HAMPTON, GA. — HAMPTON, Ga. -- The Hooters 500 had not yet reached the halfway point yesterday, when Richard Petty found himself sitting on a workbench in the garage surrounded by microphones, mini-cams and notebooks.
He had had big plans for this day, his last as a Winston Cup stock car driver. It was the last race in a glorious 35-year career, and Richard Petty had hoped for one last, memorable run.
"I wanted to go out in a blaze of glory," he said to the media horde surrounding him. "Well, I went out in a blaze, but I forgot the glory part."
Petty was running one lap down on Lap 95 of this 328-lap race, when Kenny Schrader made a mistake on the front stretch and ignited a six-car crash that caught Petty.
He drove into a blur of dust and smoke, tagged a spinning Darrell Waltrip and spun into the grassy area in the first turn, as flames burst from under the car and over the hood of the famous No. 43 STP Pontiac.
The car stopped spinning and Petty drove it a short distance to the fire trucks. "Those firemen all came running over for autographs," Petty said, smiling. "Not one of them brought a fire extinguisher."
That was it. The finish of a season-long farewell to the sport he helped make famous.
He climbed out of the car, removed his helmet and threw his arms into the air, as most of the record 165,000 fans who had crammed into Atlanta Motor Speedway screamed their appreciation.
"I'm very disappointed," Petty said later, subdued, sitting on that bench and looking every bit his 55 years. "I finished the first race I ever ran and I hoped to finish the last one. This kind of took the edge off. It brought the end so sudden. I should be out there running instead of talking to you guys. But that's the way it is, and I'm trying to make the best of it."
Petty's team did get his car running again in time to re-enter this, his 1,185th race, with one lap to go, "Hollywood style," he said.
He finished in 35th place.
The day had started so well. First, Petty went to the drivers meeting and surprised his 40 fellow drivers by giving each of them a gift of a silver and Petty blue money clip with their name and starting position engraved on it.
"I just appreciate what you guys have done for me through the years," Petty told them. "Now, try not to hit me today, and I'll try not to hit any of you."
He received a standing ovation and then headed outside to face screaming fans and go through pre-race ceremonies, the likes of which may never be witnessed again.
First, he was presented an American bald eagle (that will be returned to a preservation farm) that he named Traveler.
Afterward, as he led the field around the track on a ceremonial lap, three Apache helicopters, which had been hovering over the backstretch, swooped in to provide a personal escort.
"I said I wouldn't know how I felt about getting out of the car until today," he said. "Well, I had a couple of emotional moments with my three daughters and Lynda [his wife] today. They were crying and all because they are so happy that it's over with. I saw things differently when I saw what a load I was taking off them. Seeing how glad they are that it's over, with me still being able to walk and talk -- it made me feel good that I've done this for them. Even though I might have wanted to keep on."
Petty winds up finishing this season in 26th place in the Winston Cup standings, promising never to compete in a stock car race again.
"Lynda said she's burying my helmet," Petty said. "And I told those guys who are starting that senior circuit that if I can't run with the big boys, I ain't going to run. Since I'm not going to race another Winston Cup race, that means I'm never going to race competitively again."
There was something so final in the words. When he eventually made it to his last interview of the day, he was introduced as "former Winston Cup driver, Richard Petty."
The man they call The King grinned. "It sounds good," he said. "My whole career has been beyond words. It's been a wonderful life for Richard Petty. Now it's time to start a new one."