The King turned 80

Richard Petty, commonly known as “The King” in the world of stock car racing, turned 80 years old on Sunday.

Credited with 200 victories in what is now known as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Petty can also be credited with helping to secure the popularity of the sport. Nobody understood the need to cater to fans more than Richard Petty.

I still have a memory of Petty sitting in a chair in the infield at the old Beltsville Speedway in Maryland, with a long line of fans waiting to get his autograph on a Wednesday night after a Beltsville 300 in the 1960s, back when NASCAR’s top series competed 50 to 70 times a year, on pavement and dirt. Petty often was the last driver to leave the track, and was perhaps the greatest ambassador the sport ever knew.

Even today as a Cup team owner, the seven-time NASCAR champion still makes frequent public appearances.

But before you wax nostalgic and pine for the good old days when racing was better, realize that the racing actually wasn’t better, and at the time the Petty family team was one of only a handful of top teams.

Here’s an example: On Sept. 14, 1975, the record book shows that Richard Petty won the Delaware 500 on the mile track in Dover. But a closer examination of that race shows that Petty went eight laps down early, due to mechanical issues, and passed Dick Brooks for the lead with nine laps remaining.

This was back in the days before the wave around, or the “Lucky Dog” free pass. This was back when restarts had lapped cars lining up on the inside line. You had to race to get your lap back, either by passing the leader under green flag conditions or passing the leader when the race resumed.

Think about that. Petty made up eight laps. How dominant must his car have been to pull that off? Was the racing really better back then?

Today’s NASCAR racing is as competitive as it’s ever been. That’s not to say that the sport doesn’t have issues. But the actual competition on the track has never been better.

The NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Late Model action at South Boston Speedway Saturday night was fantastic. Philip Morris grabbed the win and pulled his car into what has been officially named “Philip Morris Victory Lane.”

The 200-lap feature was the first of the Virginia Triple Crown races, and was a stout field of competitors that included four NASCAR national champions and a number of regional and track champions. Morris, Lee Pulliam, Matt Bowling and Peyton Sellers all have national titles under their belts, and were part of the 26-car field.

But it wasn’t just the racing that gave onlookers pleasure; the crowd at South Boston was perhaps the largest crowd the track’s seen in a long time. I attended NASCAR Truck Series races, American Speed Association events, and Hooters ProCup races at South Boston when that was a major series, but I can’t recall a crowd as large as that on Saturday night. And they were rewarded with an exciting show.

Round two of the Virginia Triple Crown will be The Hampton Heat 200 at Langley Speedway in Hampton, Va., on July 22. A standing-room-only crowd is expected as outsiders try to wrestle the win away from the Langley Speedway regulars.

The good-sized crowd that went to Winchester Speedway last weekend reportedly saw an exciting show as well. Trever Feathers displayed his talent once again as he won his third Late Model feature of the year at the track. Jonathan DeHaven scored the Limited Late Model win, and Allan Brannon won the Crate Late Model feature. The Pure Stock race was a thriller, as Craig Parrill started ninth and charged to the front of the field in the 25-lap event.

It’s good to see large crowds at short tracks on nights that the Cup Series is on live TV. The Cup races can be recorded. But be sure to set your recording for an extra couple of hours, as the races tend to go a little long with these stage breaks. The stage racing might break up the race and help keep some people interested, but the total time tends to run over. That’s an issue they’ll probably address before the King’s 85th birthday.