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Daddy won't always let you win
How Richard Petty learned that life is sometimes a little TOO fair
Let’s talk fathers and sons.
Next weekend, Tiger Woods will return to the golf course for the first time since a devastating February car wreck in which he damn near lost his leg and/or his life. Woods will play in a goofy little hit-and-giggle tournament in Orlando called the PNC Championship, and he’ll be doing so for one reason only: because he gets to play with his young son. The tournament pairs former champions with family members, and that’s about all Tiger really needs to accomplish on the golf course anymore.
The PNC is a sweet bit of nostalgia and self-congratulation — two things at which golf excels — but it’s most definitely not a competition. Because if it were, and if he were able, you can bet Tiger would be ripping open his stitches to out-drive his boy Charlie. Family’s family and all, but victory rules.
Oh sure, every father says they’re OK with their kid winning … but every father’s also a realist, too. You might let your kid get off nine uncontested shots at the seven-foot driveway basket, but on the tenth, you’re going to Dikembe that weak shit into the neighbor’s yard … just to remind both of you that you can. Blood or no, when the kid starts eyeing the throne, you don’t just hand it to them.
The nature of most sports means that fathers are well past their peak or retired before sons can reach the pinnacle.1 In racing, though, you’re only as old as the car you’re driving, which means there’s a long history of fathers and sons trading paint. And that’s where our story truly begins.
Richard Petty won 200 races at NASCAR’s highest level2, more than any other driver. But to get to 200, you have to get #1, and Richard Petty’s very first win was snatched out of his grasp by none other than his own father. True story.
Richard is long and lean, all wire and gristle. His dad, Lee, was a cinderblock of a man, a combustion engine in human form. Lee Petty raced in the very first Daytona 500 back in 1959, and came out of the final turn even with fellow driver Johnny Beauchamp. Lee Petty’s in the middle of the three-car set below; can you tell where he finished?
NASCAR declared Beauchamp the winner, but Petty protested, and after three days of reviewing newsreel footage, Lee got the win.3
Scene cut to: Lakewood Speedway, Atlanta, Georgia. Lakewood, located just south of downtown, was once one of the top tracks in the country. Whiskey-trippers — moonshine runners who’d ferry illegal liquor from stills in the hollers of north Georgia to thirsty patrons in Atlanta — would bring the skills they’d learned evading cops in the mountains to the red clay of Lakewood. As a result, Lakewood gained a rep as the place to go if you wanted to race the best.4
A couple months after that fateful Daytona race, Lee and Richard Petty fired it up at Lakewood. Richard, driving a ‘57 Oldsmobile with the not-yet-iconic 43 on the side, crossed the finish line first, for what he believed was his first victory at NASCAR’s highest level.
Not so fast, future King. Richard learned that his win was under protest … from his own father.
Yes, Lee Petty contended that he’d lapped Richard twice while Richard was in the pits, and that race officials had miscounted the laps. After consulting their cards, they realized Lee was correct, and stripped Richard of his first career win. (He would get more.)
Why would a father do such a thing to his boy? Richard has tried to rationalize it by saying that it was for the good of the team — NASCAR’s bonus structure awarded an extra $200 to 1959-model cars, which Lee drove. Lee and Richard were on the same team, so a win by Lee would mean an extra $200 — about $1900 in today’s dollars — to the team.
Lee, however, apparently saw this as a teaching opportunity. “He’s my boy and I’d love to see him win a race, but when he wins one I want him to earn it,” Lee told the Atlanta Constitution after the race. “This wouldn’t be the right way for him to get his first victory.”5
I mean, right lesson, Pop, but still … harsh.
Lee Petty died in 2000 and is enshrined in every Hall of Fame you can imagine. Richard Petty won seven championships, more than anyone not named Dale Earnhardt or Jimmie Johnson, so it’s tough to argue that Lee’s lesson damaged his career prospects. The team they once raced for is now a shell of its former self, literally and legally; Richard Petty Motorsports just this week announced the sale of its majority interest to another team. The new team, which will still carry the valuable Petty name, will race the 42 and 43 cars — Lee and Richard’s numbers — which is a nice touch.
These days, the area that was once the track is now access roads and parking for Lakewood Amphitheater6. But the lake the drivers once raced around is still there, and if you look close, you can still see the track’s old, tree-cracked concrete grandstands. They’re in the lower center of this Google Maps screenshot:
Anyway, the lesson here is obvious: time marches on … and when you have the chance to march over your kid, too, you gotta do it.
That’s all for this week, friends. Thanks for hanging. See you next week!
This has been issue #49 of Flashlight & A Biscuit. Check out all the past issues right here. Feel free to email me with your thoughts, tips and advice. And if you dug this, share it with your friends. Invite others to the party, everyone’s welcome.
LeBron and Bronny James might be the exception. Hell, LeBron will be starting — probably for the Knicks or some other new team — when his grandkids reach the NBA.
Many of these races were weeknight short-track affairs against part-time drivers. It’d be like adding the home runs Hank Aaron could hit against minor-leaguers to his total. But that’s not the focus of today’s story.
Lee Petty always suspected Bill France, founder of NASCAR and supreme lord and master of the Daytona 500 back then, knew he’d won the race fair and square but stretched out the final decision in order to whip up some drama, which would be perfectly in keeping with NASCAR then and now.
France was briefly concerned that those hillbillies from the mountains would wrestle the title of Motorsports Capital of the South away from him, part of the reason why he built Daytona International Speedway in the first place.
The great Ryan Nanni called that quote “the perfect intersection of ‘life shouldn’t be handed to you on a silver platter’ and ‘sports should be played the right way.’”
One of the more pathetic combinations of protest and authority I’ve ever seen was at Lakewood during a Metallica show. Out on the lawn, fans were lighting pizza boxes on fire and creating small bonfires. I watched as some poor kid tried so hard to ignite a tiny pile of napkins. A beefy yellow-shirted security guard walked past and, without even breaking stride, stomped out the tiny fire just as it was getting started. That kid probably needed some therapy after that.