Petty running a different race Candidate: The longtime stock car king is on the road again, this time campaigning for state office in North Carolina.; CAMPAIGN 1996

THE BALTIMORE SUN

RANDLEMAN, N.C. -- As the long white bus with the words "Richard Petty for Secretary of State" in blue script on its sides rolls to a halt, there is no one to be seen in Bunn, N.C. But when Richard Petty emerges onto the street, this town of 364 residents suddenly is alive.

Folks emerge from every doorway. Cars and trucks pull to the curb. People rush toward the candidate, a slim man dressed in jeans, sport jacket, black felt cowboy hat and dark sunglasses. After signing napkins, wallets and shirts, he inches farther down the street, leaving Rhonda Cox enthralled.

"I about squeezed his neck to death," she says, returning to the Silver Spring Grill, where she works with Connie Perry, who was equally taken.

"That's the highlight of our life," Perry says, serving a couple of county sheriff's deputies. "I'm not kidding. Nothing ever happens around here. That's the highlight of our life. Of course, I'm going to vote for him."

This is the way Petty has spent his entire adult life, making friends and fans one by one until he has collected a legion for himself and his chosen field of work, stock car racing. He's on the road again, but running a different race -- for secretary of state of North Carolina.

The secretary of state is responsible for registering trademarks and corporations, administering securities regulations and keeping track of lobbyists. Petty can give the history of this office. He notes that it began as a kind of recording secretary for the state Legislature and then became a dumping ground.

He is running as a Republican in a state historically belonging to the Democrats. A Republican hasn't been in the secretary of state's office in this century. He is running his own race. He has told Bill Colby, his campaign manager, "Don't promise anybody nothing and don't take any money from anybody who wants something."

He says when he gets in office, "The only people I'm going to owe anything to is the people who vote for me. I don't want to owe anyone nothing."

But he has also caused himself some trouble by saying at one rally, "I won't mess this job up as much as someone else, because I won't be there. I'll be racing." Controversy has developed, too, about potential conflicts of interest, since he says that he won't put his corporate-sponsored racing businesses in a blind trust or give up personal sponsorships.

Autographs are what much of this campaign is about. No one asks him what the secretary of state does or what he hopes to accomplish in the office. He volunteers little, a fact that disconcerts his opponent, Democrat Elaine Marshall.

"She has nothing to do with my campaign," Petty says. "The way I look at it, I'm presenting my resume to the people of North Carolina for a job. It's up to them to decide if they want to accept it and vote for me. If they do, that's fine. If they don't, that's their choice."

Marshall is an attorney and a former state senator. She has no trouble pointing out what she sees as Petty's inadequacies.

"He is falling down on expressing his vision for the office -- and he has said he won't be there, that he will continue with his racing," Marshall says. "And he has said he will continue with his business associations with sponsor companies.

"There is no statute in the state against it, but it is a terrible conflict of interest."

On this day, Petty begins campaigning at 7: 30 a.m. and will return home around 11 p.m. The first stop is a fund-raising breakfast in Burlington. Here he gets up in front of a crowd of about 50 townspeople and tells them who he is and what he has done.

He is Richard Petty, a retired stock car driver, who has lived in Randleman, N.C., all his 59 years. He fields cars for other drivers. He is married to his high school sweetheart, Lynda Owens, and they have four children and nine grandchildren. "So you see, I didn't spend all my time racing," he says, drawing a laugh.

He was a Randolph County commissioner for 16 years, until he resigned two years ago because he decided he had been there long enough.

"Now, I look at this as a challenge. This is a chance for me to give something back to the people, who have given so much to me throughout my career. I go all over the country promoting North Carolina, and I think I can help bring business here. I'm not doing this as a lark, that's what I have to convince people about."

All these things he says in about five minutes. And they are the same things he will say throughout the day, at impromptu stops like the one in Bunn and planned stops like the last one in Hillsborough, where nearly 450 people, Republicans and Democrats, pack a hall to listen to him and get his autograph.

In between, he visits a tobacco warehouse and talks with farmers and local workers; he visits the Wilson Country Club in Wilson for a fund-raising lunch sponsored by Dale Bone, whose 7,000-acre cucumber farm has earned him the name "The Pickle King." That's funny: The Pickle King meets Petty, known to all racing fans as "The King."

From there it's on to Rocky Mount and the Tarrytown Mall for a voter registration drive. Officials credit the news of Petty's visit as being responsible for at least 50 to 60 new registrations in a little over an hour.

"A big improvement from the last time we did this, when we got six to sign up over five hours," says John Vic, handing out registration forms.

Several phenomena become clear in the course of a day:

Nearly every Republican candidate for office in the state wants Petty to come and lend a hand to his campaign. ("I need to draw the Democrat vote, and I know he can do that," says Mike Causey, campaigning for state insurance commissioner and riding the Petty bus all day. "I want to meet as many of his fans as I can.")

When Petty asks for questions, only one is asked, and it isn't political. ("When do you plan to win a race?" says a voice in a crowd.)

Despite never having met him before, nearly everyone in these crowds is acquainted with him. ("You hear the name Richard Petty and you know him," says Joanice Tyndall, 47, a notary. "You know what he stands for -- honesty, family, conservative government. You know he has kids, that he did a pretty good job raising them.")

And says David Butts, a fertilizer salesman, "As for that incident on the highway, I think we all know that was blown up by the media. If it had been a normal citizen, it never would have made the newspaper. But it's an election year."

Oh, yes -- the incident on the highway.

"The Democrats have nothing to criticize me for except the dumb things I do to myself," Petty says. The incident happened Sept. 11, as Petty was driving home from Charlotte Motor Speedway in his truck. He'll give you the long version, but the gist of it is he was tailgating the car of James Rassette of Oak Ridge in the fast lane when Rassette jammed on his brakes and Petty hit his bumper.

The police officer looked at both bumpers and handed Petty a $25 ticket. That was that, Petty says, "until the 'Democrat-controlled' state police in Raleigh got hold of it." After that, he found himself with a $65 fine and four points on his driving record for following too close.

"I'm a political victim," he says. "Now Lynda won't let me take the truck out at night."

Pub Date: 10/10/96

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