NASCAR & Auto Racing

Higgin's Scuffs: Petty's 1,000th start was one great Father's Day

I never have heard the eruption of a volcano.

However, decibels that I imagine might be relative to such an explosion roared into my ears and those of approximately 45,000 others on June 15, 1986.

The sound emanated from a cheering crowd at Michigan International Speedway just prior to the start of the Gabriel 400.

The applause and hurrahs that swept over the 2-mile track in the Irish Hills that day were for Richard Petty, who was set to make his 1,000th NASCAR Cup Series start, a remarkable achievement. As another Father’s Day is observed Sunday and NASCAR’s top teams gather once again in Michigan for the Quicken Loans 400, the story of what happened bears repeating.

In a magical moment, Petty’s three daughters appeared at the microphone -- Lisa, Rebecca and Sharon. In a secret that surprisingly was kept very well, track official Marti Rompf had arranged for the daughters to “say the most famous words in auto racing.” It was a touching gesture to both their daddy’s achievement and to Father’s Day.

But the Petty sisters didn’t say “Gentlemen, start your engines!” At least not right away.

Instead their order was, “Daddy, start YOUR engine!”

Only the engine in the No. 43 Pontiac began rumbling. The engines in the other 40 cars lined up on pit road remained silent. It took a few seconds for the fans to sense the significance of what was happening. They began to stand, shout and applaud ever louder as only Petty’s engine continued to idle.

Cold chills filled those moments as it became increasingly evident that something very, very special was taking place.

Finally, after a minute or so, Petty’s daughters gave the traditional order for the other drivers, including brother Kyle, to start their engines.

I have written about NASCAR since 1957. That tribute at the Michigan track 27 years ago for King Richard remains one of the top outpourings of admiration and respect for a driver I’ve experienced in all that time.

The storybook start to the Gabriel 400 didn't get a matching ending. The elder Petty ran strong early, but lost a lap due to an unscheduled pit stop and wasn’t a factor again. He finished 13th.

A few days prior to the Gabriel 400-miler, Petty spoke of achieving the record 1,000 starts, a feat that was generating widespread national attention:

"I’m really anticipating it,” said Petty, 48 at the time. “But for a reason rather than the obvious one. When I get in that car, it's just going to be me. I'm going to have a little elbow room and some time to myself. There hasn't been much of that the past few days.”

During a press conference, Petty was asked what he felt his place should be in NASCAR history.

“In a way, I am NASCAR history,” he said, looking back almost four decades to when his father, Hall of Famer Lee Petty, helped pioneer the sport. "I don't want that to soundwrong, now, but I have been around from NASCAR's beginning. I was in daddy's pit for the first race in Charlotte (June 19, 1949). I've seen all but a few of them and been in most of them."

At that time there had been 1,407 races in the NASCAR big time, and Petty was about to be in his 1,000th of them, or 71.7 percent.

Petty had driven with a fractured neck, broken shoulder, broken ribs, broken ankle and with each foot fractured. He persevered despite the off-season removal of his gall bladder and a large portion of his ulcer-ridden stomach.

"Racing is my job, and I don't like to miss work, " Petty said.

Deep down, according to close associates, Petty kept going in great part because of a sense of duty to his hundreds of thousands of fans.

"He knows who has made it possible for the sport to keep growing and growing so that someone could run a thousand races, " said one member of Petty's team. "They pay to see him run, and he feels an obligation..."

Sometimes, Petty goes too far in that regard, a point he concedes.

"Every once in a while, you get approached by a drunk ol' gal and you have to hug her while somebody takes a picture and then you shake her husband's hand, " said Petty. "I know you don't have to do it, but it's sort of expected."

No wonder, then, King Richard reigned supremely popular throughout a career that produced 200 victories, the final one in the Pepsi Firecracker 400 at Daytona International Speedway on July 4, 1984. Richard Petty will be at the Michigan speedway in the beautiful greenery of the Irish Hills today, remaining in the sport as team owner for drivers Aric Almirola and Marcos Ambrose.

When the “most famous words in auto racing” blare over the sound system, wonder if he will remember the thunderous sound that honored him in 1986?

Watching the race telecast from home on TV, I know that I will.