Richard Petty and Me, Chapter 3 “The Year of Progress, Albeit Slow”

The news of the convertible division didn’t normally make out local newspaper, but we were able to find out Richard ran at least two more convertible races in 1958. finishing 5th in both.  We weren’t able to attend either of those races so details are uncertain, but I was thinking that fifth place was a pretty good run for a rookie driver. But here we are, February 1959.

Artwork of Marvin Panch and his winning stock cars over the years, Photo Credit Racers Reunion

Bobby and I would listen to the few races broadcast on radio sitting on the front porch of Grandpa’s house in rocking chairs.  The convertible race from the new Daytona International Speedway was on February 20, 1959.  Twenty-one cars were entered for the 40-lap event.  If the race was broadcast, I do not remember.  I do know we got the paper the next day and they printed the run down.  Shorty Rolling won, Marvin Panch was second and RICHARD PETTY WAS THIRD.  I was certain that I had picked the right man for my driver although I had no way of knowing at the time what an awesome life lay ahead of me. Richard finished fourth in the next race at Fayetteville, NC. Two races in the new season and both were top five finishes.  Richard would miss races off and on and would continue with some top five finishes but in other races he would fall out with mechanical problems or just didn’t have a good run.

Early June was both Richard and his father entered in the convertible race a Martinsville, VA.   Richard started on the front row, qualifying in second while Lee started 25th.  At the end of the race, Lee was sixth and Richard was seventh. *   Quite a run.  By this time my excitement level was very high as the convertibles would race again on July 18th at Columbia Speedway.  When we got to the speedway, I immediately headed for the pit fence to find Richard.  I couldn’t spot that ’57 Olds anywhere but there was a beautiful 1959 Plymouth convertible, number 43, and I saw Richard working on that car.  Before the race Richard came over to the fence and we exchanged a few words.  Don’t recall what was said but I’m sure it ended with my saying “Good Luck”.

DAYTONA BEACH, FL — July 4, 1959: Richard Petty (No. 43) races his 1959 Plymouth convertible alongside the 1957 Mercury convertible of Benny Rakestraw (No. 20) during the Firecracker 250 NASCAR Cup race at Daytona International Speedway. A broken fuel pump dropped Petty to a 26th place finish. Just 14 days later, Petty drove the same car to victory in the NASCAR Convertible Division event held on the ½-mile dirt track at Columbia (SC) Speedway. It was Petty’s first career NASCAR win. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

The race got underway, and Richard ran a steady 4th to 5th, until suddenly he was leading, Jack Smith hot on his tail.  I was so excited I couldn’t stand still and in the waning laps Smith was really dogging Richard for the lead.  I was hanging on the fence in turn four when the checkered flag flew for Richard.  I know for the next 10 minutes I was jumping up and down and screaming and running toward to pit gate to get in and see Richard.  When I ran up to him, still cheering, he flashed that famous Petty smile at me.  I really don’t remember getting another autograph that night because the only reason I gotten the one at his first race was I had seen a guy ask Joe Weatherly for one.  I really didn’t start collecting autographs until 1963 and even then, it was rare.  There were two more convertible races in 1959.  Lee Petty won one while Richard finished way down and the last convertible race Richard did not enter.

The 1959 Grand National season actually started on November 9, 1958, but began in earnest at Daytona on the new speedway. Race day for us in Columbia was cold so instead of our front porch rockers, we were inside near the “pot belly” stove that heated the house.  When the broadcast started, I could only imagine what a two ang a half mile track must look like since the biggest I had ever seen before was Darlington.  For me, the race was over on lap 8 when Richard blew an engine.  Then, Bobby and I were both getting excited because it looked as though Lee Petty would win.  When the race was over Johnny Beauchamp was declared the winner, so we were disappointed only to be excited once more when the Monday morning newspaper told us the race was protested.   We waited, not patiently by the way, for the final result to come out about 3 days later declaring Lee the winner.

Richard ran hit and miss races from February until June.  Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta hosted a race in June in which convertibles and hardtops could race. Richard was in his old ’57 Olds and Lee was driving a new Plymouth.  Richard was flagged the winner but was protested by none other than Lee Petty.  The back story to the protest is that Lee would win more money for driving the newer model car so that was that.  In all these years I have never asked Richard how he felt about that.

Richard would run some races, miss some races and really was not having a stellar season.  Then came the Labor Day Southern 500.  I was there.  I had plenty to cheer for and the car was running good. Richard finished Fourth but it was not until after the race I found out Marvin Panch had been driving in relief for Richard.  That was sort of an up and down race for me then. But whatever, Richard was moving up.  Richard would run a few more races in 1959 with a couple of top five finishes, but it was Lee Petty who won the Grand National Championship.  Bobby was happy and I was satisfied that Richard was beginning what would be a great career.

* I would like to thank Greg Fielden for his awesome research and writing the Forty Years of Stock Car Racing.  I refer to his writings to support many of my memories.  Thank you, Greg.

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Tim Leeming

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(Editor’s note: If you missed any of Tim Leeming’s articles, here at PTR; they can all be found Here )

Photo Credit (cover): Aerial view of Daytona International Speedway in 1959. (ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

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