Commentary

A pinch-me moment with Miss Lynda

Updated: March 25, 2014, 10:38 PM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

Lynda PettyISC Archives/Getty ImagesLynda Petty, second from right, and children Rebecca, Kyle, Sharon and Lisa were at Michigan International Speedway in June 1986 to celebrate Richard Petty's 1,000th Cup series start.

It was some morning on some day during the summer of 2008 and I was waiting. I'd been waiting for a little while now. But I didn't mind. You see, I was standing on hallowed motorsports ground, the original Petty Enterprises race shop in the kingdom of Level Cross, N.C.

I was standing just outside the front door to the office, staring out at the front yard of the Petty homestead, and no doubt grinning ear-to-ear. The team had recently moved south to the Charlotte area and the near-empty buildings where the most dominant race cars in NASCAR history were once built was now downright tranquil. But it still gave me chills.

I was so giddy to have the place to myself that I hadn't even noticed the car that pulled up and the woman that started walking toward me.

[+] EnlargeRichard & Lynda Petty
ISC Archives via Getty ImagesRichard Petty once said of his high school sweetheart: "There was a freshman cheerleader named Lynda Owens. She was the prettiest thing I'd ever seen."

"Good morning," she called out. "Are you lost or waiting on someone?"

It was Lynda Petty. Wife of Richard, mother of Kyle, matriarch of Petty Enterprises, and to so many, certainly to me, the first lady of stock car racing.

I introduced myself and she was kind enough to act like she remembered me. I told her that I was waiting for her grandson, Austin, to pick me up and take me over to the nearby Victory Junction Gang Camp for a tour. To that she replied, laughing, "If you're riding with Austin, be sure to wear your seat belt." Then she said, "Why don't I wait with you and you tell me about yourself."

Funny, I'd wanted to say the same thing to her.

Playing off her warning about her grandson I told her that for a Mother's Day piece Kyle had once called out her driving, telling of how she would wheel a family station wagon packed with four kids to school in the morning. He claimed that she'd take two wheels off the rolling roads and put it in the dirt if she had to get around a slow tractor to make in time before the bell. She simply chuckled and said, "No comment."

Then she talked about how "people have no idea what all has gone up and down this road out here," pointing out to Branson Mill Road, the country path that runs alongside the fence that borders the family home and business. She said that her father-in-law, NASCAR Hall of Famer Lee, used to shake down his race cars on the roads around Randolph County. I asked her -- and even promised to tell no one her answer -- if Lee had ever hauled any moonshine in those cars. She just looked over her glasses as if to say, "nice try." So, figuring what the heck, I asked her if Richard ever had.

"No, all he ever hauled around here was race cars and cheerleaders."

[+] EnlargeRichard Petty
Dozier Mobley/Getty ImagesRichard Petty and wife Lynda made it a family celebration after a victory in the 1974 Carolina 500 at Rockingham.

She would know. When the not-yet King graduated from Randleman High School in 1955, everyone assumed he'd vanish, finally free to hit the road full time as his father's crew chief until he turned 21, the age when Lee had promised Richard that he, too, could start driving race cars. But instead, he suddenly insisted on attending every Randleman Tigers sporting event, even volunteering to be the official transportation director for the cheerleading squad. Why?

"There was a freshman cheerleader named Lynda Owens," Richard Petty told me in 2010. "She was the prettiest thing I'd ever seen."

They went to drive-in movies. A lot of drive-in movies. She rode with him to Greensboro to pick up race car parts. And she knew that he really loved her because there were many weekends when he could have been on the road with Lee but instead stayed home to continue courting her. Eventually they married, eloping down in South Carolina because he didn't have the money for a ring. When she finally got one three months later, they finally revealed their big news. Then they moved in with Richard's parents, taking up residence in the fabled stone home that is still the centerpiece of the property. Once he'd saved up enough money to move out, they did ... and into a trailer about 100 yards away.

"You see how big this place got," she said, motioning around the race shop, a conga line of buildings added on one after the other over the course of six decades. "Our family grew up right here just like this place did."

Richard went off and raced and Lynda raised four kids. Whenever possible, they all hit the road together. "It was important to Richard that our kids experienced life just like he did."

Nearly all of the family's old home movies can be sorted into three categories -- holidays, racetrack, and motel parking lots and swimming pools. And in nearly every frame, Miss Lynda is in the middle, running the show.

"Anytime I tried to help I just screwed it up," Richard once explained to me. "One time I decided I was going to do it, just to show her that I could. I took the list to the store and bought the stuff. I got it home and I had bought all the wrong stuff. And as I was pulling back into the driveway Lynda passed me going the other way, back into town. The bank called because I had forgotten to sign the check. So that was pretty much the end of that."

[+] EnlargeRichard Petty
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesRichard Petty and his wife, Lynda, attended the 2012 NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

I chatted with Miss Lynda a little longer. We talked about Adam Petty, gone for eight years. We talked about the race team moving down to Charlotte and how much the sport had changed. I confessed that I'd been a lifelong Petty fan and told her I'd once asked her for her autograph. And we talked about her doll collection, which was taking up residence in the Richard Petty Museum alongside her husband's pocket knives.

I wouldn't see her for another two years. Not until May 23, 2010. That's when she proudly arrived at the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Richard's induction day, already battling the cancer that would eventually take her life on March 25, 2014, and pushed up the blue carpet in her wheelchair. I have never forgotten how, on one of the busiest days of his life, he refused to leave her side. While other inductees and their families partied well into that night, he cut the celebration short to get her home so she could rest.

"If she taps me on the shoulder and says, 'We have to go,' we go," he told me at breakfast that morning [where she had arrived walking]. "I'll wave to everyone and say, 'See ya later.'"

When Austin Petty finally pulled up to the front door of the race shop that morning, I was downright disappointed. She squeezed my arm like she'd known me for years, not like a stranger she'd just talked with, and told me she'd enjoyed our talk and reminded me again, just loud enough for her grandson to hear, "Don't forget that seat belt."

Just two weeks ago I was back on the property for a celebration. The Petty Museum was reopening, taking up residence in the old shop. Later this year Lee's house will open as part of the exhibits. Miss Lynda wasn't there, and family members were whispering about her failing health. But the museum is packed with photos of the matriarch and even the "Mrs. The King" car from the movie "Cars," based on and voiced by her, there for race fans to appreciate her for years to come.

I stood at the entrance of the office where our talk had taken place and looked confused. In my  mind, when I thought about our chat, I'd always remembered us being on rocking chairs, sitting there by the front door. "No," a friend of the family's said to me, "I don't think there were ever actually any rocking chairs there. But that's just how talking to Miss Lynda makes you feel."

***

Ryan McGee | email

ESPN The Magazine, NASCAR

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