Richard’s father, Lee, wanted to make sure he earned every last win. At least we can only assume that was his motivation. If that’s the case, then he obviously wanted this for his son so badly that he did something unthinkable to today’s generation of sports parents.
The original stock car racing dynasty
By 1959, Lee Petty had already established himself as one of NASCAR’s top drivers. He had already won the Grand National series championship (now known as the Cup Series) in 1954 and 1958, and had 37 wins to his credit by the start of the 1959 season.
Most famously, he won the very first Daytona 500 in 1959, taking victory in a photo finish over Johnny Beauchamp. The finish was so close, in fact, that Beauchamp was initially declared the winner and drove to victory lane. It took until the following Wednesday for NASCAR officials to examine photographic evidence and declare Petty the winner.
In 1959, Richard Petty was nowhere close to becoming “The King” yet, or even a prince. Richard took part in that same Daytona 500 which his father won. The son was nowhere near as lucky; Richard’s Oldsmobile convertible broke down after eight laps. He spent the rest of the race assisting Lee’s pit crew.
Controversy erupts at Atlanta
1959 was Richard’s second season in the Grand National series. He drove a part-time schedule on behalf of his father’s team, Petty Enterprises. After the dismal finish at Daytona, Richard found better results, including a third-place finish at Wilson.
The 20th race of the 1959 season took place at Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta on June 14th. With less than 10 laps to go in the 150-lap race, Richard took the lead from his father and held off Lee in a side-by-side duel for the win. Or so it seemed.
As Richard celebrated what appeared to be his first career win, Lee rolled into the winner’s circle. He didn’t come to give his son a big hug or say “great job”. He had come to lodge an official protest, on the basis that officials had miscounted the number of laps each Petty had run.
This was a common occurrence early in NASCAR history. In fact, it wasn’t until 1994 that NASCAR adopted electronic timing and scoring, which eliminated this issue altogether. Indeed, after an hour, officials found that there had been a miscount. For the second time in 1959, Lee Petty won a race which someone else had initially celebrated.
Thanksgiving at the Petty household was probably very awkward that year.
A blessing in disguise for Richard?
We can only theorize as to why Lee Petty did such a thing, regardless of whether or not there was an actual lap counting error. Some have theorized that Lee did so for financial reasons, but evidence suggests that this is highly doubtful. More likely, Lee protested out of a mix of classic authoritarian parenthood and good ol’ racer’s pride.
According to Lee’s Tampa Bay Times obituary, he once said, “I would have protested even if it was my mother.”
Lee finished the 1959 season with 11 wins and his third Grand National title. Richard showed promise, with six top-five finishes and nine top-tens, but that first career victory eluded him for the rest of 1959. Finally, at the fifth race of the 1960 season at the Charlotte Fairgrounds Speedway, Richard Petty could celebrate his first career victory that would stick.
He would get to celebrate 199 more times.
Statistics courtesy of Racing-Reference.