Long before NASCAR's popularity exploded in the '80s and '90s, people in most parts of the country couldn't tell Smokey Yunick from Smokey The Bear. In the days before ESPN took over the sports airwaves, NASCAR was perceived as a Southern thing, and it got little play in other parts of the country. The one major exception was Richard Petty. Even in the Stick-and-ball-dominated northeast and out west, everyone knew who he was. Fueled by sporadic coverage on ABC's Wide World of Sports ("… and the agony of defeat!") and mentions in car magazines, the gentleman from Randleman, North Carolina, was recognized and loved by millions.
Almost 20 years after he retired from driving, "The King" is still revered. His 200 NASCAR Sprint Cup victories will never be surpassed, and no matter where he goes today, he's mobbed by fans, many of whom weren't even born when he won his last race. I've been fortunate enough to meet Richard twice, and I can tell you that he's a genuinely nice man—the ambassador you see interviewed on TV is the same guy in person. He still loves cars, racing and—especially—his fans.
The last time we spoke was a few months before the Gen 6 NASCAR race car was introduced. It was at the Richard Petty Driving Experience at Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando, and I was waiting my turn behind the wheel of one of its two-seat, 600hp Cup cars. Although Petty is obviously known for his success in non-GM vehicles, he had a pretty decent run after switching from Dodge to Chevrolet in mid-season 1978. He went winless in his new Monte Carlo that year, but was victorious at Martinsville, Michigan, Dover and Rockingham in 1979, and found victory lane twice more in 1980 (at North Wilksboro and Nashville). That accounts for all his half-dozen career victories in Chevrolets. Interestingly, he had more wins in (pre-downsized) Monte Carlos than he did later in Pontiac Grand Prixs, even though he ran the latter for many years.
Petty was as enthusiastic as ever when we spoke, discussing the upcoming Gen 6 cars and how he hoped they would appeal to fans because they look more like the sedans the manufacturers sell than the Car of Tomorrow. Like the NASCAR purists, he preferred when his race cars looked like the real deal, but more important to him was safety. He saw too many friends and colleagues perish in those old production-based stock cars. His grandson, Adam, died in a wreck while testing. The priority, Petty said, was to get the cars safe. Now that they've achieved this, they can make them look more like their showroom counterparts. And I think the new Sprint Cup car does. It's a lot easier to tell the brands apart when you watch them rub fenders.
As much fun as it was talking to the King, I couldn't wait to get behind the wheel. Though the cars at the Experience have the COT bodies that represent Chevy, Dodge, Ford, and Toyota, don't be fooled. They're all 100-percent Chevrolet power under their hoods. This obviously helps defray maintenance costs and enhances their reliability. The Experience outfits you with a fire suit and helmet (set up for use with the mandatory HANS device). You also get an in-car instructor to scare.
Once you squeeze yourself through the window and into the seat, the belts are clicked in place, the HANS device connected, and finally, the steering wheel is attached. Hitting the start button and hearing that small-block fire to life was an absolute rush. The Richard Petty deal is designed for drivers of all experience levels, so the one-mile tri-oval is clearly marked for where to place the car, when to lift off the throttle, and when to get back on it. These are not mere suggestions. You either follow the guidelines or your ride is terminated.
While I have been through a dozen driving schools and even drove a genuine Petty Grand Prix back when I had hair, you still have to listen carefully to the instructors. By doing a couple of quick warm up/orientation laps, you learn the quirks of the car and the track. After you're deemed ready, you can really let it rip. And rip I did. With the instructor's voice coming over the radio in your helmet, you are encouraged and coached. As your skill level and confidence builds, you find yourself going faster and faster in the straights (130-plus is doable) and pulling more and more g-forces in the turns. Coming out of the corners hard and letting the beast drift up to the wall just like Junior is worth every penny you pay
Unfortunately, before you know it, your time is up and you're cooling down. Just when I got the hang of it, playtime was over. I did the eight-lap "Rookie Experience," which will set you back $449, and while that might be enough for some people, it barely whet my appetite. For the power hungry, you can also do 18 laps for $849, 30 laps for $1,299 or 50 laps for either $2,099 or $2,599, depending on your package. If you'd just like to go along for the ride, you can be a passenger for $99. Visit www.drivepetty.com for a location in your area. It was a blast.