Monday, July 22, 2013

Mondays With Murray

The good ol’ boys of NASCAR are at the Brickyard this weekend for the Samuel Deeds 400.
In 1988, Jim Murray penned a column on one of NASCAR’s biggest legends of NASCAR, Richard Petty. Petty's list of achievements as a driver and owner are far too long to list here. His last season as a driver came in 1992.


Jim Murray

King Richard Has 32-Tooth Trademark

    If I were a rival race driver, I think the thing that would unnerve me most about Richard Petty is that smile. Richard always looks as if he has just heard or seen the funniest joke of modern times — and you're it.
    Richard smiles on his way to the race car, he smiles when he's getting into it, he smiles when he's racing it. He even smiles when he's crashing it.
    The racing world thought Richard had finally exited smiling at Daytona this year when he found a new way to come down the main straight — somersaulting like an Olympic gymnast. Any judges in the world would have given Richard four 10s and a 9.9 for the way he put his car through a series of backflips, barrel rolls and headstands. Nadia Comaneci's floor exercises were never more spectacular.
    People always said Richard Petty could make a car do everything but sing ‘Carmen,’ but this was ridiculous. The car bounced, thudded, crumpled, slid and disintegrated. If it had gone over a cliff, it couldn't have been more mangled. It looked like a tank that had just taken a direct hit, two tons of twisted, smoking, burning metal.
    The man they called the King had finally crawled into one race car too many, the crowd was sure. There was so little left of the car, how could there be anything left of the driver?
    When they got to Richard Petty, he was smiling.
    "Don't try to talk," they warned him. "Why?" he asked. "What's there to talk about?"
    And he gave them the full 32-tooth trademark grin for which he's famous. He hadn't even lost one, didn't even scratch his gums. He stayed in the car for the moment because parts of it, including the tires, were still raining down. Richard did not even have a nosebleed.
    "My ankle hurt," he admitted.
    So did his pride. If there's one thing Richard Petty doesn't do, it's total a car. Around the South, they say Richard Petty could drive a race car through the Johnstown Flood without getting it wet, or a forest fire without getting it singed. You don't win 200 stock car races if you're hard on machinery.
    When you talk of great steaks in sports, you usually begin with Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak or Lou Gehrig's 2,130-game consecutive-game playing streak or Byron Nelson's 19 tournament wins in a year or 11 in a row.
    Richard Petty once won 10 stock car races in a row and 27 in a season. Today he will be driving in his 493rd consecutive race, the Budweiser 400 at Riverside. It will be the 1,055th of his 30-year career.
    Given the time spans — DiMaggio's hitting steak lasted from May 15, to July 17, 1941, or eight weeks;  Gehrig's consecutive-game streak lasted from 1925 to 1939 — Petty's streaks, 10 weeks of wins and 17 years of showing up, are, so to speak, in the ballpark. Since Nelson, like Petty, competed in a once-a-week-vs. a once-a-day-event, the great golfer's year, 1945, is more directly comparable to the great driver's. And a standoff, anyway you look at it. Nelson won more in a row, but Petty won more in a year.
    It seems safe to say no one will ever break the streaks of any of them.
    When Richard Petty first began knocking around in a stock car, his father, Lee, was already a champion in the sport. Which meant his fame spread, oh, clear up to Durham.
    The only "modification" in the stocks in those days was that you took the moonshine out of the trunk. Your "crew" was a wrench, and you drove from race to race in the car your raced. On your good nights, you made from $85 to $100. You didn't have to buy your own gas, but you bought your own tires.
    "Only about five guys did it for a living," Petty recalls.
    The rest of them pumped gas or changed tires or repaired wrecks during the week.
    It was during this period of not trying to bring the car home in a bag that Richard evolved this driving style.
    Petty has the same style in a car as Nelson had over a putt or DiMag under a fly ball. Since he competed against guys named Fireball, Speedball or Smoke, or even Crash, you could see where they were spotting him two a side or letting him deal without cutting the cards to begin with.
    You ask Richard Petty what the racer's edge is, and he smiles and tells you, "Common sense." Other drivers talk of the boost, the stagger, the wings, the setup. Petty tunes in the mind.
    Even his winless streaks are larger than life — 118 at the moment. But Richard can be patient. Any guy who can come down the main straight on his nose, and live to smile about it, cannot complain about luck.
    At 50, Richard still has all his teeth and hair and skills and, if I were a driver and I looked in the rear view mirror and saw this big wide smile in it, I'd stand on it. Because that would either be a very large crocodile-or Richard Petty. You won't want to wait around for either one to catch up.

Reprinted with permission by the Los Angeles Times.

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