Sports

Richard Petty Never Forgave Himself for an Accident That Killed a Fan

The 1964 NASCAR Cup Series was one for the books for Richard “The King” Petty. His Hemi Chrysler dominated the competition tallying 26 victories for Plymouth that season. What was supposed to be the beginning of one of the biggest sports stories for the driver, in a car that dominated the tracks, quickly turned into the darkest moment in Petty’s life. 

NASCAR bans the Hemi engine forcing Richard Petty into drag racing 

Before the start of the 1965 Cup Series, NASCAR president Bill France Sr. made a move to ban Petty’s potent hemi engine, which powered the Chrysler. Reports indicate that France was under pressure from Ford and General Motors Corporation (GMC), who did not want to endure another season of domination by Chrysler.

France had one of two options. Keep the Hemi and lose Ford and GMC or ban it and lose Chrysler. Ultimately, he decided to drop Plymouth’s cooperation by banning the Hemi. 

Petty and Chrysler had the option of changing cars or changing the engine but decided to boycott the 1965 season altogether. During this time, reports Hot Rod, Petty decided to try his hand at drag racing with blessings from Chrysler. He unveiled his new car, and a Plymouth Barracuda branded “Outlawed” Number “43Jr.”

Petty’s transition into drag racing was smooth — but the allure didn’t last

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Being the first driver to transition from stock cars to drag racing successfully, Petty received tons of media attention, partly because of how quickly he wrapped his mind around drag racing.

Unfortunately, the fairy-tale run did not last. February 28, 1965, was the fateful day. Petty lined up against Arnie Beswick from Illinois in his Plymouth Barracuda at the Southern Dragway near Atlanta. 

When the lights went off, both drivers blasted off the lines! As Petty was changing from first to second gear, something broke in the front left side of his car. 

The next six seconds are a constant nightmare in Petty’s life

The damage compromised the car’s steering and braking system. The car started to veer to the left, and in an attempt to get back on track, Petty steered to the right. 

The car headed straight into a crowd standing on a dirt embankment behind a wire fence, scaling the mound and sending its front left wheel flying. The wheel cleared the neck-high fence, finally resting among the crowd.

When the dust settled, seven fans were injured, and 8-year old Wayne Dye, who was standing with his father in the stands, was dead. According to eyewitnesses, the incident which seemingly took a lifetime only lasted six seconds.

The Dye’s sued Petty, who never forgave himself

NASCAR Hall of Famer and team owner Richard Petty in 2017
NASCAR Hall of Famer and team owner Richard Petty in 2017 | Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

After the incident that claimed their son’s life, the Dye family sued the track operators, Petty Enterprises and Chrysler Corporation. Petty and Chrysler decided to settle out of court and did not hear from the family again. According to Petty, they paid the Dye family more than the track made that entire year.

In his book, King Richard I, Petty wrote, “Nothing in my whole life has ever gotten to me like that. I couldn’t stand to think about it. I tried drag racing again, but my heart wasn’t in it. I kept thinking about the boy, so I quit. 

Kyle, Petty’s son, said his father spoke little about the accident, saying, “He spent a lot of time when he was home just by himself coming to terms of it. It was the hardest of all of them, just from the standpoint that he was such a young boy. And my dad was young at the time. It made him question things, and he had to come to terms with it.”