50 Years of nascar racing ~ 1967: Richard Petty Becomes The King (Post 5)
By Matt McLaughlin
Editor's note: This article is part of a special reprise of Matt McLaughlin's "50 Years of NASCAR Racing", written and published in 1998 in commemoration of NASCAR's 50th Anniversary celebration that year. Matt has kindly granted me permission to run the entire series. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two. Many thanks to Matt for his generosity in sharing. God bless you, my friend.
Mr. Peabody, set the Wayback Machine for 1967. America was a very different place 30 years ago. There was an intense war going on in Southeast Asia and 18 and 19 year old boys were being shipped off to die in record numbers. The war had become so unpopular, President of the United States, Lyndon Johnson had announced he would not run for re-election. It was the Summer of Love in San Francisco, and the world was introduced to a local band by the name of the Grateful Dead at the Monterey Pop Festival. The Beatles were still recording albums together and The Magical Mystery Tour seemed inspired by LSD , which Jerry Garcia had introduced to Lennon and McCartney. There was turmoil in the deep south as well, as the civil rights movement picked up steam. But by and large the Southeast of the United States was not as radicalized as the rest of the country. And the myriad of NASCAR and car fans were in their glory following the exploits of Lee Petty's son. The muscle car era was going full swing and those so inclined could order up one of the new Chevy Camaros with a 396 or a 428 Shelby Mustang. Those of the Mopar persuasion could head down to the local agency and order a big unassuming looking car with the 426 Hemi under the hood and become street heroes. Lee's boy Richard had a bunch of those, and that unbelievable season, he became not only a hero, but The King.
Richard Petty started racing in 1958. His daddy Lee, a three-time Grand National champion himself, had insisted Richard wait until he was 21 to begin racing. June 14th, 1959 Richard Petty was flagged the winner of a race in Atlanta driving a 1957 Olds convertible. (Yes, convertible. They used to race those). The second place finisher, a cranky and strong willed son of a gun, filed a protest demanding the scoring cards be reviewed. The man who filed the protest was Lee Petty and he wound up being declared the winner of the race. Richard won his first race at Charlotte, February 28th 1960, on the dirt half mile oval. Before that season ended he would win three races. At the 1961 Daytona 500 Lee Petty was gravely injured in a crash that sent him up and over the wall. At that point, Richard became the primary driver for Petty Enterprises, though he chose to stick with number 43, one number higher than the 42 his dad had made famous.
Richard enjoyed a lot of success, finishing second in the points in 1962 and 1963, with 8 and 14 victories respectively. In 1964 he won the first of seven eventual championships with nine victories. Petty was forced to sit out of most of 1965 due to the Chrysler boycott, but returned to form, finishing third in the points with 8 victories in 1966. So at that point Richard Petty had earned a lot of respect and at any given race he was always a threat to win. But nothing could prepare the racing community for Hurricane Richard in 1967.
The 1967 schedule looked very different from today's. The season began November 11th 1966 at Augusta Georgia, a mere two weeks after the last event of the 1966 season. It finished November 5th 1967 in Weaverville, North Carolina, 51 weeks after it started. Along the way there were 49 events in all, at tracks ranging from the mighty high banks of Daytona's 2.5 mile tri-oval to the quarter mile bull ring [Bowman Gray Stadium] in Winston-Salem. The schedule stretched from Oxford, Maine to Riverside, California and 14 events were held on dirt tracks, including the monster .9 mile track in Hillsborough North Carolina [Occoneechee] that was an even hairier place to race than Talladega is today. The races were run incredibly close together during the busy summer season with five races held in the 11 day period from July 4th to July 11th alone.
Of those 49 races Richard Petty won an incredible 27, finished second seven more times and in the top ten at 40 events. He won on the short tracks, the dirt tracks, and the superspeedways, driving the familiar Petty blue number 43 Plymouth. He outdrove, outmuscled, outlasted, and out-lucked every other driver on the circuit that year at one point or another. On August 12th Petty took the checkers at the quarter mile track in Winston-Salem for the first of ten straight victories ending October 1st at North Wilkesboro. No driver had ever dominated in the NASCAR ranks the way that Richard Petty did that year, and it is highly doubtful they ever will.
In those days both Chrysler and Ford fielded factory cars, with the old marketing adage "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday" still in command. Naturally the folks from Ford were less than thrilled to see Petty dominating the series in such commanding fashion, and they did everything in their power to try to derail the Petty express. It was not unusual to see top Ford company brass in the pits during races. Or to see them grinding their teeth in frustration after Petty won yet again. They fired their factory drivers and hired new ones. They brought in ringers like Mario Andretti and even Formula One ace Jim Clark... all to no avail.
At the fall race in Rockingham, Ford fielded eleven factory backed entries. One of the more lightly regarded entries was one prepared by Fred Lorenzen, who had retired as a driver earlier that year. Lorenzen had been Ford's golden haired boy, the Jeff Gordon of his era, and he was called to the company headquarters for his views on what Ford could do to return to victory circle. The brass didn't think much of Lorenzen's ideas and finally told him, "If you think you're so smart, prepare your own team and let's see how you do." Fred borrowed a car Holman and Moody had prepared as a back up from the Holman and Moody shops. He had "Suitcase" Jake Elder build him an engine. As a driver, he used a young man from Alabama by the name of Bobby Allison, who had lost his factory Chrysler ride earlier that season. And racing smarts on the part of Lorenzen and Allison, beat out all the Ford engineers and hired guns that day as Allison won the race by over a lap. Of course, Petty had been eliminated in a crash on the 191st lap, making the task a little easier. But at the final race of the year Allison and Lorenzen teamed up again, and Petty was running at full strength all day. It was a brutal 250-mile race with only six cars still running at the finish and with the sixth place finisher 87 laps behind. Throughout the day Petty and Allison swapped not only the lead, but a lot of paint, making contact more times than could be counted. With 22 laps to go, Richard ran Allison up into the wall. Allison came charging back and with six laps to go, knocked Petty out of his way and went on for the win. And thus the seeds were sown for one of the most intense and sometimes bitter rivalries in NASCAR history, which would go on over a decade.
Despite losing that last race, Richard Petty was obviously crowned the Grand National champion after dominating the 1967 season in such commanding fashion. The records he set that year will likely never be broken. NASCAR will have more champions, and more drivers will win over ten races in a year. There will be more heroes and legends. But there will always and forever only be one King, Richard Petty, who assumed his throne in 1967.
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