The King celebrates 50 years in NASCAR

Richard Petty made his NASCAR debut 50 years ago on a half-mile track in South Carolina, qualifying 13th in a car with the roof cut off.

He wasn't wearing cowboy boots. He wasn't walking around in a hat adorned with ostrich feathers. He wasn't even sporting dark sunglasses.

He was a tall, lanky, 21-year-old who wanted a chance to drive. He finished sixth — five laps behind the winner — and earned $200.

"I got better," Petty says.

Indeed. Petty won an unmatched 200 races in his 35-year career, including seven Daytona 500 victories, and a record-tying seven NASCAR championships. Somewhere along the line, he became "The King," a larger-than-life persona that includes the hat, the boots, the shades and the dark, bushy mustache. It all started at Columbia Speedway on July 12, 1958, when he got behind the wheel for the first time.

The sport hasn't been the same since.

"I've survived these years I guess more than anything else," says Petty, recalling the 50th anniversary of his debut. "I've been there ever since NASCAR started basically, and I just come along at the right time to grow up with NASCAR."

Petty spent the better part of his childhood around race cars. He built engines, painted bodies and worked in the pits long before he was old enough to legally drive. When he did reach NASCAR's age limit, he asked his father, three-time NASCAR champion Lee Petty, for a chance.

Lee Petty pointed to an old car off in a corner and told him to cut the top off it and use it in a convertible series race at Columbia.

Richard Petty jumped at the opportunity. No one knew it was the start of something special.

"I just think I was a lucky son of a gun to be born at the right place at the right time under the right circumstances with a little bit of talent and a lot of talented people around me to put me in a position to be where I'm at today," Petty says.

Six days after his debut, Petty made his first Grand National (now the Sprint Cup Series) start in Toronto. He finished 17th in a race his father won.

He needed less than two years to get his first Grand National victory, but then they started piling up in a hurry. Petty finished second in the points in just his third season and was runner-up two more times before netting his first title in 1964.

"When I won my very first race, I said nothing will ever be this big," Petty says. "But then you get fortunate enough to win more and more, and over a period of time, it gets diluted. So no matter how happy you are one day in, three or four weeks, you've done forgot about that and you're on another kick."

Petty finished outside the top five in points just four times between 1960 and 1983, an amazing run that made him the sport's biggest icon.

But looking back now, there isn't one moment that stands out.

"When I sit around and talk about it or listen to people or whatever, the ones that got away are the ones that you really worry about and you say, 'We should have done better in this race or that race,'" Petty says. "So those are probably in your mind more than the ones that you won."

Petty's last championship came in 1979. His last victory, fittingly enough, came at Daytona in July 1984. He retired in 1992 and has since dedicated his time to rebuilding NASCAR's most storied race team, Petty Enterprises.

It hasn't been easy.

The organization has been stuck in neutral for close to two decades, falling far behind the success it achieved when The King was driving. The team's last victory came with John Andretti in 1999, and it now has sponsorship problems.

But there are signs of a turnaround.

The organization signed driver Bobby Labonte to a long-term deal, relocated its longtime race shop closer to the NASCAR hub and formed its first dedicated test team. And maybe most significantly, Petty gave up control last month when he sold majority ownership of the famed company to Boston Ventures, a private equity firm.

"It's a new venue for them and a new venue for us," Petty says. "So we have to get our arms around who does what, how do we get our sponsorships in, how do we get our sponsors all lined up, and how do we get the crews all lined up. I don't see us having a major impact on anything outside right now, as far as seeing the car doing better or any of that kind of stuff.

"I think it's kind of a deal where we have to sort of sit back and look and say, 'OK, what do we need now to go forward?'"

And get The King back to his winning ways, a journey that started 50 years ago on a small track outside Columbia.

"I came along with a bunch of other guys that helped build the sport," Petty says. "It was sort of like when they ran the very first race. It was like planting a seed and then the tree started growing. I grew with it a little bit and then the branches go out."