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At the Racetrack, Petty Is Still the King

ASSOCIATED PRESS

He’s a special presence at a racetrack, a magnet to the eye when he’s in his car and a magnet to the fans when he’s out of it.

But through all the autographs and interviews and, yes, the seven year-plus search for another win, Richard Petty handles the demands of being NASCAR’s king with a grin.

“I still like to drive the race car. That’s why I put up with everything else,” Petty said during about as quiet a moment as he can get at a track these days.

He’s 54 years old now, and his 200 wins stand as a seemingly untouchable record. He hasn’t won a race since July 1984, and the questions keep coming on when he might retire.

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On Oct. 1, maybe the anwswer will come. Then, in his hometown of Level Cross, N.C., he’ll have a news conference to announce something. Maybe it will be on his future. Then again, maybe he’ll just reveal a new paint scheme for his car.

“Come and see” is all Petty will say about the news conference.

One thing is certain. Whatever he says, people will listen.

Petty has fans all over the place, and he sees them “all the time.” His fan club is even headquartered in Yankee country, Willow Grove, Pa. Who says stock-car racing is just a southern thing?

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“Young ones and old ones and in-between ones and rich ones and poor ones and in-between ones,” Petty described his fans. “Probably as good a cross-section of fans as anybody’s fan club.”

Petty faithful drop by once a year at his race shop for a convention. His fan club has 4,200 members, down from 8,000-9,000 in the 1970s, when Petty was at his peak, but still a solid and enthusiastic following. One fan even dresses up for some races in a blue costume as his mascot.

“Everyone loves a winner,” says Lynne Myers, co-director of the fan club with her husband, Jack. “Over and above that, is Richard loves his fans. He spends hours and hours signing autographs. He’s done this from Day 1.”

She handles some of his fan mail. Petty’s office sends her autographed postcards -- real signatures, not stamped -- so she can handle requests. One day this past week, she received letters from Czechoslovakia and Germany.

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“I can’t read them. I just send them an autographed postcard,” she said.

A former competitor, two-time NASCAR champion Ned Jarrett, said Petty has helped the sport build its image.

“He is still the same Richard Petty,” Jarrett said. “I think that has come through to the fans and that is why he has had such a tremendous following through the years.”

Petty said he realizes the fans help a driver get and keep sponsors, and they buy the tickets.

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“Without the fans, you wouldn’t be here in the first place,” Petty said.

But the attention doesn’t come without a cost.

To be Richard Petty means not being able to go outside the team truck in the garage area without running into someone who wants some time. It means signing autographs at the back of his car, making appearances, posing for pictures and spending a lot of time away from the racing operation.

“It’s really taken away a lot from my racing,” Petty said.

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“It really gets frustrating when you know you’re not running good.”

It means crew members need to come into the truck to find him to discuss something about the car -- unlike most drivers, who can spend time with their crew members or other drivers out in the open.

“We’ve got people out in the huddle with us,” Petty said.

“I’d like to stay with the boys when they’re working on the car. Right now, when I get out of the car, my mind goes away from the car. ... A lot of times I don’t get a chance to tell ‘em everything the car’s doing.”

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Petty spends most Sunday afternoons racing another group of fans -- his competitors, some of whom grew up watching him.

“When he is running up front, it makes me feel good, even when he’s ahead of me,” said Geoff Bodine, 42. “He’ll probably be running when I retire.”

The blue-and-red No. 43 car isn’t up front very often, however. Petty has had only one top-10 finish this year and had only one last year, and hasn’t finished in the top five at a race since 1988.

“He’s struggling on, but he’s doing what he enjoys doing and what he likes to do,” said Bobby Allison, once a Petty rival and third on the all-time list with 84 wins, trailing Petty and David Pearson, who retired with 105. Allison hasn’t raced since suffering multiple injuries in a wreck in June 1988.

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“Maybe you could say I’m envious that he is getting to do what he enjoys doing,” Allison said. “But he’s worked for that.”

When Oct. 1 rolls around, Myers insists she won’t be nervous.

“I’m sure it’s not retirement,” she said, confident the announcement will have something to do with his longtime sponsor, STP.

Early this year, a source close to Petty’s team told The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer that “a game plan has been laid out” for a “farewell tour,” limited schedule in 1992 should Petty choose that route.

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Petty says the questions about retirement aren’t any worse now than they have been in the past.

“I’ve been asked when I was going to retire since 1967,” Petty said, referring to the year he won 10 consecutive races and the second of his seven Winston Cup championships. “I’ll do it until I decide to do something else.”

Of course, more people out there would probably rather see him take checkered flag No. 201 than to park his career.

“I’d like to see it, but if I never get there I’m not going to be too disappointed,” he said. “How many people have even seen 200?”

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