The sleek Dodge Challenger SRTA, painted its distinctive shade of blue, drew admiring looks from the auto racing fans who poured through the doors of the Mike Addy Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep showroom in Lexington at 6 p.m. Wednesday. But the car was not the reason most were there.
They quickly lined up, waiting their turn to meet Richard Petty, NASCAR's winningest driver and "The King" of his sport.
Petty, still trim at 72 and wearing his signature cowboy hat, jeans, boots and sunglasses, perched on a stool and patiently signed model cars, caps, photos, posters - even an oil painting of Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt with "autographs" of NASCAR's two seven-time champions.
"I had a guy do it for me" in 2001, said Lexington's Kevin Brown, then owner of a racing souvenir store. "But I didn't think the autographs were real, since Earnhardt died six weeks before I got the painting."
Petty grinned before affixing his looping signature. "NOW it's authentic," he told Brown.
Winner of a record 200 races and a member of the inaugural class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Petty was promoting a new project, Petty's Garage, which produces high-performance cars. The retro-1970s Challenger will be auctioned off in Scottsdale, Ariz., in late January, with proceeds going to the Petty Family Foundation.
"(Auction house Barrett-Jackson) auctioned off another car for $500,000, not one of mine," Petty said. "I doubt this will bring that much, but anything helps the cause."
This year has been busy for Petty. Besides sharing the Hall of Fame spotlight in Charlotte, he has overseen a merger of Richard Petty Motorsports with Yates Racing, set to take place in early 2010.
"When I started out running here in Columbia, in Cayce, you never thought about being in a hall of fame," Petty said. "You were just thinking about doing your job, and you went out and done it."
Petty said he would have preferred the first Hall class to be about the "first era" of NASCAR, and thought France Jr. and Earnhardt should have waited while Spartanburg's David Pearson should have been in the first class.
"Big Bill (France) started (NASCAR) and Junior (Johnson) was there when he started it, I was there, and Pearson was there," he said. "(France Jr.) and Earnhardt, that's another era.
"I thought they should've covered the first era, and the second era with the next crowd. But (NASCAR) did it like they wanted to, and I'm just fortunate to get in."
Petty's role with the RPM-Yates operation "won't change a lot," he said. The team will end its long-time ties with Chrysler and Dodge to run Fords in 2010. "We take over a program that's established with Ford, and we're established, so that should make us stronger and Ford stronger," he said.
Petty conceded NASCAR's move in recent years away from the Carolinas, "which is where it all started," has cost it ties with its roots.
"To get more sponsorships and fans, we had to go where they was at. They couldn't all come to Charlotte or Darlington; we had to go to New Hampshire and Chicago and Texas, Kansas City, California."
These days, Petty marvels at NASCAR's national profile. But he remains most at home with fans such as those on hand Wednesday.
"I had a pretty good career, and some (fans) appreciate that part of it," he said. "I know I appreciate what I got out of it, and hopefully they got something out of it, too."
Judging by the turnout, they still do.