Lee Petty’s Career-Ending NASCAR Crash Left Him in a Coma

Some families are synonymous with NASCAR; many members have been stars on the circuit, and their racing legacies live on. Some of these families include the Earnhardts, Buschs, and Waltrips. But, many racing fans consider the Pettys to be No. 1 on this list. With three generations of drivers, the Petty dynasty began with Lee Petty, whose career ended prematurely in a nasty crash.

Lee Petty’s racing career

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Petty started racing when he was 35, according to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. This may seem late in life to take up the sport, but it’s also when NASCAR began. He actually took part in the circuit’s inaugural race at Charlotte Speedway.

Petty drove a 1948 Buick Roadmaster. He borrowed it from a neighbor with the promise that his winnings would pay for any damages to the vehicle. Although Petty ended up losing control of the car and rolling it, things got better from there. He ended up winning 54 Cup Series races, including the first Daytona 500 in 1959, with 332 top-10 finishes. He also won the driver’s championship three times (1954, 1958, and 1959).

The crash that ended Petty’s career

Lee Petty’s Plymouth following a crash with Johnny Beauchamp
Lee Petty’s Plymouth after the crash | ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images

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Petty’s career ended at the Daytona 500 in 1961, just two years after he won the inaugural event of what would later become NASCAR’S most important race. In the second qualifying event for the 500, reports Racers Reunion, Johnny Beauchamp — who finished second to Petty in ’59 — lost control of his vehicle, which hit the bumper of Petty’s car. The impact sent both cars through the guardrail and off the track. Petty’s car struck a spectator, who helped get the driver out of the vehicle despite having multiple cuts.

Petty was in bad shape, suffering several life-threatening injuries, including fractures, internal injuries, and a punctured lung. Petty spent several days in a coma and stayed in the Daytona hospital for four months as he recovered. The crash ended Petty’s regular racing career. He did make sporadic appearances on NASCAR tracks until his final race at the Glen in 1964.

Richard Petty talks about his father’s death

Petty’s son, Richard Petty, a great NASCAR driver in his own right, has given his thoughts about his father’s crash, according to Bleacher Report. He summed up the actual crash simply, saying “It was a left turn, and we went straight.” Richard further detailed the aftermath of the dangerous crash, which unsurprisingly was a grisly scene according to his account.

“There wasn’t anything left of either car. There was blood everywhere, and they had just taken Daddy out of the car and were putting him in the back of an ambulance. He was lifeless.” Knowing some of the injuries that Lee suffered, it seems like he could’ve easily been killed in the wreck. With that in mind, spending a few months in the hospital is a small price to pay compared to death.

As it turned out, Lee lived another 39 years after the crash. He died on April 5, 2000, three weeks after he turned 86 and several weeks after undergoing surgery for an abdominal aortic aneurysm. As his condition continued to worsen following the surgery, Lee ultimately died of abdominal aortic dissection.