Editor’s Note: Richard Petty will turn 80 years old on July 2. In celebration of this racing hero’s milestone birthday, Bones Bourcier, author of “Foyt, Andretti, Petty: America’s Racing Trinity,” takes a look back at how a boy from Level Cross, N.C., became “The King.” Here’s part two. To read part one, click here.
Ask a roomful of folks to name the biggest day in NASCAR history and you’ll get a roomful of answers. The 1979 Daytona comes quickly to mind; that combination of a live telecast, the Yarborough-Allison crash and Petty’s surprise victory lifted the sport. Younger fans might opt for something involving their own generation’s grand champion, Dale Earnhardt, like the emotional day in 1998 when he won his only Daytona 500, or the sad day in 2001 when he ran his last.
Economaki chose a race from Daytona, too, but it wasn’t a 500. As Economaki saw it, the 26th annual Firecracker 400 on July 4, 1984 — the day Richard Petty scored his 200th victory — was not just the biggest happening in NASCAR history, but maybe the biggest in American motorsports.
“Auto racing, up until a certain day, was looked down upon by the American public,” Economaki said. “It was guys with grease under their fingernails and oily rags in their hip pockets. Then in 1984, the Daytona 500 telecast out-rated the Winter Olympics. That was the beginning of the transition. Then Indianapolis had its biggest (ever) crowd in May. Then the Meadowlands Grand Prix (for Indy Cars) in the New York City area was held.
“And then, (three) days after the Meadowlands Grand Prix, President Reagan got on Air Force One and flew to Daytona Beach. This was not a stop-off on the way to see some banana-republic dictator; he flew to Daytona to be at the race. He said, ‘Gentlemen, start your engines’ from the airplane.”
Immediately after the finish, Petty was ushered to the press box, where Reagan offered his congratulations.
“And on July 5, 1984, on the front page of the New York Times — above the fold — was a picture of the president of the United States and a racing driver. That was the clincher. (Businessmen began) saying, ‘Listen, racing beats the Olympics, there’s a major race in New York … and now the president flies in to watch a race. How do I get a piece of this?’”
That was Economaki’s 1984 Firecracker 400 memory. But on that hot July afternoon, one 9-year-old boy was looking at things a bit differently.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. remembers that when the race was over, Reagan joined the drivers, their families, NASCAR officials and other invited guests for a picnic out behind the garage area. Nothing fancy, just box lunches courtesy of KFC.
“Dad and (his wife) Teresa and me and my sister Kelley were sitting off to the side at our table,” Dale Jr. remembered. “But Richard was sitting with the president. And I thought: ‘Wow, he’s so much cooler than everybody else.’ He’d just won his 200th race — and even as a young kid, I understood that this was a big moment — and now to see him be able to sit with the president …
“To me, the president was like a celebrity, somebody you never thought you’d even see. And Richard was sitting right next to him. I was in awe of Richard at that moment. Like: ‘How does that happen?’”