Things were different in NASCAR when Richard Petty won the sport’s 1972 championship, and it wasn’t just the cars’ paint schemes.
“We had eight-to-10 people working for us who did everything,” Petty said Sunday at Darlington Raceway, a few hours before the start of that night’s Southern 500. “They painted the car. They changed gears. They built gears. Then they went to the race track and pitted the car.
“There wasn’t an engineer for this or an engineer for that.”
NASCAR crew members in the 1970s weren’t as specialized as they are today.
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Petty and seven members of his Petty Enterprises team from 1972 were at Darlington for the track’s “throwback weekend,” which included retro paint schemes and logos on most cars, as well as drivers and crews wearing outfits from NASCAR’s early days.
But Petty’s crew serves as a reminder that there are more substantial differences between the eras than how a car looks.
“We all had many qualities and the ability to do anything,” said Jimmy “Zoomer” Kovalchik, the team’s fabricator and tire carrier. “Now you have one guy who puts on the bolt and one guy who puts on the washer. There are too many people involved. That’s why there are so many mistakes made. It’s not a simple operation any more.”
Sprint Cup teams now employ scores of mechanics, engineers and technicians. They keep a stable of several cars at the ready throughout the season. Not so 40 years ago.
When you got the opportunity to work at Petty Enterprises, it was like a scholarship to Harvard.
“We maybe built one or two cars each year,” said Tex Powell, a mechanic and jackman. “Your accountability was a much bigger percentage of our success. It made it so much more rewarding when you won.
“Of course, much of that was related to Richard’s driving ability.”
Petty would win the fourth of his seven championships in 1972, winning eight of his eventual career total of 200. Petty’s shop in Level Cross was essentially the epicenter of the sport.
“When you got the opportunity to work at Petty Enterprises, it was like a scholarship to Harvard,” said painter Barry Dodson, who went on to become a successful crew chief. “If you could stand up to it, you could keep the job. It continued to build a lot of good credentials for you.”
Running the show was crew chief Dale Inman, like Petty a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
200 Career victories by Richard Petty
“That was a hard-working bunch for us,” said Inman. “They had to do all the work (at the shop), and then at the race track as well.”
Darlington wasn’t one of Petty’s better tracks. Despite starting a record 65 times, he only won three times.
“I always ran good (at Darlington),” Petty said. “I liked the race track and the challenge. But it always seemed like something happened: a batter fell out, I’d lose a tire or somebody would run into me.
“At a place like Martinsville, I’d just show up and win the race. At Darlington, you show up and just try and finish the race. We never could get it together. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. It was just fate. It wasn’t a good race track for us.”
There were, of course, other good tracks for Petty. His 200 career victories remain the sport’s standard. And he understands he didn’t do it alone.
“I never worried about pieces falling off the car,” Petty said. “I knew our pit stops were as good as any.
“All I did was drive the car. (The crew) did all the work.”