In honor of this weekend’s 58th running of the Daytona 500, I want to share a special moment I shared with The King of NASCAR racing, Richard Petty.
The year was 1989 and I was working in Wilmington, North Carolina at NBC affiliate WECT. I had only been the weekend sportscaster for a few months. One day out of the blue I received a phone call from a viewer that said, “Richard Petty will be at the battleship North Carolina later today for a photo shoot.” It was a quick phone call and the caller didn’t even leave his name.
I was a little reluctant by the tip and who could blame me. We were talking the biggest name in NASCAR racing at the time. Richard Petty at the battleship just seemed too good to be true.
Petty got the nickname “The King” for a reason. At that point, Petty had captured the Winston Cup Championship seven times. He collected 200 wins and won the Daytona 500 a record seven times. In 1989, the Level Cross, North Carolina native was nearing the end of his amazing Hall of Fame career. The year before, Petty experienced one of the most horrific crashes in Daytona 500 history when his car spun roughly 7 times on its nose in front of the grandstands.
I was a young cub sports reporter at the time and had interviewed only high school and college athletes. In that small town, I was doing human interest stories on escaped pigs, brush fires and hollerin’ contests. Going one-on-one with The King was a little intimidating.
So I hopped in the car and made the short drive to the battleship and I was stunned at what I saw! It was Richard Petty, complete with signature black sun glasses and cowboy hat all alone next to his famous number 43 blue and red STP sponsored Pontiac. Yes, all alone. Not a soul was there. Not a publicist or even photographer. I was early and Petty was waiting to do his photo shoot.
The biggest star in NASCAR racing was as nice as could be. He gave me a great interview and I will never forget what he said when I asked him about if would be thinking about that horrible crash the next time he races at Daytona. Petty told me, “If I think about that crash, then I would have to think about the crash I had on the back stretch and the crash I had in turn one and the crash I had in turn 2 and all the other crashes I’ve had at Daytona. Heck, I’ve crashed so many times at Daytona, I’ve forgotten most of them.”
That single phone call led me to my first big star interview.
I often get asked who is the most popular athlete I have interviewed. At this point in my long career, the list is long and I always come back to that first interview and how it all came about. The thing I remember most about that interview was how genuine and down-to-earth Richard Petty was. I just showed up out of the blue and Petty was as gracious as ever.
Thank you anonymous phone caller and thanks to The King.