Yes, it can, and it is. But the memory is vivid.
DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – This is one of those columns that need to be written now, before the planets become un-aligned, and it stops raining. I’m sitting in the ancient, wood-paneled Houston Lawing Press Box high atop Daytona International Speedway, with – let’s count – six other people, leaving about 190 of the best seats in racing empty.
Dakoda Armstrong is on the pole for the Subway Firecracker 250, which will take the green flag as soon as the various Air Titans can get the track dried. Armstrong drives the number 43 Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports, and he is arguably on the pole because rain started falling during qualifying and Armstrong managed to not crash.
So what? So this: Thirty years ago today, Armstrong’s team owner, Richard Petty, won his 200th and last race in his STP Pontiac. It was all that much more important because President Ronald Reagan was here, and gave the “Gentlemen, start your engines!” command over an old-fashioned black telephone aboard Air Force One.
Petty is here, seeming a little sadder than usual because his wife, Lynda, died earlier this year, but if there was ever a huge support group for a widower, it’s here for the King. And that is what many of us call him – “Hey, King, what do you think about your chances….” There is no irony, no tongue-in-cheekiness in calling him King, because he is. Always will be. So is Elvis, and being a Memphis native, I’m qualified to speak about Kings.
Petty just turned 77, and spent last weekend at the Goodwood festival in England, where, as it turns out, he’s as big a star there as here. I have asked him how many times he has signed that distinctive, looping autograph, and he just rolls his eyes – probably 20 years ago, I tried hard to count during a day with the King, and I stopped at 1,200. He says that if people are kind enough to ask for an autograph, the least he can do is give them one to remember. This is why hos autograph is pretty much worthless on eBay – and why, of all the drivers I’ve met in 50 years of going to races, his autograph is the only one I’ve ever asked for.
That win 30 years ago may or may not have occurred with a larger than usual V-8 engine – OK, it probably did – but so what? Winning your 200th here at Daytona with the President in attendance is enough of a payoff on July 4 to overlook a few things.
Several of us asked King what it was like on that day 30 years ago – “Special,” he said. “It was a special deal.”
Yes, it was. There will come a day when we come though those Daytona tunnels and Richard Petty won’t be here, and all we will have is memories like the one from that day when the beyond-sweating King, sucking on his ever-present wet rag – that was air conditioning, circa 1984 – but he will not be forgotten.
When I speak to young drivers, and they ask how to build an enduring career, I point them towards several drivers – Kenny Bernstein, Harry Gant, and Richard Petty – and pay attention to how they treated fans, family, crew and their cars. Every minute around Richard Petty is a gift, and I hope there are a lot more of those moments.