Richard Petty set the standard for success in NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Racing) competition with a record 200 Grand National/Winston Cup victories and seven championships before his retirement after the 1992 season. His historic 200th win came at Daytona in the July 1984 Firecracker 400 and was witnessed by then-President Ronald Reagan. He also holds the record for Winston Cup starts and poles, as well as the record for wins in a single season-27-in 1967.
This champion driver's likeability and good personality helped earn him the title The King, and he made the No. 43 entry NASCAR's most famous car. The Petty family from Level Cross, North Carolina, consisted of Richard's father, Lee (a champion driver in his own right), Richard, and engine-builder brother, Maurice. Also in that mix was a chassis expert, cousin Dale Inman, and while most of the limelight went to the car's driver, it was an impressive total team effort.
Richard was a real "down-home" kind of guy born in the shadow of his daddy's garage. "I never went to college," he said in an early interview, "and I'm not really sorry. It might have taught me a lot more...a lot more to worry about."
Petty's driving debut in 1958 was in an Oldsmobile convertible race car, but soon after he ran Mopars exclusively--starting with a wedge-head-equipped '59 Plymouth-until 1969 when he did a single-year switch to a Ford. Richard, a crowd favorite, won the Daytona 500 a record seven times and was Mopar's premier racer in NASCAR competition for many years.
The '70 NASCAR race season saw the Pettys back with the Chrysler Corporation, thanks to the Plymouth division creating a wing car of their own-the new '70 Superbird. Glenn White, Plymouth's general manager, told the Pettys they had been flying the flags at half-mast over 3,400 Plymouth dealerships across the country after Petty left. After hearing that, plus hearing the news of the slick, new, aerodynamic Superbird, the Pettys said, "OK, we're ready to come home." (The huge check that went with the deal also trumped the Ford offer, which was said to be ten times what Plymouth was paying in 1968.) So it cost some major money to get The King back in a Plymouth, but it was well worth it.
Soon a two-car Petty Enterprises Plymouth team was created for the new year, and success came quickly. While Richard himself didn't win the '70 Daytona 500, Petty team driver Pete Hamilton did win in an identically prepared No. 40 Superbird. by the end of that year, Pete added two more wins with his Petty team car, and Richard won 18 races in the No. 43. The Hemi was continuing to be the engine to beat on the NASCAR circuit. But towards the end of 1970, the future was unsure for the Petty team as the factories were reducing their involvement.
One day toward the end of the '70 racing schedule, Richard received a call from the Chrysler factory in Detroit that said, "It looks like Chrysler is going to cut back on its racing program." Richard sank back in his chair and thought, Oh man, don't tell me we've run out of a sponsor again. But the voice on the other end of the phone said, "We're going to run one Plymouth and one Dodge next year." Chrysler wanted Petty Enterprises to field both the Plymouth and Dodge in NASCAR competition, and the driver had already been selected by Chrysler for the Dodge-Buddy Baker.
With the contract to run two cars in 1971-a Road Runner and a Charger-plus an added bonus of taking over the Chrysler racing parts business, things were looking good in Level Cross. Soon the new body parts and related gear was arriving, and the construction of the new '71 race cars began
In the past, Petty Enterprises would use a traditional "Body in White" as a starting base when constructing a Grand National car. But for 1971, things got more serious; the cars were now built on a surface plate that used "panel construction" as a technique. Specific race-only components were now used, including a fabricated front frame assembly and front K-member that didn't share the factory design. Two-hundred-fifty feet of 131/44-inch tubing was used for the rollcage. A Petty Enterprise-designed front sway bar was used, and beefed suspension systems (torsion bar front, leaf-spring rear) with double Napa Regal Ride racing shocks on each corner were also used. Bigger brakes were part of the package (11x311/42-inch ribbed drum front, 11x3-inch drum rear), and specific Petty-designed hubs and steering components were fitted. A 22-gallon fuel cell was incorporated, as were other safety items, such as a check valve installed in the fuel tank (to prevent fuel from pouring out in the event of a rollover), a nylon driver's window net, and an on-board fire extinguisher.
The racing seat was installed along with a tubular steel-reinforced headrest (mounted to the rollcage assembly). The '71 Petty cars were the start of "pure race car" construction, but still had stock sheetmetal and retained factory stampings for the floorboard. the body looked basically stock, except for the enlarged wheel openings for tire clearance.
Maurice built the 426 Hemi engines and was known for his ability to coax the maximum amount of power from them, all the while keeping them reliable enough to last. A Chrysler "bathtub" intake manifold with a single 4500-series Holley carburetor was used, as was a dry-sump oiling system.
When it was time for the '71 Daytona 500, the Petty team came to the track with a blue Plymouth and a white Dodge. Petty won the race (the first ever to win it three times), and Baker, in the Dodge, took home second. A 1-2 punch and the most successful race ending ever for Petty Enterprises.
In the late '80s, the R.J. Reynolds Company used a 1978-era Dodge Magnum as a "No. 1 Winston" promotional display car. This car, which began life as a Petty Enterprises '71 Road Runner, was obtained from Petty Enterprises. Several years ago, Kim Haynes of Gastonia, North Carolina, discovered this car. Kim, proprietor of www.racetorations.com, sold it to Simi Valley, California's Pat McKinney. The car was complete, but needed a re-body back to the original Road Runner skin, plus the engine was a NASCAR-style 355-inch small-block, which needed to be replaced with a Hemi.
Dick Landy was called in to work his magic on the new powerplant, which pulled 616 hp on the dyno. with the help of Pat's brother Michael, the fully-restored '71 No. 43 Petty Road Runner rolled out of the garage some five years later looking like a time-warp machine from the '71 Daytona 500.
A ton of research using old photographs, movies, and conversations with people who were around the Petty race cars in that era (including one with Richie Barsz, a long-time Petty crew member) was extremely helpful in putting together the proud old Plymouth. When the letter of authenticity came on April 9, 2003, from Richard Petty, The King himself, the hard work and determination of the project was all justified.
The restoration of this racer was done with great accuracy, and the end result is a car that looks as close to the way it appeared some 34 years ago as you can get. Perhaps one day King Richard himself will see the historical car in its current state, and that surely would bring back some great memories.