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The King comes to New Hampshire, still noticed, still holding court

  • NASCAR legend Richard Petty, “The King,” holds court near his hauler in the infield at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, July 16, 2017. RAY DUCKLER / Monitor staff

  • Even though he hasn’t competed for 25 years, NASCAR legend Richard Petty, “The King,” is still recognized by young fans near his hauler in the infield at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, July 16, 2017. RAY DUCKLER / Monitor staff

  • NASCAR legend Richard Petty, “The King,” holds court near his hauler in the infield at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, July 16, 2017. RAY DUCKLER / Monitor staff

  • NASCAR legend Richard Petty, “The King,” holds court near his hauler in the infield at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, July 16, 2017. RAY DUCKLER / Monitor staff

  • NASCAR legend Richard Petty, “The King,” greets fans near his hauler in the infield at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, July 16, 2017. RAY DUCKLER / Monitor staff



Monitor columnist
Sunday, July 16, 2017

He cut a lean figure, tall, dark and utterly recognizable.

When you’re nicknamed The King, you have that responsibility, the one about transcending the sport, being an ambassador, adding your face and mystique to the culture.

“Back in the day it was racing,” The King, Richard Petty, told me Sunday before the big race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. “Now, it’s a lot like showtime. They have to do it to keep things going.”

If anyone has the right to reminisce about another time – The King turned 80 on July 2 – and talk about how much better the good old days were, it’s The King.

For one thing, they were. The sport wasn’t as popular as today’s brand, but that’s because The King was part of the sport’s evolution. He was in on the ground floor of the boom, and he’s the main reason today’s drivers earn million-dollar salaries.

Oh, yes, there’s another reason The King has the freedom to say what he wants: He won 200 Cup races, and no one will match that in our lifetime, perhaps ever.

Others on top of the all-time wins list? David Pearson, 105 wins, Jeff Gordon, 93, Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip, 84 apiece.

All are retired.

In fact, the only active driver who’s near this prestigious list is Jimmie Johnson, who, with 83 wins, would have to drive until he was 100 years old to come close.

It’s not even worth mentioning any other win totals. The King’s crown is safe.

I asked The King if anyone might threaten his record. “If they didn’t approach it when I was running,” The King told me, “they sure ain’t gonna approach it now.”

I ran into The King just by chance, as I made my way from the track infield and area where the haulers are parked.

The King was getting ready to eat in a shaded area near a shiny black hauler, the one that said “Richard Petty Motorsports” on the side. He uncovered a silver-colored tray of meatballs before fans began noticing that The King was near his castle.

He signed little toy race cars, posed for photos and seemed to enjoy seeing adults acting like kids once they had entered his court.

I wondered what The King thought about all this attention. NASCAR drivers who are 80 years old, have not competed since 1992 and have not won a race since 1984 are not asked to pose for photos or sign little toy cars.

The King, though, is. The King has a public relations job to do, and he does it well.

“I’ve been going to race tracks since 1949,” The King said, “so they know I’m gonna be here.”

The King is part of the grandstands, part of the asphalt, part of the history of NASCAR that included bootleggers avoiding cops, racing on the beach at Daytona and rivalries that included fisticuffs because, well, drivers from the South used to fight.

The King won seven championships, a mark that has since been tied by the late Dale Earnhardt, the lone driver who can come close to matching The King’s aura and mystique, and Jimmie Johnson.

But The King owns records for Daytona 500 wins with seven and victories in a season with 27 in 1967, including – buckle your seatbelt – a stretch of 10 straight wins.

Ten.

The King helped create a sport that filled speedways nationwide not too long ago. He was part of a climate that included rivalries between fans, whose loyalty to the men behind the wheel and the car manufacturers, be it Chevy, Dodge or Ford, ran deep.

Today, there are gimmicks, stages and playoffs and, recently, something called the Car of Tomorrow, as NASCAR tries to bolster a fading fan base. Once, New Hampshire Motor Speedway had a waiting list for tickets. Once, the track attracted at least 90,000 fans per race, sometimes 101,000.

No longer. The King lamented the fact that once upon a time, fans showed up at the track at 8 in the morning and hung around for hours before the start of the race.

“It’s just a different time,” The King said. “I grew up in one kind of time, now the times are different. You have to go along with what’s going on today.”

He continued: “One of the things that went on is that there wasn’t much going on in the world when we came along, and there’s so damn much going on now to get people’s attention that people’s attention span is so short now. Society has changed, so you just have to go along with what society is doing today and try to make the best of it.”

The King, of course, has no use for today’s technology. He once drove fast, but he can do without the world’s lightning pace. Does he text or tweet?

“Nope,” The King said. “I don’t even carry a telephone.”

What he does do is dress as he always has, looking like the Marlboro Man of the South: rugged, lean, black hat, black pants, black shirt, wide belt buckle.

I was caught off guard when I noticed The King and failed to ask about his grandson, Adam Petty, who was killed at this track during a practice 17 years ago.

I’m glad I forgot. The King is a direct connection to what once was, carrying a torch that needs a spark. He was in a good mood, happy to address the sport and its history.

He said he misses maybe one or two races a year. He says he’s missed maybe 250 or 300 Cup races since his father first took him to the track in North Carolina in 1949, when The King was 12.

Asked about the attention he still receives, The King said, “They can’t find anyone else, but they know they can find me.”

I wondered how long The King can keep going to races.

“As long as I can still wiggle, I guess.”