While plenty of professional athletes become larger-than-life figures, it’s tough to get any bigger than Richard Petty. Between signature look, his massive net worth, and the fact that he literally drove race cars for a living, the King could probably pass for a real-life action hero. His life, however, hasn’t been perfect.
While Richard Petty experienced plenty of success, he also encountered his fair share of tragedies over the years. After the tragic death of his grandson, the motorsports legend’s fame and fortune didn’t make much of a difference; a simple letter from a fan, however, took the weight of the world off his shoulders.
Richard Petty found fame and fortune as a NASCAR star
NASCAR, like any other sport, has its share of legendary stars. Few of them shone brighter, though, than Richard Petty.
Although he looked like a talented football player growing up, Petty eventually followed in his father’s footsteps and headed to the race track. Shortly after turning 21, he made his NASCAR debut; before long, he captured the Rookie of the Year crown. That success, however, was only the beginning.
Barring a brief stint as a drag racer, Petty grew into a fixture on the NASCAR scene. He wasn’t just showing up, though. Over the years, he earned his title of ‘the King’ with 200 wins, 123 pole positions, seven Cup Series championships, and countless other honors.
As you might assume, that on-track success also helped Petty become pretty wealthy. He’s had plenty of endorsements, owns Richard Petty Motorsports, and is worth an estimated $65 million.
Dealing with three tragedies, including the tragic death of his grandson
Based on both his NASCAR and financial success, it’s easy to assume that Richard Petty is living the dream. In reality, though, he’s experienced quite a few tragedies during his career.
The first came in 1965, during Petty’s brief time as a drag racer. The King lost control of his car, which veered right into a dirt embankment; the front-left wheel came free and flew into the crowd, killing an eight-year-old boy. Understandably, the incident shook the young driver to his core.
Tragedy struck again 10 years later. In 1975, Randy Owens, Petty’s brother-in-law, “died in a pit accident at the Talladega Superspeedway.” As documented by Virginia’s Daily Press, a pressurized water tank exploded when Owens opened a valve; “he was thrown approximately 15 feet straight up and died instantly of a crushed heart.”
Then, in 2000, Richard lost his 19-year-old grandson, Adam Petty, during a practice session at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The teenager crashed into the outside wall of the track head-on, fractured his skull, and died instantly.
A fan’s letter made all the difference to Richard Petty
Despite all of his success, fame, and fortune, Richard Petty still feels emotions like any other human being. Those emotions, understandably, were especially raw after Adam’s tragic death.
“You question yourself,” Petty told Graham Bensinger. “And it really hit hard because, I said, if I hadn’t been in racing, then Adam probably wouldn’t have been in a race car, and he probably wouldn’t have gotten killed in a race.”
One day, though, Petty received a letter from a fan. While that piece of mail contained a simple message, it still made all the difference.
“The letter said, you know, ‘Don’t put a question mark where God has put a period,” Petty continued. “It was just like it took the weight of the world off of me. I’ve never had that many occasions to feel relief, I guess is what it was. It was just the deal, ‘Hey, you’re not responsible, again, it just happened.’ Like I said, it, like, took a weight off of me, and then I could go on and help with the Victory Junction Gang, do my business like I was supposed to. But, for a couple of weeks there, I was pretty down.”
Dealing with loss isn’t easy, no matter how much money you have in the bank. Thankfully for Richard Petty, though, he had the support of a fan to help lift the weight of the world off his shoulders.