KNOXVILLE — Richard Petty sat in a suite high above Knoxville Raceway Saturday night, anxiously awaiting the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Clean Harbors 150 presented by Premier Chevy Dealers.
His grandson, Thad Moffitt, was set to compete in the race and the famed 1/2-mile oval dirt track, home of the Knoxville Nationals.
Petty was the Grand Marshal for the race, and got to make the famous, “Drivers start your engines” call prior to the 150-lap feature.
As Petty peered out over the track, he took the living legend back to a time when he was Moffitt’s age. In those days NASCAR used to run on dirt tracks, long before the sport became a multi-million dollar industry.
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Petty, nicknamed “The King” for his domination of the sport — he won seven NASCAR Cup Series championships in his 34-year racing career which spanned five decades — is amazed at how far the sport has come since he attended the first NASCAR race in 1949 at the age of 11.
Like others, he has learned that, in racing, time marches on.
“In one way it’s been aggravating,” said Petty, who will turn 85 on July 2. “But on the other hand I’m glad it’s going forward. I wouldn’t want it to stay the same as it was in the ‘ 60s or ’70s.”
“You have to make changes to stay up with technology and also from the standpoint of us drawing in new fans. You have to stay up on the latest technology. All the kids walking around now have computers and telephones. They are in the computer age If you’re not in that, then you’re not paying attention to it.”
Petty rose to fame in the golden age of NASCAR, racing alongside such legends as David Pearson, Buddy Baker, Cale Yarborough, Donnie and Bobby Allison and CooCoo Marlin, among others.
Petty said he doesn’t see that competitiveness, that ability to push one another to new heights, in this generation.
“When you look back to where NASCAR started, the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, probably the best group of drivers came through when I came through,” he said. “Me and Pearson, Allison, Baker, Yarborough. Those guys went to 70-80 races a year. Nobody now is running anywhere close to that.”
“What made it good was we were all good drivers. They made me better and I made them better. You ran just enough to beat the competition. If the competition moves up, you have to, too. That whole crowd challenged each other. You don’t really see that now,” he said.
“I don’t see the racing being that race today. A lot of it now is so commercial. It’s all about sponsors.”
It’s not just the drivers and cars, but also the rules that have changed in the ensuing dec.
Petty also said that while not all of that is to his liking, it helps continuing to grow the sport.
“The rules are so much different.,” Petty said. “They have air conditioners in the cars. They have radios they can talk to people so they can make adjustments to the car. We didn’t have any of those things when I was racing. I’m glad that it’s happening. Sometimes I wish that it wouldn’t, but in the long run to make it continue, they have to make changes.”
Petty, his piercing eyes staring through his famous sunglasses, was glad to be back at Knoxville Raceway, a place he used to come to back in his heyday. He took Petty back to his younger days, back when he was “The King” of NASCAR.
“I used to come out here to Iowa back in the day when I was working for STP,” Petty said. “We would come to Knoxville to watch the winged cars for two or three days. It was a lot of fun. We had never seen anything like that before. We had about 40 cars and then we would come here and they would have 180 cars. It was something.”
Matt Levins is a sports reporter for the USA TODAY Network in Burlington, Iowa, who has covered local sports for 31 years. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.