Lee Petty may not be as well known as his son “The King” Richard Petty, but he also had a very important part in NASCAR history. He was a successful driver and helped grow Petty Enterprises into a dominant force in racing. And, of course, he is the father of arguably the greatest driver in NASCAR history.
Lee Petty was one of the first serious businessmen to own a NASCAR team back in the day when many drivers earned the bulk of their income from bootlegging and running moonshine. He competed in the first ever sanctioned NASCAR race on June 19th, 1949 and has the dubious distinction of causing the first caution flag in that race. The elder Petty won 50 NASCAR races including the first one ever run on a paved track. He also caused his share of trouble, including a number of fistfights. He once hit Curtis Turner over the head with a wrench and started a brawl during the pre-race festivities on another occasion. The fracas ended when Mrs. Petty joined the fray swinging her purse–which contained a .44 handgun.
Back on the track, Lee won three NASCAR championships (the forerunner to todays Sprint Cup) in his career. He also got his son in the business, but things didnt get off to a good start for his offspring. Lees son would only race 9 times his first season ending up in the wall more often than not, and more than one occasion being put there by his own dad. Of course his son eventually turned things around, and went on to win a staggering 200 races. He is now known simply as The King”Richard Petty.
Lee’s career as a driver was cut short due to a bad accident at the 1961 Daytone 500. His car hit a guard rail, flipped over a few times and caused a number of broken bones and internal injuries. He tried to race a few times upon his recovery before retiring for good in 1964. He was involved in the management of Petty Engineering for awhile, but soon stepped away content in the knowledge that it was being well run by sons Richard and Maurice. He was never one to seek the limelight, and spent the rest of his life enjoying his success and that of his family. An avid golfer, he played frequently until a few months before his death in 2000 at age 86 after surgery to treat a stomach aneurysm.
Lee Petty has a number of NASCAR records that may never be touched. He finished in the top 5 an amazing 231 times, and still holds the record for the best average finish for a full time driver at 7.6th place. This was all done before big money sponsorships against part time felons that ran moonshine for a living, making his achievements all the more impressive.