Richard Petty: Still King of NASCAR at 75

The King is more of an Ambassador.

Those fans have been making a pilgrimage to Petty's place in Level Cross for decades, a sacred healing ground for the NASCAR disciples. They all want to be blessed by greatness.

"I fell in love with Richard Petty in 1966, the year after my daddy got killed," Harris said. "I love the man because he's such a humanitarian and for what he's done for this country and his fellow man, and naturally we know he's the greatest thing to sit behind a race car."

The home where Petty was born still stands adjacent to the shop. Nobody lives there now, but there was a time when people would show up, unannounced, at suppertime. The knocked on the door, hoping to meet the King. Petty always obliged, politely met them at the door, posed for a picture on the front porch, then walked back to the dinner table to rejoin his family.

"It has always been that way," Kyle said.

And so, after the lunch and small talk is over, Harris and his buddies start pulling out stuff for the King to sign — pictures, T-shirts, two guitars, model airplanes, and the piece de resistance, Harris' truck parked in the backyard.

"I feel like the guy by the river with this 'will work for food' sign," Petty says jokingly.

"I'll never wash this shirt again," Kenneth Meacomes says after Richard signs a sleeve on his T-shirt. "This is the high point of my life."

Making money, giving money

Petty's Garage, established in 1949, still has the vestiges of an old empire that has seen better days. Lee and Richard Petty won 254 races until Richard retired in 1992. Since then, Petty cars have won only 17 times. The total stood at 268 when George Gillett Jr. bought controlling interest of the team in 2009, and it morphed into Petty Motorsports, which has only three victories under the new business model.

Almirola and Ambrose have yet to win this season, although they have combined for three poles and are in the middle of the pack in the scrum to qualify for the Chase. Ambrose is 16th; Almirola 21st.

Competitive struggles mirror the company's financial ones. Petty's racing team almost went belly-up during Gillett's short run. Two years later, they were rescued by Andy Murstein's Medallion Financial and Doug Bergeron's DGB Investments, which bought controlling interest a few weeks before the start of the season.

Petty sunk several million dollars — reportedly close to $10 million — to help save the business. The team — morphed from Petty Enterprises to Richard Petty Motorsports — now operates out of Concord, N.C., and the garage remains operational by restoring old cars.

"I felt we went as low as we could and still survive," Petty said. "We got a long way to get to the top of the hill but we're way farther than we were last year."

The area remains the hub of the Petty name. Less than three miles away, another significant chunk of the Petty legacy is home to a magical place for children with chronic medical conditions or illnesses, some of them terminal.

It is 84 acres of pure bliss for kids who come here for one-week summer camps: Places where they can frolic in handicap-accessible tree houses, cool off in pools, bowl in gutter-free lanes, aim a bow and arrow at a bull's eye, get their hair colored in all sorts of funky shades at the beauty parlor or dress up and perform in a talent show.

About 16,000 kids from 6 to 16 with cancer, spinal bifida, autism, diabetes, hemophilia, sickle cell anemia and other illnesses have come here since June 15, 2004, and their families have never paid a cent.

When they arrive, they will note the odd speed limit along the driveway — 4.5 mph, a tribute to Adam's No. 45 racing number.

Petty's generous NASCAR family have donated money to build much of it. Jimmie Johnson's money help build a bowling center. Kurt Busch donated money for an indoor softball field.DaleEarnhardt Jr.'s foundation raised funds for an amphitheater. Kyle does an annual charity ride to continue the fund-raising efforts.

Adam was inspired to build a place like this after he went to Paul Newman's Boggy Creek camp in Eustis, shortly after Adam started his racing career. But that vision went dark on May 12, 2000, when Adam was killed during practice for a NASCAR Nationwide Series race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon.


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