Richard Petty: The President and The King

The crew gives the the Pontiac STP a hand on the way to victory lane. Notice Richard Petty’s signature Stetson on the roof of the car. (Photo by ISC Archives via Getty Images)

America may be a democracy, but on July 4, 1984, we proved that even the President of the United States is second to The King. As NASCAR royalty, Richard Petty geared up for a shot at his 200th career victory at the Firecracker 400 at the Daytona International Speedway, then president Ronald Reagan was gearing up to give his own command from the phone of Air Force One. “Gentlemen,” he announced, “Start your engines.” Reagan was the first sitting president to attend a NASCAR race, but while charismatic, he didn’t hold a candle to Petty that day.

In 1984, Petty was driving for Mike Curb. He’d left the team his father had founded for the ’84 season after winning at Charlotte under a cloud of scrutiny over the race engine, and while he was still a star, the late 1970s and early 80s had seen him start to lose a little of his sheen. His red and blue carbureted Pontiac was specially built, with a tubular space-frame and owned by Curb Motorsports. Number 43 was still an icon, but not one expected to shine at the Firecracker 400 that year.  The race itself wasn’t initially much to write home about, although Petty and Carl Yarborough were keeping pace near the front.  It wasn’t until the 198th of 200 laps that things heated up. Doug Heveron, the projected winner, pulled out to pass another driver, and didn’t realize he had a car in his blind spot. The other car hit Heveron’s bumper and the Chevy skidded across the track.  The caution flag came out, signaling the end of the race because of the crash, and Petty and Yarborough raced side by side. Yarborough pulled ahead, but the draft opened up the field and Petty was able to just edge out Yarborough for the win.

Infamously, once he’d won, Petty stopped his car at the start/finish line and ran up to the press box to receive his due from Reagan.

It wasn’t Petty’s last race, that 200th victory, but winning in front of the president, a hairsbreadth  in front of his competitor, in a move no longer possible in current NASCAR rules was something special, a nod to his nation and his commander-in-chief.

Richard Petty beat Cale Yarborough to the checkered flag in Daytona, claiming his 200th and final career win at the 1984 Firecracker 400. (Photo by ISC Archives via Getty Images)

The Fourth of July, Kentucky Fried Chicken, President Ronald Reagan and NASCAR drivers Richard Petty and Bobby Allison—that’s pretty all-American. Chowing down at the presidential table for the 1984 Firecracker 400. (Photo by ISC Archives via Getty Images)

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