Eventually, we’ll know why Richard Petty decided this week to speak out regarding the Dale Earnhardt situation, but for now, it makes no sense at all. Petty chastised NASCAR fans for holding on to Earnhardt’s memory, saying it’s time to move on.
“He didn’t win that many races,” the man they call The King said, “and he wasn’t that dominant of a driver.” Petty won 200 races during his career as a driver, Earnhardt 76.
Dominant? Win or not, every person at a NASCAR race was aware of Earnhardt’s position. Half were happy when he went to the front, the other half booed. Dominant in terms of winning every week, perhaps not, but in terms of fan interest and his overall effect on a race, there was nobody like him in racing since, well, Richard Petty.
The King’s comments seem like sour grapes when put in the context of Petty, the driver, vs. Earnhardt, the driver. Petty was universally loved, but nobody was passionate about him or his racing. He was one of the boys, the one with the best equipment, the one with a chance to win every week. You knew Richard would be a factor, but you also knew he was just racing the Allisons, Yarborough, Pearson and Parsons. A few teams were capable of winning, the rest were just there to fill out the field. It wasn’t a free-for-all, big money proposition every time he took the track.
Dale, on the other hand, drove the passion for the sport to a higher level by the sheer force of his personality. People liked Richard because he won, because he was identifiable and because he was easy going. People liked Dale for the opposite of all that. He won, and did it with an aggressive style. He was identifiable, but only when he wanted to be. He was anything but easy going, creating a competitive tension in every situation.
Petty is trying to protect NASCAR in some way, deflecting the criticism the sport’s governing body is taking regarding their handling of the whole Earnhardt situation. It’s very weird though because it’s completely out of character for Richard. Every time I’ve talked to him, even in private, he’s never been anything but gracious and complimentary.
What happened? It almost seems as if somebody else wrote his comments. The words, the grammar, even the way the sentences are put together seem very un-Petty like.
They’re in a word, petty.
Richard hasn’t denied the comments, so I guess he stands by them.
There are pretty much four things you can walk into any bar in America, especially in the South and get a fight started by commenting on them. You don’t say bad things about a man’s mother, his religion, Elvis, or Dale Earnhardt. Maybe Richard was just looking for a fight.
For me, and awful lot of people I know, I’m holding onto Dale’s memory. I’m gauging other drivers against him. Their ability, their will to win, their kindness, their passion for being the best. Petty used to be the measuring stick, his 200 wins un-attainable in the regulated world of modern day NASCAR. Earnhardt is now the benchmark. Perhaps Petty and NASCAR don’t like that.
Sorry, they’ll just have to get used to it.