In The Rearview Mirror: Lee Petty, Patriarch of the Petty Dynasty

For the month of May, In The Rearview Mirror will be dedicated to the 2011 Class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Join me, as I take a look back In the Rearview Mirror.
Lee Petty HoF Headshot

Lee Arnold Petty was born near Randleman, North Carolina, on March 14, 1914. Petty may best be known as the patriach of the famous Petty family, father to Richard, grandfather to Kyle and great-grandfather to Adam.

Lee fell into NASCAR in typical old time fashion – moonshine. Petty took part in running moonshine, something that many of the legends of NASCAR did. Racing, running moonshine and chicken fighting, those were the interests of Lee Petty.

NASCAR's first race ever was at Charlotte Speedway on June 19, 1949. Lee Petty raced that very first race. Petty, along with his son Richard packed up the race car (a car borrowed from their neighbor) and headed from their home in Randelman toward Charlotte. That 1946 Buick would not make it to the finish, nor home, after a crash that sent Lee flipping into the air several times. He was OK, but the car was torn to pieces. He finished 17th; the race was won by Jim Roper.

Racing for Petty was a family affair; wife Elizabeth handled the finances and also booked hotels and fed the crew, while sons Richard and Maurice grew up working on the race car with their father. It was this family atmosphere that perhaps propelled Petty to the level of greatness that he attained. Lee, Elizabeth, Richard and Maurice would all pack up in the race car and travel to the site of each week’s race. After one race at West Palm Beach, where Lee crashed and flipped, knocking off the windshield and crushing the roof, the family had to pack up in that car to return home (minus a windshield in the winter, no less).

Lee Petty was a very successful driver on the NASCAR circuit, although he was in it more for the money than the victories as recounted in the SPEED TV Hall of Fame biography. Nonetheless, victories and Petty went hand in hand. Through his career, Lee won a grand total of 56 races (two being in the NASCAR Convertible Series) and his total winnings amounted to $251,647. (The money is not important, but I know if Lee were around to read this, he would like that stat.)

Lee Petty won the NASCAR Grand National Series Championship in 1954 and 1958. In 1954, he won by 283 points over Herb Thomas. His second championship was even more of a success, winning over Buck Baker by 644 points. It goes to show that Petty's nickname, "Mr. Consistency," was well-fitting.

Richard Petty followed in his father’s footsteps, or shall we say tire tracks, and took up the family sport of auto racing. Richard made his NASCAR debut in the 1958 Jim Mideon 500, which was held at the Canadian Exposition Stadium in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Most notable in Petty’s career was the first-ever running of the Daytona 500 in 1959. Drivers ascended the high banks of Daytona, many afraid of the outcome. Lee Petty was ready and willing to accept the challenge that the track gave him. Richard was out of the race early due to a blown engine.
1959 Daytona 500 threewide finish
This was the finish of the Daytona 500. The 42 of Lee Petty, the 73 of Jonny Beauchamp and the 48 of Joe Weatherly all came across the finish line at the same time (Weatherly was a lap down though). Beauchamp was awarded the victory - he had won the Daytona 500 ... or so he though. After three days of deliberation and pouring over photos, it was decided it was in fact Lee Petty who had won the first running of the Daytona 500. Bill France awarded him the trophy and most important, the award money that went along with it.Lee Petty was declared the winner 61 hours after the finish

That victory at the Daytona 500, along with 10 more that year, earned Lee Petty his third championship trophy. Looking back through the 1949 through 1959 seasons, Petty never finished out of the top 5 in points.

It was Daytona that would ultimately end Lee’s career. It was during the 1961 Daytona 500 qualifying races. Richard had already had some bad racing luck and crashed, suffering glass in his eye. After emerging from the care center, he went to see how his father was doing in the race. At that moment he heard the screams from fans. Asking what had happened, an onlooker explained that Lee and Jonny Beauchamp had both went out of the track in turn 4. Lee had acutally gone out over the guard rails of the track. Lee was gravely injured; his injuries were life-threatening at the time. He had multiple fractures of the chest, a badly broken thigh and leg, a punctured lung and other internal injuries, and a blow to the head that left him unconscious. It took four months of recovery in the hospital, but eventually Lee was able to return to life as he knew it.

Lee only returned to a race car a few times after that crash, stating that it was “not fun” anymore. Upon retiring, he took over as crew chief for Richard and worked at the family business, Petty Enterprises. Richard and his brother Maurice were a good team, as I am sure you know. Richard is known as “The King” and amassed 200 victories in his career.

Lee Petty claims his own list of numerous racing awards, including:
  • Three-time NASCAR Grand National Champion (1954, 1958 and  1959)
  • International Motorsports Hall of Fame (1990)
  • Motorsports Hall of Fame of America (1996)
  • Induction into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame
  • NASCAR Hall of Fame (Class of 2011)
Lee Petty passed away in April 2000, weeks after surgery for a stomach aneurysm. He was 86 years old.

In remembering Lee Petty, the one thing to take away from all the facts and stats about him was that he always put his family first.
In The Rearview Mirror: Lee Petty, Patriarch of the Petty Dynasty In The Rearview Mirror: Lee Petty, Patriarch of the Petty Dynasty Reviewed by Unknown on Wednesday, May 04, 2011 Rating: 5