Petty Blues - An Illegal Car Sparked Controversy
by Tom Jensen October 05, 2020
Richard Petty’s 1983 Charlotte-winning car was found with an oversized engine and the wrong tires.
October 9, 1983
Hall of Famer Richard Petty (2010) won a record 200 premier series races, the final one being the 1984 Firecracker 400, which was witnessed in person by President Ronald Reagan.
While that race understandably made front-page news coast-to-coast, Petty’s 198th victory, which happened less than a year earlier, also created national headlines, but unfortunately for all the wrong reasons.
After the race, Petty’s Pontiac was taken to the garage for inspection, and that’s where the problems began. First off, his car was found to have left-side tires installed on the right side, which was a clear rules violations. Race tires have different codes stamped on them to differentiate which side they should go on. The Petty Enterprises crew admitted later they deliberately put left-side tires on the right side to gain a performance advantage.
Things got worse from there for Petty. During inspection, his engine measured 381.983 cubic inches, well above the 358-cubic-inch limit.
After the race, Hall of Famer Junior Johnson (2010), who owned the car driven by second-place finisher Waltrip, ordered his crew to load up and leave the track before NASCAR could look at their car.
With the winning car deemed illegal and the second-place car unavailable to be inspected, NASCAR faced some tough decisions.
Following three hours of post-race meetings, NASCAR ruled that Petty’s win would stand, but he would be fined a then-record $35,000 and lose 104 points.
“We had several options at our disposal,” said NASCAR’s Bill Gazaway. “We took what we felt like were our best options in determining these penalties. The rationale, the whys and what-have-you is, that’s that – and that’s the end of the discussion.”
Petty issued a statement that said, “We have accepted NASCAR’s penalty. I’m only the driver and I didn’t know anything about the motor or tires.”
What ensued in the days that followed was a spirited debate about cheating in NASCAR. Petty and his brother, Hall of Fame engine builder Maurice Petty (2014) both said they were tired of getting beaten by other teams who had illegal equipment. Drivers and owners from various teams pointed fingers at each other, each proclaiming their own innocence while accusing rivals of operating well outside the rules.
One major change followed the next week, when NASCAR announced that from then on, anyone caught with an oversized engine would be suspended a minimum of 12 weeks or three races, whichever came later.
But that wouldn’t change the race’s outcome. “It’s like a football game,” said NASCAR’s Gazaway. “When the referee signals the winning touchdown on the last play of the game, but you and I see on instant replay that he was out of bounds, they don’t take the win away. The game is over.”
Among the many Petty Enterprises artifacts on display at the NASCAR Hall of Fame are Richard Petty’s first championship car, a 1964 Plymouth, and his seventh championship car, a 1979 Oldsmobile. They are both featured as part of our “Dale Jr.: Glory Road Champions” exhibit.
The rest of the week in NASCAR history:
October 5, 1997
At the 0.25-mile Flemington Speedway in New Jersey, Hall of Famer Mike Stefanik (2021) bested a 36-car all-star field of NASCAR Featherlite Modified Tour (now Whelen Modified Tour) racers to claim victory in the Torco Racing Fuels Challenge of Champions. The victory was the ninth of 10 Modified race wins Stefanik would score that season, as he captured his third of seven Modified titles, along with his first of two consecutive championships in the NASCAR Busch North Series (now ARCA Menards Series – East).
One of Stefanik’s nine championship trophies is on display in Heritage Speedway on the top floor of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
October 6, 1996
In his run to a second NASCAR premier series championship, Hall of Famer Terry Labonte (2016) came up big in the UAW-GM Quality 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Labonte entered the race 111 points behind his Hendrick Motorsports teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon (2019). But midway through the 334-lap race, Gordon’s car began to overheat, costing him three laps for repairs and dropping him to 31st in the final running order. Labonte, meanwhile, led the final 92 laps, earning his second victory of the season and pulling to within 1 point of Gordon in the standings. The victory was worth $133,950 to Labonte and the team.
Labonte’s race helmet from the final race of his 1996 championship season can be found in Heritage Speedway.
October 7, 1951
It was a fabulous afternoon on the Occoneechee Speedway dirt track in Hillsborough, North Carolina, for Herb Thomas, who won a 150-lap race in front of 12,000 fired-up race fans. Driving his iconic Hudson Hornet, Thomas scored his sixth of seven race victories on the season, earning $1,000 for taking the checkered flag. The season would conclude with Thomas winning his first of two championships.
A Herb Thomas 1951 Hudson Hornet is part of the Hall of Fame’s “Dale Jr.: Glory Road Champions” exhibit.
October 8, 1972
During the ’72 season, Hall of Famer Bobby Allison (2011) won 10 races and posted a career-high 12 poles. One of Allison’s highlight moments came in the National 500, the annual fall race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Allison was 15 seconds ahead and apparently headed for an easy victory when Hall of Famer Richard Petty (2010), who was running second, blew a tire in his Dodge and tagged the inside wall on the backstretch with only 16 laps to go. The ensuing caution wiped out Allison’s lengthy margin and allowed Buddy Baker (2020) to close on him for the final restart. The two Hall of Famers traded the lead four times over the final eight laps of the race, with Allison finally sealing the deal by muscling his way past Baker with four laps to go. The victory was worth $21,450 for Allison and car owner Richard Howard.
Impressed by Allison’s success in 1972, President Richard Nixon sent the driver a letter of congratulations, which is on display in Heritage Speedway.
October 10, 1954
At Memphis-Arkansas Speedway, a 1.5-mile dirt track in LeHi, Arkansas, Hall of Famer Buck Baker (2013) put a hurting on the NASCAR field, finishing five laps ahead of second-place Dick Rathman. The total race purse was $10,950, the second-biggest payout of the season, behind only the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. For the victory, Baker and car owner Bob Griffin took home $2,750, big money in those days.
You can find Baker’s “Black Widow” 1957 Chevrolet on Glory Road.
October 11, 1998
When NASCAR visits Talladega Superspeedway, the action is always fast and furious and the 1998 Winston 500 was no exception. In a battle of Hall of Famers, Dale Jarrett (2014) held off a determined last-lap charge by Jeff Gordon (2019) to win his third and final race of the season, this one by a mere 0.14 seconds. For the victory Jarrett earned $110,125 for himself and Hall of Fame team owner Robert Yates (2018).