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Petty Was A Peach In Georgia No Matter The Race Track

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, September 1 2009
Richard Petty swapped racing stories with fellow Cup champions Bobby Allison and Darrell last year at Homestead. Petty also has a few stories to tell about Georgia. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

Richard Petty swapped stories with fellow Cup champions Bobby Allison and Darrell last year at Homestead. Petty also has a few stories to tell about Georgia. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Throughout his long and storied career in the circuit now known as Sprint Cup, Richard Petty enjoyed much success in the state of Georgia, where the Cup circuit runs this Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway in the Atlanta suburb of Hampton.

Petty grabbed six of his 200 career wins at AMS, but the Georgia track where he really shined was the ½-mile oval in Byron, just south of Macon. In just eight starts there, he had four wins, including two 500-lap races and three poles. His worst run there saw him finish sixth in spite of a blown engine late in the race.

The thing Petty remembers most about the Macon track is the discovery of an underground moonshine still on the raceway grounds.

“If that had been at North Wilkesboro or Asheville, I never would have thought anything about it,” he said. “But you don’t think about Macon being in the middle of the liquor-making deal.”

Petty also had a dominant car in many races at Savannah, winning three times there in 10 starts, including one, in 1967, when he led all 200 laps.

It was also in the Peach State where Petty appeared to have scored his first Cup victory only to lose it on a protest by his father Lee.

That race was held at the old Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta, a once-prominent track known in its day as “The Grand Old Lady” and “Indianapolis of the South.”

It was a one-mile dirt oval that was built around 1915 and began hosting auto races soon thereafter. The first automobile race there, in 1917, featured two legendary Indy car drivers, Barney Oldfield and Ralph DePalma, in a set of match races. (DePalma won the title of “World Dirt Track Champion” when Oldfield’s car suffered a bent axle.)

Over the years, it hosted the top drivers from the Indy car and stock car ranks. Crowds packed the grandstands in spite of the dust from the Georgia red clay racing surface. That dust often covered fans and sometimes led to crashes, some of them fatal.

On Labor Day of 1946, George Robson, winner of the first Indy 500 held after racing resumed following World War II, died in a crash at Lakewood.

When the circuit now known as Cup ran at Lakewood on June 14, 1959, dust was again a problem, as Petty recently recalled.

“The track, as it always did, got really dusty, and the scorers lost track of what was going on,” Petty said. “It got so dusty, the flagman got down off the flagger’s stand and went down to the infield so he could keep up with the laps and stuff.”

For a time in that race it looked as if young Petty, in his 1957 Oldsmobile convertible, was winning the race. On a track like Lakewood, a two-year-old convertible was on even footing with a new model hardtop like the Plymouth his father was driving.

“On a dirt track, whether you had a top or not didn’t make you run any faster or slower,” Petty said. “At Daytona it really showed up, but at the rest of the tracks it didn’t make any difference.”

Richard, who was age 22 at the time, said he remembers little about that long-ago race.

“I don’t remember whether I thought I was leading or not,” he said. “I just remember that we ran and ran and ran, and then the race was over. I don’t know if I raced with anybody that day. It’s just gotten clouded.”

He does recall what happened after the checkered flag fell, and he was declared the winner.

“I remember we stopped at the start-finish line, and three or four of our guys came out and were jumping up and down,” he said. “Then an official came over and said, ‘You might not have won this thing.’

“It kind of teed me off,” Petty continued. “They said, ‘Your daddy protested you.’”

It’s often been said that Papa Lee wouldn’t have taken away his son’s first win if not for a chance to collect a $500 bonus offered to the winner if he was driving a current-year car.

Richard said in his father’s way of thinking, it didn’t matter that it was his son’s first win would have to be sacrificed.

“He would have protested his grandmother,” Petty said. “It wouldn’t have made any difference to him. With him winning the race, Petty Enterprises took him 500 more dollars than if I’d won the race.”

Petty said there were never any hard feelings within the family over the incident.

“Second was the best we’d ever run,” he said. “I don’t think we’d have been much happier if we had won.”

Petty went on to get that first Cup win at the old fairgrounds track in Charlotte the next year. It would be five more years before he won in Georgia, in a race on the half-mile dirt track in Savannah.

He never got a chance to add a Lakewood win to his resume. The race he lost to his father was the last Cup race ever held there. The next year, Lakewood lost its Cup dates to the then-new Atlanta International Raceway, now known as AMS.

– Rick Minter can be reached at rminter@racintoday.com

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, September 1 2009
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