Richard Petty is called “The King” in NASCAR for a reason. He dominated the sport for two decades in the 1960s and 1970s at a time when dirt racing was a standard part of the NASCAR schedule. Petty won the last dirt race in 1970.
With NASCAR returning to its dirt-covered roots this weekend at Bristol, you’d expect Petty would be excited to see the sport return to a dirt surface. Surprisingly, the seven-time champion had quite the opposite reaction and blasted NASCAR for the decision.
Richard Petty was a top racer on dirt
In the history of NASCAR, there have been 489 Cup races held on dirt. Richard Petty was one of the best-ever to race on the dirt surface. Interestingly, he wasn’t even the best dirt racer in his own family.
Petty’s father Lee won 42 times on dirt, the most of any driver. Richard was second with 30 wins. He won NASCAR’s last dirt track race back in 1970 at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds. In a recent press conference at Bristol, Petty said when he learned about the dirt race in 2021, he wasn’t happy.
“You know when I heard they was making a dirt track out of this, it teed me off. Because I won the last dirt track and now, I won’t be the last dirt track winner,” he joked.
Dirt racing returns to NASCAR
Comparing the last time Richard Petty won a race on a dirt track with what the NASCAR Cup Series drivers will experience at Bristol on Sunday is as different as asphalt and dirt racing. For starters, the Bristol track is typically an asphalt track that is currently covered in 2000 loads of local dirt.
Like Petty’s last victory on dirt, many of the races back then were held at local fairgrounds. The tracks were not devoted to racing cars. Instead, they were multi-purpose facilities and shared the track with horses. That resulted in less-than-ideal racing conditions for the cars.
“When we run dirt, it was a dirt track that they run horses and stuff on at the fairgrounds and it had holes big enough to bury cars. So it was one of those deals if you were lucky enough to get around the holes you could run fast.”
Richard Petty blasted NASCAR for a return to dirt racing
While Richard Petty has somewhat warmed up to the idea of running the dirt race at Bristol, he didn’t exactly like the thought of it when NASCAR announced the move last year. In an interview with Autoweek, Petty didn’t mince his words about the upcoming race on dirt.
“I have to be careful here, because there’s some politics involved and I don’t want to annihilate NASCAR on this,” Petty told Autoweek. “I guess I’m looking at it from an old-time deal because we spent years and years and years trying to become a professional sport. Years and years to get away from that stigma (that racing wasn’t professional). But dirt-track racing is not professional, so we’re going backward. It would be like taking a professional football team and going back to play at a high school field.”
While Petty said he viewed a dirt race as a move in the wrong direction, he understood the motivation behind it.
“I think it’ll be exciting at Bristol that day. It might be another gimmick. It might be what NASCAR needs to keep our base growing.”
While some might consider it a gimmick, it’s undeniable that Bristol’s dirt race has generated a buzz in the NASCAR community from both drivers and fans since the start of the 2021 season. Whether or not that translates into a successful event and results in additional dirt races in the future is still yet to be determined.