Richard Petty Interview

The King and legend of the sport gets his first taste of Hollywood in the Disney/Pixar film

In all my years of covering news, sports, and entertainment, there aren't too many people who I admire and actually become fans when I meet them. Richard Petty is one of those people; when I found out I was going to have the chance to talk to 'The King' of NASCAR for the new Disney/Pixar film Cars, I kind of got a little giddy.

I'll have to admit, I'm not the biggest NASCAR fan, but I'm a big enough fan to know what Richard and his family has done for that sport. I was honored to sit in the Cingular suite at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, North Carolina and just hang out with a legend of the race track.

We sat down on the stairs looking out at the infield and talked racing, family, and Cars. Richard voices one of the race cars (number 43, of course) in the movie, properly named 'The King.' Here's how the interview went:

What does this race course mean to you?

Richard Petty: Oh yeah, we won 3 or 4 races here; a couple of the 600's, couple of the 500's. Right now, it's probably arguably the second largest race we have; Daytona's the biggest race, and the way I look at it the (Coca Cola) 600 is the second, and the 400 at Indy is probably the third as far as prestigious wise. And it's kind of a big deal, at least it has been since we've been around; we started back in the '60's. It's close to home, and everyone likes to run here, too cause it's close to home. All these trucks out here are probably in a 50 mile radius, so it's everybody's home track; it's one of those kind of deals. It's like coming home; I've never really liked the track that much, probably because we didn't win much here. But, for convenience, it's nice cause you got your family, and it's big enough to fit all those people.

Looking out at those trucks, that's incredible how they park so perfectly.

Richard Petty: Each one of those trucks, with the truck, the equipment, a couple race cars - that's about $1 million a piece and that's about 50 of them. Then, you've got 50 over here - this is Busch and about 50 over there for NASCAR, so that's another $50 million. So you've got a total of about $100 million right there. Then, you've got these mobile homes there for the families and drivers and the crews; they average out to about a million dollars a piece. So you're looking at about $200 - $300 million dollars trying to win about $5 million, cause that's all the purses are - you say, 'What's wrong with this picture?' But, that's the reason why you have to have sponsors.

Now what about your 43 car?

Richard Petty: Yeah, we own the 43 and the 45 car. Kyle Petty drives the 45; that's my son, and Bobby Labonte drives the 43 car for us.

And what about your major sponsors?

Richard Petty: Cheerios and General Mills is the major sponsor of the 43 and Wells Fargo is the biggest sponsor on Kyle's 45 car. You've got the other sponsors, but those are the major ones.

Do you miss being out there?

Richard Petty: I miss the driving part, but I hadn't driven since '92. But, I had a decent career and drove probably longer than I should have drove as far as being competitive, but I loved to drive so much. It's kind of like a hunter; just because you didn't kill the bear this time doesn't mean you don't go out next time. A lot of time, the hunt is more enjoyable than the kill. And the racing deal is with me; yeah, I like to win, but I like to get out there and be competitive. That was my hobby and finally had to give it up. And now, I do everything I used to do except drive. But I miss the driving part, cause that's what I liked to do.

Have you ever told your son or your grandson anything about racing?

Richard Petty: Well, my grandson, Adam, we lost him in a car wreck in 2000. He ran one cup race in Texas and he was the first 4th generation sports figure of any kind anywhere in the world who followed his grandfather and great-grandfather into the same business. We lost him and one of those things that was meant to be, but that didn't change our outlook on who we are, what we do, our religion. It was hard to accept, but you just go on.

Do you ever tell Kyle what to do on the track?

Richard Petty: No, he's 45 years old; you don't tell him nothin'. We talk race cars, strategy, race cars, family; we have discussions, but you don't tell him nothin' - it's that kind of deal.

So about Cars, how did you get the call to be in this movie?

Richard Petty: John (Lassiter), he come around and called and said, 'Do you want to be in a movie?' And I told him, 'No, I want to drive a race car; I want to be around race cars.' And he said, 'No, we're doing an animated movie.' And so I said, 'Ok, so what's the story line?' So we went to Oakland; we were running at Sonoma and so we stopped there on a Thursday or Friday and he gave me some papers leading into it, so I knew what it was about; so I could get in the mood. And while I was in there, he got to talking to my wife, Linda; they got into talking about racing. She was talking about driving a station wagon into the infield and Kyle and his sisters would eat out of the crew and she would make sandwiches. So he asked her, 'So, do you want to be in the movie?' And she said, 'What would I do?' And so he wrote a couple lines for her, gets her in the movie. She's a '69 station wagon, so that's what's good about working with John; he's got an idea, but he fills in and that's what makes the movie works. So that's really my wife in the movie, and the grandkids can't wait to see grandma in the movie.

Have you seen the movie?

Richard Petty: Yeah, when we were in Vegas, we flew out to Disney, Burbank and they had me and John (Ratzenberger) and they had three or four of us who were in the movie, so I got to meet some of them there. Then, we went back to run the race. So, I've only seen it one time, and I told him I want to see it two or three times because when you watch the movie, you watch the main character and you miss some of the other stuff. They've covered the screen, and what's really fascinated me was they've got the flies, and when you zoom in it's the Volkswagens with wings. They've covered everything, it's un-flippin' real. So I want to watch the movie more than two times and then I can watch the background so I can really watch what they have in the background.

Did John and you ever have a discussion about the NASCAR life to get it right?

Richard Petty: No, that was all John; he done have his story line, he done have all the characters lined up and just filling in with us. I didn't see the movie, and all he gave me was the outline. As far as the scenes, I didn't get involved in any of that; all I did was the voice over and that's it. What fascinated me was, he would tell me, 'You say it how you would say it, not how you think I want you to say it.' And then they make that car around the voice.

Did he tell you he was going to call you The King?

Richard Petty: Yeah, he told me he was going to have it Petty blue with the 43 on it. And that's what we did talk about - the real racing fan when he comes to the movie, he's going to see things that happen or around things that really happened. Like the last race I ran, I crashed - and that's in the movie. Well, the average guy in the movie is just going to say 'they wrecked,' but to the real racing fan, they're going to say, 'That's exactly what happened.' So they're going to see things totally different from the start of the movie to the end of the movie about something that actually happened. So they'll really like it; the real race fans are going to love it cause they're fans. A lot of car fans are going to like it, but I don't know if they'll catch on to the race part of it. Cause there's a little racing at the beginning, a little racing at the end; the middle part of the movie is about life and he really wanted people to get the message of life out of the movie. And he's (John) a huge car nut, so he used cars to tell that part of the story. That's what's good about the movie; it shows 'this is life' and all those people working in the town. All them were just existing, and when Lightning was going through there, he changed his perspective. And it woke them up.

What do you want to see with the future of NASCAR?

Richard Petty: I guess I'm like everyone else, I don't want it to get too far away from the racing because as time progresses, we're trying to get new fans and still keep the old fans and we've still got to have the racing. But, racing has become more show time; we've got to have something new to create interest in the sport. So, I hope they don't quit on focusing on the racing and don't worry about the movies and all the shows. And they've balanced it pretty good, and as long as they balance, then they'll keep it pretty good.

What about Petty racing?

Richard Petty: I think we're ready to move forward; we've hired a few new people. We have Bobby driving the car and hopefully we'll get back up to where we was when I quit as far as get up and being competitive.

Other than winning the Daytona 500, what's the most exciting thing that has happened to you?

Richard Petty: That's hard to say cause you had a successful 30 years and you won a lot. And when something good happens, it replaces something else, and everything in the past, it gets pushed back further and further.

So winning the Daytona is still the best.

Richard Petty: Yeah, winning the 200th there in front of the President of the United States on July 4th on the last lap about 3 foot - that's about as exciting as it gets.

Well, nothing could have been more exciting for me than being able to be in the same room as Richard Petty. You can see all his highlights in Cars when it opens in theaters June 9th; it's rated G.