How Richard Petty Made Me a Lifelong NASCAR Fan
Anyone who's been around racing for any length of time will tell you that Richard Petty set the benchmark for the way a driver should treat the fans. Even though The King retired from racing after my first season as a NASCAR fan, I still got to experience his love for the fans myself. On three separate occasions during my first years of fandom, Richard Petty went above and beyond and made me into a lifelong NASCAR fan.
I first began watching the sport we all love during the summer of 1992 after seeing an ad on TV featuring The King. Soon thereafter, Sundays saw me in front of the TV cheering on Richard Petty's red and blue 43. Late in the season, I wrote him a letter at the urging of my mother. In my tiny four year old scrawl, I told him what a huge fan of his I was. A few months later, I received a surprise in the mail. Inside was my letter signed by The King himself along with a signed photo of him and Rick Wilson who was to pilot The King's legendary ride the following season. I framed my treasure and proudly took it to show and tell for all to see.
The next year, my family and I were vacationing in North Carolina when we stopped by the Richard Petty Museum which at the time was located next to the Petty Enterprises race shops. A group of fans was standing outside the museum when we received word that The King himself would be driving by. In true Richard Petty fashion, he graciously stopped to sign autographs, and my dad and I went up to his car to get our pictures taken. My dad went back to work and excitedly told his friends that he had gotten his picture taken with Richard Petty. Unfortunately, when we got the pictures developed, we discovered that my mom had cut his head off.
A couple seasons later, Bobby Hamilton was behind the wheel of the famed 43, and I wrote to Petty Enterprises requesting to join his fan club. I received a handwritten apology signed by none other than Richard Petty himself stating that Bobby did not have a fan club. However, he was kind enough to include a signed picture of Bobby Hamilton, so that did perk my spirits up quite a bit.
On each of these occasions, Richard Petty went far beyond what anyone would have expected of him. I know he received tons of fan mail, so no one would have been surprised if my letter had not received a response. As a busy team owner, everyone would have understood if he had been too busy to stop and sign autographs and take pictures. Lastly, no one would have been surprised if a secretary had simply sent me a form letter stating that Bobby Hamilton did not have a fan club. However, this is Richard Petty we are talking about. He doesn't do what's expected; rather he goes well above that to make sure the fans feel valued. He certainly made me feel that way. In fact, I think Richard Petty is the reason NASCAR drivers remain (and the sport as a whole) remain so accessible today. When new fans marvel at how easy it is to get up close and personal with the stars of NASCAR, they should look back and thank Richard Petty for setting this benchmark all those years ago.