Generations encompass many things, and NASCAR is no different. Things change with the times, the equipment, safety measures, the cars, and even the drivers. NASCAR has seen many changes from those humble beginnings back in 1948.
But one name has stayed true to the industry, one that seems to never go away, although has seen the great moments but also trying times.
From the humble beginnings of the patriarch Lee, to the rise of the King, the change from driver to owner, and all the drivers that have driven for the most recognized name in the sport, the Petty name has been there. Whether it’s been in the cockpit, piloting a car to victory lane, or on he pit box and hauler watching the driver on their team make laps, in some sense, NASCAR has seen a Petty at the track.
With the sixth generation of stock cars about to enter competition, it marks a milestone of being the only name to have encompassed all the changes NASCAR has seen on the track in the cars driven.
The Petty name began with Lee, and his generation saw the beginning of the “strictly stock” class in the sport. It expanded from the dirt to the asphalt, the format that saw Lee win his most famous race, the inaugural 1959 Daytona 500. It also saw son, Richard, get his feet wet in NASCAR, winning his first title in 1964.
After Lee hung up his helmet due to injury, Richard saw his great championship success in generation two, with a modified frame but still a stock-appearing car. Petty drove the Plymouth Superbird into fame, and handled the Dodge Charger to Daytona 500 infamy. His craziest win in this generation came in 1979, on the first live broadcast of the “Great American Race” where Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough crashed on the last lap, and Petty took the win.
Yarborough and Petty had their own major moment during the third generation of cars, in a race that has been termed the “perfect weekend.”
On Independence Day, 1984, with President Ronald Reagan in attendance, Petty recorded his historic 200th victory in NASCAR. It would eventually be his final win as a driver, but one that will forever be remembered in the sport’s rich history.
The fourth generation of stock cars saw a changing of the guard for Petty, as he would retire as a driver in 1992 to become the owner of Petty Enterprises. He saw his car change hands as both Bobby Hamilton and John Andretti took his famed No. 43 STP machine to victory lane. But, in 2000, STP took a step back to become an associate sponsor, thus ending a relationship that lasted 30 years.
Petty also went back to a brand he helped make famous in NASCAR, Dodge, in 2001, and saw former champion Bobby Labonte take hold of his famed car.
Come 2007, when NASCAR introduced the new “Car of Tomorrow,” the sport had come so far in safety, and Petty had seen all the changes. From the first introduction of a window net, something he introduced, to the safety foam in the sides of the car, Petty saw it. But, the fifth generation of cars saw him also go through changes in ownership.
By the end of the 21st century, Petty Enterprises combined with Gillett-Evernham Motorsports to form Richard Petty Motorsports. A.J. Allmendinger now had teammates in Kasey Kahne and Elliott Sadler. Kahne would become the face of the organization, but the relationship soured in 2010, as Kahne questioned leadership, and his team, only to be released from his ride with six races remaining.
A year later, Marcos Ambrose and A.J. Allmendinger would be the team drivers, and in 2011 Aric Almirola took over the No. 43. Ambrose took the latest two victories for RPM in the fifth generation, both at Watkins Glen.
Now, with NASCAR bringing back the idea of “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” in their new Generation 6 stock car, the Petty influence continues. Almirola and Ambrose return as the drivers for RPM, hoping to take the new generation of cars and the new generation of fans to new places never seen by Petty.
Six generations of cars, six different eras of NASCAR, and the Petty name always part of it. Things do get better with age.