The Powers Behind the Throne
by Tom Jensen July 30, 2021
Richard Petty became “The King” of NASCAR with lots of help from his family.
NASCAR racing is, and always has been a family affair.
There are five NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees who have sons who were also inducted. Next year, there will be a sixth set, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2021) joins his father, who was inducted in the inaugural Class of 2010.
But throughout NASCAR’s 73-year history, it can be argued that the family-run team that enjoyed the most success was Petty Enterprises, which was founded in 1949 and won 10 premier series championships and 268 races, the latter a record that stood until 2021.
The Petty family also holds the current record for most Hall of Fame inductees with four. Richard Petty, winner of a record-setting 200 races and the first of three drivers to win seven championships, was in the inaugural Hall of Fame class of 2010. Richard’s father, Lee, the family patriarch and founder of Petty Enterprises, was inducted in 2011. A year later, Richard’s cousin, crew chief Dale Inman, went in, followed in 2014 by Richard’s engine builder and younger brother, Maurice Petty. Truly, Petty Enterprises was a family affair.
And while Richard, like all winning drivers, got the lion’s share of the credit for the team’s remarkable achievements, he couldn’t have reached such lofty heights without brother Maurice building great engines and Inman doing an equally good job overseeing the preparation of the cars and calling the races.
“All the time we were out there winning races, Maurice was working behind the scenes to give us the horsepower we needed,” said Richard. “If it hadn’t been for him building us good engines, it wouldn’t have mattered how well I drove or how good the car handled. We weren’t going to win races.”
Maurice was working behind the scenes to give us the horsepower we needed.
— Richard Petty
Richard called his younger brother “the silent Petty,” but to most Maurice was known simply as “Chief.” Though he might have been one of the quieter family members, Maurice’s engines did the talking for him, with their record-breaking performances. This was especially true during the era of the 426-cubic-inch Chrysler Hemi engine, which was introduced in 1964.
“We didn’t have computers back then,” Maurice said prior to his Hall of Fame induction in 2014. “We didn’t have CNC (computer numerical control) machines. We didn’t even have a dyno (engine dynamometer) until ’69. We just put everything together by hand, tuned it the best we could, and went racing.”
We didn’t have computers back then... We just put everything together by hand, tuned it the best we could, and went racing.
— Maurice Petty
Maurice’s engines won more than 200 races in NASCAR and earned him seven Mechanic of the Year awards. He also won serving as a crew chief, including capturing the 1970 Daytona 500 and a pair of races at Talladega Superspeedway that year, all with New England native Pete Hamilton driving the No. 40 Petty Enterprises Plymouth Superbird.
“Winning the Daytona 500 with Pete was big because it proved that either one of the Petty cars could win our sport’s biggest event,” said Maurice. “Then, for him to come back and win both Talladega races that year, it showed everybody that we really could win with either car anywhere we went.”
Maurice’s engines were a critical part of his brother Richard’s success. So were the leadership and organizational skills provided by Inman, who was one of the sport’s true mechanical pioneers.
As kids in rural North Carolina in the 1950s, the Petty brothers and Inman watched Lee Petty race and they worked with him in the shop and at the track.
“We just grew up together, grew up around it (racing),” said Richard. “Neither one of us was that mechanically inclined. We just sort of learned as we went. My dad taught us a lot, and we learned a lot on our own.
“And way back when, there wasn’t no such thing as a crew chief. You know, they had mechanics, crew mechanics, whatever they wanted to call them, and Dale was basically the first one. He’s the one that basically started the crew chief operation.”
“We really wasn’t running for anything other than trying to beat the competitors and get enough money to survive on and stuff like that,” Inman said of the early days of Petty Enterprises.
After a stint in the military, Inman returned to the team in the early 1960s and helped build NASCAR’s most successful operation. The most remarkable season the team had came in 1967, when Richard won 27 races, including 10 in a row, two records that have never been seriously challenged more than half a century later.
And way back when, there wasn’t no such thing as a crew chief.
— Richard Petty
“We just got on kind of a roll that year, and it seemed like that particular car would not lose a race,” said Inman. “It didn’t want to lose. I don’t know these stories about horses and everything, and I guess that car was kind of like that.”
Inman himself is a record holder: He was crew chief for all seven of Richard’s championships and won a record eighth title with Terry Labonte in 1984, after Inman left Petty Enterprises.
While Inman certainly possessed the mechanical skills he needed to be a Hall of Fame crew chief, his driver said Inman’s ability to work with others is what set him apart.
“The big deal that Dale had that really made the whole thing work was people. He knew how to work with people,” said Richard. “If he was going to get on to you, he’d take you off to the side and tell you about it. He didn’t let you know it, get in front of somebody and really make you feel bad. He knew how to work people.
“The deal with working people was what it was all about. We started out, we had five or six people, then we had ten people, then we had 15 or 20 people. As time went on, he was able just to bring more and more people in, do different things and make the whole deal. And I always looked at the way that Dale approached things, with attitude, confidence and focus. That’s what he did with his people, and that’s the reason he was able to be a winner like what he is.”
Richard Petty’s first and last championship cars, a 1964 Plymouth and a 1979 Oldsmobile, are on display at the NASCAR Hall of Fame as part of our “Dale Jr.: Glory Road Champions” exhibit. The exhibit features 18 premier series championship cars, all hand-selected by guest curator Dale Earnhardt Jr.