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Still the King: Memories fade, but goal hasn’t changed for Richard Petty

NASCAR legend Richard Petty was 37 when he won his first World 600 (now the Coca-Cola 600) at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Cale Yarborough finished second, David Pearson third, Darrell Waltrip fourth and Buddy Baker fifth. Dale Earnhardt made his Cup debut and finished 22nd. This was the all-star race before there was an All-Star Race.
NASCAR legend Richard Petty was 37 when he won his first World 600 (now the Coca-Cola 600) at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Cale Yarborough finished second, David Pearson third, Darrell Waltrip fourth and Buddy Baker fifth. Dale Earnhardt made his Cup debut and finished 22nd. This was the all-star race before there was an All-Star Race. Getty Images

Charlotte Motor Speedway held its first World 600 in 1960, and Richard Petty didn’t win. He didn’t win in 1961, either. He didn’t win the first 13 600s he entered. On May 25, 1975, he finally won.

What do you remember about the race?

“I remember Elizabeth Taylor was in the Winner’s Circle,” Petty says.

Taylor was a famous and glamorous actress, and her appearance proved that NASCAR was trying to go national, that she was willing to try new things and that her husband, John Warner, a senator from Virginia, wanted to be re-elected.

Technically it was 1977 when Taylor served as the 600’s grand marshal. Petty won then, too. But he’s The King, and if he says Taylor was in the Winner’s Circle in 1975, she was.

“Well, she had one green eye and one blue eye or some kind of thing,” Petty says. “Her husband was with her.”

The King, 77, sits on a backless chair next to wide windows in the PIT race shop, where his Richard Petty Motorsports crews train.

He’s tall and impossibly lean, wears a thin black moustache, light blue RPM shirt and jeans. His belt has seven metal circles on it, one for each of his Sprint Cup championships. His opaque black sunglasses hide his eyes and his black hat features what could be the remnants of animals, birds and reptiles. He looks like he’s supposed to look and he acts like he’s supposed to act, as unfailing gracious as the last time we talked.

“You know, I don’t really remember a whole lot,” Petty says about the race he won 40 years ago Monday. “We’d run over here since they opened the race track (1960) and felt like we always run good but we just never could win the race. We’d get close and just kind of were snake bit.”

That snake could now be on his hat. Petty was 37 when he won his first 600. Cale Yarborough finished second, David Pearson third, Darrell Waltrip fourth and Buddy Baker fifth. Dale Earnhardt made his Cup debut and finished 22nd. This was the all-star race before there was an All-Star Race. Petty, Yarborough, Pearson, Waltrip and Earnhardt are in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and Baker will be.

Petty will return to the Speedway on Sunday with his RPM teams. Aric Almirola, who is 11th in points, will drive the No. 43, which Petty made magical, and Sam Hornish Jr., who is 27th in points, will drive the No. 9.

When many of us watch a sport, we try to envision how we’d do on the court, field or track. On Sunday, so will The King.

“Everybody dreams,” he says. “OK. I always looked at it as if these guys can do it. I can do it, and if they can do it, I can do it better. A lot of times we done it better and a lot of times we didn’t do it better.”

That’s where the dream ends.

“The cars are so much different and the circumstances are so much different,” Petty says. “There’s no way to compare how Jeff Gordon would have done against David Pearson because they didn’t race against each other. You can compare me and Pearson because we raced, and Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. But to put those two in with the crowd I run with there’s no way to compare.”

What would you have thought, standing in the Winner’s Circle with Elizabeth Taylor, about what NASCAR has become today?

“It’s gotten to be so much more commercial and technical and all that stuff,” says Petty. “Back in ‘75 racing was the name of the game. Today it’s show business. The racers look at it as racing. The promoters and everybody else sees it as show business. It probably was then, but it wasn’t as predominant. Now you hear, ‘We don’t have to put on a good race, we gotta put on a good show.’”

As a team owner, you’re part of the show. Do you enjoy it?

“I enjoy it or I wouldn’t go,” says Petty. “But you gotta figure this is all I know. This is all I’ve ever done from the time I was 11, 12 years old. I’ve been around racing and that’s my life. If I walk away from racing where do I go, what do I do, what do I do to entertain myself? I’d have to start another life. Not ready to start another life.”

Hornish finished sixth in the Geico 500. That’s the only top 10 finish he and Almirola have. How big would an RPM victory be 40 years after RP’s victory?

“It would be a big deal if we can get RPM to win any race,” says Petty. “It would be bigger for us to win here.”

Yeah, but Elizabeth Taylor, who passed in 2011 at the age of 79, won’t be in Victory Lane.

Says The King: “Hey, if we win we don’t need Elizabeth Taylor.”

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen

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