petty.

Now?

“I hear there’s a lot of talk (between teams) in bars around Charlotte,” Petty says.

Richie Barz, who went to work for the Pettys during the 1970s, still is loyal.

“You can’t write nothing bad about Maurice,” says Barz, 71. “He’s a stand-up guy.”

I ask Barz to describe Petty.

“You want the stuff you can print or the stuff you can’t?” he asks.

Barz says when something went wrong Petty would raise his hand and say, “It’s on me.” If somebody on the crew made a mistake, Petty quietly would take the man aside and work to fix it.

Like everybody else, Barz called Petty “Chief.” He says NASCAR was afraid of Chief.

“You never knew if he’d hug you, spit on you, swing at you or turn his back on you,” says Barz.

Petty never received the attention his gregarious brother did. Richard was King. Maurice was Chief. The Chief says he doesn’t care.

“In football, you’ve got the quarterback,” says Petty. “Everybody talks about him. But how good is he without a good team? That’s the way life is. I don’t envy him one bit.”

NASCAR told me I have 20 minutes with Petty. I’m in the kitchen 45.

I heard you didn’t like to talk.

“Well, I don’t if I got something to do,” says Petty. “But I got nothing to do.”

Sorensen: 704-358-5129; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen
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