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Fennelly: Richard Petty turns 80, slowing down only to meet fans

Richard Petty drove his last NASCAR race a quarter-century ago. His last win came 33 years ago, on the Fourth of July, in the Firecracker 400 — his 200th victory. No one will ever come close to that. Or eating fried chicken with President Ronald Reagan after the race.

"That was some deal," Petty said.

The King turned 80 Sunday. The NASCAR legend spent the weekend at the racetrack. Nothing new there. Petty remains on-scene royalty. He pokes around garages, minds his race team, meets with sponsors and is swarmed by fans who spot the signature cowboy hat and wraparound glasses.

"You don't get the nickname The King for nothing," driver Brad Keselowski said.

Petty sat in his motor coach at Daytona International Speedway on Friday. He had the Coke Zero 400 qualifying on the TV.

"NASCAR has run something like 2,500 races since it started," Petty said. "I went with my dad back when. So, I've been to 2,230 or something. It's part of my life. Keeps me going."

"He's timeless," says Aric Almirola, who drives the iconic No. 43 car for Richard Petty Motorsports. "He doesn't age. How hard he runs at 80 years old is mind-blowing."

How he stops for everyone is mind-blowing, too. Petty figures he has signed close to 2 million autographs in his life.

"Here's a guy who has won 200 races, seven championships, done more than anyone ever will, and he never turns anyone down," Almirola said. "He's always meeting with fans."

And presidents.

"Started with Nixon," Petty said. "Been up to the White House with all of them except Bill."

Bill Clinton.

"Been up there with all the Bushes. I haven't been up there with (Trump) yet. His deal has only been going on for six months. But we'll get there."

Petty stumped for Trump in North Carolina, where Petty still lives in Level Cross, Randolph County, where it all began for his famed racing family.

"But they're all our presidents, whether I like 'em or not," Petty said. "Leader of the free world and all that. You got to respect that deal."

That took him back to July 4, 1984. President Reagan gave the command for drivers to start their engines from aboard Air Force One as it flew to Daytona. Petty beat Cale Yarborough to the checkered flag.

"Any time you win Daytona, it's a big deal," Petty said. "And when you win it on the lap racing for the flag, and you do it on the Fourth of July, and you do it in front of the president, it's something."

And there was the picnic after. That's right: picnic. Reagan and Petty and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Other drivers were there, too. Dale Earnhardt Jr. remembers it. He was 9 at the time. His father took him along.

"Boy, that was a cool experience," Earnhardt said. "We had Richard Petty to thank for that. It just seemed like it was all lined up and destiny. For Richard to win and the president to be there and have this postrace picnic. I remember my father telling me, 'Sit up straight, mind your manners.' "

Junior thought of The King.

"They talk about drivers being accessible. … That's because of people like Richard," Junior said. "He set the standard for how drivers interact with fans that we all sort of follow."

The King, rail thin as ever, even with people giving him 80th birthday cakes at every track, says he is in good health.

"I go every year to Norfolk for an evaluation," Petty said. "Got five or six doctors and they check everything with machines and all that. A guy says this is what you're supposed to eat, then somebody comes in and says you need to do more exercise. I tell them I only got so many heartbeats and I ain't going to waste them exercising."

Petty doesn't fret over his sport's future, even with the looming departure of Junior.

"The deal turns over," Petty said. "My dad and Fireball Roberts and that crowd come along. Then me and Pearson and the Allisons, then Earnhardt and all his crew come along, then Jeff Gordon and his crowd. Now it's Jimmie Johnson and his crowd.

"Somebody will be next. They'll come along."

Petty had somewhere to go, but he offered a Fourth of July reminder:

"Racing has given me an opportunity to go all over the world. Been to Australia. Been to Europe. Been to Russia. Never been anywhere where I didn't see something I liked. But I've never seen as much that I like than I seen in North Carolina, the whole state, or in this country. Greatest place there is. United States has everything, We got it all."

Plus we've got The King.

That's some deal.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.

Fennelly: Richard Petty turns 80, slowing down only to meet fans 07/02/17 [Last modified: Sunday, July 2, 2017 8:48pm]
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