Out of a small community called Randleman, North Carolina, Lee Petty produced one of the greatest NASCAR careers and with his sons founded an astonishing NASCAR team that lived through four generations and is still going on today.
Lee Arnold Petty was born on March 14, 1914 near Randleman, North Carolina. He was one of the pioneers of NASCAR, and one of its first superstars. He won 54 races in 433 career starts; he also finished in the Top 5 in season points for NASCAR's first eleven seasons and in his last full season in 1960 he finished 6th; he also had a top 10 an implausible 332 times out of 433 career races. He is the father of Maurice and Richard, the grandfather of Kyle and Ritchie, and the great grandfather of the late Adam Petty, who all have raced, even for just a short stint. His nephew Dale Inman worked for Petty Enterprises as Richard's crew chief from the early 1960s until 1981 and during the 1990s.
Petty was a star athlete in high school and after he graduated, he decided to attend King's Business College in Greensboro, North Carolina; that decision helped him learn how to manage Petty Enterprises on their way to prominence.
In 1943, after a freak wood stove accident, the family house burned to the ground in front of the horrified eyes of his wife, Elizabeth, and sons. Petty and his family saw their way through the tragedy and soon converted a trailer into a new house.
He always liked driving cars fast but did it mainly as a hobby. He was a family man who provided for his wife and two boys Richard and Maurice by doing such jobs as being a mechanic, driving a taxi, and being a truck driver, and many more odd jobs, so by the time he realized his dream it was 1949 and he was thirty-five years old. In his first race Petty was one of the 33 racers in the premiere of NASCAR late-model racing on June 19, 1949 at Charlotte Speedway, which is a three-quarter of a mile dirt track near Charlotte Motor Speedway. He drove a Buick Roadmaster, his sons, Richard, age eleven, and Maurice, age ten, was his pit crew that day. In the race, Petty lost control of the top heavy car and barrel rolled. The car came to a halt in a battered heap, shooting out steam and oil. Petty climbed out of his car, shaken, with only a minor cut and sat on the track, and looked off into the distance with a “Wow, this is sad” type of look on his face. Petty later said "I was just sitting there thinking about having to go back home and explain to my wife where I'd been with the car." The misfortune of this wreck was that the car he just crashed was the car they drove to the track, so they had no way home and where stranded.
In 1954 Petty won his first of three championships in the Grand National (Sprint cup) series. This championship was unique because he did not win it with his own team like his next two, he won it with the car owner Gary Drake in which he left at the end of the season to drive for Carl Krueger; those was the only two car owners that he ever drove for, the rest of his seasons he drove for himself. "I have to finish in the top three cars to make money," Petty said in a 1954 interview. "I have to finish among the first five to break even. After that, I'm going in the red." That attitude is what propelled him into his successful career.
In 1958 he won his second ever championship.
In the first race at Daytona International Speedway in 1959 at the Daytona 500, Petty and Johnny Beauchamp battled during the final laps of the race. Petty, Beauchamp and Joe Weatherly drove 3 wide across the finish line at the final lap for a photo finish. Beauchamp was declared the unofficial winner, and he drove to victory lane. Petty protested the results, saying "I had Beauchamp by a good two feet“. It took NASCAR founder Bill France, Sr. three days to decide the winner. In the end, with the help of that famous picture took from the grass at the finish line; Petty was officially declared the winner. Son Richard also drove in that race in a 1957 Oldsmobile convertible with the number he would soon make famous 43; he finished 57th out of 59 starters because of engine failure on only the eighth lap. Also in that year Lee finished 41 out of the 49 races run, winning twelve of them, and in that time he won his third championship becoming only the second driver to win 2 championships in a row, second only to Buck Baker who won the 2 previous championships; he also became the first driver to win 3 championships.
In 1960 his son Richard thought he had just won his first race; but boy was he wrong. Lee knew that something was wrong with the scoring and protested the win saying that he won, not Richard. Lee ended up winning the protest yet again, and the race, making Richard wait even longer for his first win. Lee said “I would have protested it even if it was my own mother”.
During the 1961 Daytona 500 qualifying race Lee Petty and Donny Beauchamp’s cars collided and hooked together and then slid into the guardrail which was only about 3 feet tall then and fell into the parking lot 150 ft. below. Petty was seriously injured; his injuries included a punctured lung, multiple fractures of the left chest, a fractured thigh, a broken collarbone, and several internal injuries; he was in the hospital for about four months.
In 1964 Petty ran his last race of his career at the Watkins Glen international raceway in N.Y. His driving career was over, but his ownership of Petty enterprises still stood and boy did it blossom; it became the most successful team in NASCAR and is still a contender today only with the new name of Richard Petty motorsports. In his later years of retirement he became a fanatic golfer, playing often four times a week.
In 1990, Lee Petty was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.
In 1996 he was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame.
He was selected as one of NASCAR's 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998 along with his son, Richard Petty.
Lee Petty died early in the morning on April 5, 2000 at Moses Cone Memorial Hospital in Greensboro, North Carolina, at the age of 86, several weeks after having surgery for a stomach aneurysm. He was buried at the Level Cross United Methodist Church Cemetery in Randleman, North Carolina. His great grandson Adam Petty raced for the first time in the Winston (Sprint) cup series just three days before he died. "There wasn't any better driver than Lee Petty in his day," legendary stock-car racer Junior Johnson told the Associated Press's Estes Thompson.
Lee Petty was the foundation of “The First Family of NASCAR”. If it wasn’t for him turning his hobby into a career we may have never got the great drivers out of Maurice Petty, Richard Petty, Kyle Petty, or the late Adam Petty, and even now, when there are no Petty’s racing in NASCAR we still consider them as being the greatest family of drivers in the history of the sport, and still watch them on DVD or television even if it is just 40 minutes of video with bad coverage; but we don’t care we love the Petty’s and we can thank that love to the one and only Lee Petty.