North State Journal’s 100 in 100 series will showcase the best athlete from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. From Alamance to Yancey, each county will feature one athlete who stands above the rest. Some will be obvious choices, others controversial, but all of our choices are worthy of being recognized for their accomplishments — from the diamond and gridiron to racing ovals and the squared circle. You can see all the profiles as they’re unveiled here.
Debating the GOAT of a particular sport is an entirely subjective pursuit with any number of right answers. But when it comes to NASCAR, there is only one King.
Richard Petty earned the title by dominating the track like no one either before or since while becoming his sport’s first transcendent national superstar. A testament to his popularity as a driver and significance as a cultural icon came on July 4, 1984, at Daytona when, with President Ronald Reagan in attendance and later celebrating with him in Victory Lane, Petty earned his 200th career victory in the Firecracker 400.
Those 200 wins are 95 more than any other driver, earning him election as a charter member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. His seven Daytona 500 wins are also a record, while his seven season championships are tied with Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Jimmie Johnson as the most ever.
A second-generation driver from Level Cross whose father Lee was one of stock car racing’s pioneers, Richard was NASCAR’s Rookie of the Year in 1959. He won his first race a year later at the Charlotte Fairgrounds, and by 1967, he and his trademark Petty Blue STP-sponsored No. 43 became nearly unbeatable. Petty won 27 of the 48 races he entered that year, including a record 10 straight on the way to his second series title. It was a performance that earned him his royal nickname.
That 200th victory at Daytona in 1984 proved to be his last. He retired eight years later with a festive farewell tour that ended with the Hooters 500 in Atlanta, which was also the first career race of another future Hall of Famer, Jeff Gordon.
Although no longer active as a driver, Petty has stayed in the sport as an owner and ambassador. He and his son Kyle, who also raced at the sports highest level, established Victory Junction — a summer camp for seriously ill and physically challenged children. His Richard Petty Driving Experience allows fans to drive a race car around the track in Charlotte.
Petty also made a brief foray into politics, running unsuccessfully for North Carolina secretary of state in 1996. While Petty’s popularity didn’t translate to the ballot box, it has paid off at the box office. Not only was he the voice of a character based on his car in Disney’s “Cars” franchise, but he also appeared as himself in the movie “Swing Vote.”