Even if you aren’t a big-time motorsports fan, you’re probably pretty familiar with Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Richard Petty. During their time on the NASCAR circuit, both the Intimidator and the King established themselves as talented—not to mention fearless—drivers. On the track, neither man would stand on ceremony at the cost of claiming a checkered flag.
On one occasion, though, Richard Petty showed a softer side and approached Dale Earnhardt with an unusual request: the King wanted an autograph. Despite his intimidating persona, Earnhardt not only complied but added a classy message to his competitor.
Richard Petty earned his title as the ‘King’ of NASCAR
While it’s been quite a while since he’s climbed behind the wheel of a stock car, Richard Petty still looms large over the NASCAR scene. When you look at his resume, that continued star status makes sense.
Petty actually proved to be a talented football player in his youth but eventually realized that his future was behind the wheel rather than on the gridiron. He followed his father’s footsteps into auto racing and made his NASCAR debut at age 21; he promptly claimed the Rookie of the Year crown, setting the precedent for his legendary career.
Other than a brief spell as a drag racer, Petty became an ever-present on the NASCAR scene. He wasn’t just part of the furniture, though; he was a legitimate competitor, vying to win every race. And win, he did.
While you could devote an entire book to Richard Petty’s accomplishments, his NASCAR Hall of Fame profile sums things up nicely. He “has racked up most wins (200), most poles (123), tied for most championships (seven), most wins in a season (27), most Daytona 500 wins (seven), most consecutive wins (10), and most starts (1,185).” That’s certainly a resume fit for the King.
Dale Earnhardt had a less-than-ideal first encounter with Richard Petty
There’s a reason why Dale Earnhardt was known as ‘the Intimidator;’ he wasn’t afraid of pushing the envelope—or trading paint—en route to the finish line. While that attitude helped make him a racing legend, it also rubbed Richard Petty the wrong way on at least one occasion.
During the opening lap of the 1980 Virginia 500, Earnhardt caused a nine-car wreck; Petty was one of the unlucky few knocked out of the action. Unsurprisingly, the veteran didn’t appreciate the up-and-coming driver’s reckless actions behind the wheel.
“So I went over and said, ‘Don’t let that happen again,” Petty explained on the Dale Jr. Download, miming jabbing in a finger into someone’s chest. “I gave him one of those finger [pointing] deals. And that’s the first time I remember Dale Earnhardt.”
Dale Earnhardt would later sign a heartfelt autograph for the King
Despite that awkward first encounter, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt eventually developed a mutual respect for each other. That was on full display in 1993, when the two men crossed paths at the Waldorf-Astoria.
“Richard reached into his inside coat pocket and pulled out a slip of paper,” said ESPN’s Jerry Punch, according to a 1994 Baltimore Sun story. “He handed it to Earnhardt and asked for his autograph. Earnhardt thought it was a joke at first, but Richard said he was very serious and would Dale please sign for him.”
Yes, you read that correctly. Richard Petty, the man known as the King, asked another driver for his autograph. That reality wasn’t lost on Earnhardt, who added an extra message to his signature.
Earnhardt looked very moved, and he signed the paper, ‘To the King, you’ll always be the greatest, Dale Earnhardt.’The Baltimore Sun
When they were behind the wheel, Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty were two of the top competitors that NASCAR has ever known. Away from the track, though, the two men recognized—and appreciated—each other’s talents.
Game, as they say, recognizes game.