DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Maurice “Chief” Petty has been proclaimed as the “silent” figure at Petty Enterprises, but he provided real power and strength to his team.
His value as the team’s engine builder cannot be overstated. Petty, a self-taught mechanical magician, squeezed horsepower — and longevity — out of engines designed not for high-speed competition but daily use on America’s highways.
His creations supplied the horsepower that propelled his older brother Richard Petty to a majority of his record 200 NASCAR premier series victories, plus his seven NASCAR premier series championships and seven Daytona 500 victories.
Father Lee Petty, Buddy Baker, Jim Paschal and Pete Hamilton also won with his engines. He was the crew chief for 1970 Daytona 500 Hamilton, who also swept that season’s two races at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
Maurice Petty’s induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Jan. 29 closes the circle for stock car racing’s first dynasty. He joins earlier inductees Richard Petty; Lee Petty, the organization’s patriarch and two-time premier series champion; and cousin/crew chief Dale Inman.
“He also drove the truck and worked as a tire changer,” said Richard Petty. “He was the complete package. We just had our own little part and we kept to it. We were all successful. We didn’t think about it at the time, we were too busy getting ready for the next race. But, I guess now they have recognized us for everything. It was just a real team effort by all of us.”
Each of the four contributed strengths that made the sum much greater than the individual parts, according to Kyle Petty, son of Richard Petty and a onetime Petty Enterprises driver.
“It shows that none of them probably could have accomplished any of this without the other,” he said in an interview published by ESPN following Maurice Petty’s Hall of Fame election.
“Maurice and the Pettys kept their cars to a very, very high standard,” said former Petty Enterprises crew member Robin Pemberton, now NASCAR’s vice president of competition and racing development in an interview published by the Charlotte Observer in May 2013. “They never had mechanical failures. The old saying was that there’s a right way, a wrong way and the Petty way of doing things.”
As an engine builder, the now 74-year-old Petty had few peers.
“There were no computers; no engineers,” said Leonard Wood, the NASCAR Hall of Fame crew chief for the rival Wood Brothers organization. “What you came up with, you came up with yourself. You didn’t want anyone else to have it. He’s probably kept some of those secrets up until now.”
Petty doesn’t disagree.
“When you did something to get competitive, everybody didn’t know about it,” he said several years ago. “Even the people that worked for you didn’t know. You did it in the middle of the night.”
Although Petty ultimately built race-winning engines for Chrysler, Ford and General Motors cars, he was best known for his work on the Chrysler hemi power plant – to the point that fellow competitors complained that the manufacturer gave Petty Enterprises an advantage when the NASCAR rule book stipulated parts should be available to all.
Petty responded that he’d be happy to provide a Petty engine for anyone who had $6,500 to spend.
“I wasn’t the brains behind it and the motor was around since the ‘50s,” he said in an article published in 2013 by the Greensboro News & Record. “Lee raced a hemi in ’52 and ’54. Back then, it had to be a production road engine before you could put it in. I first got my hands on one in 1963.
“We didn’t have a dyno or anything. You just built it and crossed your fingers.”
Petty, who overcame polio as a child, had a brief driving career running 26 premier series races with seven top-five and 16 top-10 finishes between 1960 and 1964. A 1961 Daytona 500 accident effectively ended Lee Petty’s driving career and to keep the business afloat, he decided that Richard should drive and Maurice would work behind the scenes.
“Richard had his job to do and I had mine to do,” said Maurice Petty in an article published by AOL.com upon his induction into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2011. “Lee told us what he wanted us to do and that’s what we did.”
Petty attended King’s Business College in Greensboro, N.C., where he learned basic business accounting, marketing and sales. That came in handy when dealing with Detroit executives and NASCAR’s first corporate team sponsors, including STP’s Andy Granatelli. He negotiated the STP contract that brought in enough money for wind tunnel testing and computer controlled machining.