The first hero that I had in life was my father. Most guys can identify with this concept because a father is the first strong male role model that we get in life. My dad was essentially a professional driver because his job involved traffic enforcement that ranged from issues with semis to cars with drivers in a hurry.
He was a natural driver with great skills and an aura of confidence behind the wheel. Occasionally we were with him when he chased down a speeder in his plain-looking four door Plymouths. We lived for those moments as kids.
His vehicle of choice was always a Chrysler product, usually a Plymouth during my childhood days in the 60s. Plymouths were also the choice of another driving legend in my young life.
The first car that I can remember with any degree of clarity was my dad's 1959 Plymouth, a car which was also Richard Petty's first Daytona ride. I was a little young to connect the dots at that point but, a few years later, I was well aware of the King in waiting and his electric blue Plymouths.
My father and Richard Petty moved through the 60s behind the wheel of Plymouths that earned both of them a living. The King was a more famous Plymouth driver, but I always liked the fact that both of them drove the same make of car.
As a kid I used to imagine my dad on the track with Richard and it was the only time that I could envision the King losing a race. Other than that, I always wanted Richard Petty to take the checkered flag with a generous supply of Mopar muscle behind him.
Most guys take brand loyalties from their fathers and attach in an emotional way with cars. The fact that Richard Petty was able to transfer brand loyalty into track domination was just a feather in the cowboy hat for young fans of the brand and the man.
I never got tired of a Petty victory. The man was always an intense competitor and a gracious winner. Plus he has a well-developed but understated sense of humor that extends from his laid-back southern roots.
Eventually the victories did not come as easily for the King, but that made them even more of an event.
My father died suddenly in December 1978. I can vividly remember the last time I watched him drive in November of the same year. I was on the highway during an early winter blizzard enroute to a family wedding. I was a cocky young driver, but I was unwilling to drive too fast in those conditions. Clint Eastwood was right; a man's got to know his limitations.
Very few drivers were willing to step it up in those conditions, but one 1977 Dodge went by me fairly rapidly. It was my father and mother in the car. My dad was a skilled enough driver to drive in very slippery conditions and hold the car under complete control. I knew that he was going to get to the wedding before me. He beat me by half an hour.
We were still dealing with the loss of my father when the 1979 Daytona 500 became the first live flag to flag broadcast of the big race. It was a pleasant distraction from very unpleasant recent events and I couldn't have hoped for a better ending.
I was screaming at my TV in that temporary insanity kind of way as I watched the King win another Daytona 500- live for the first time in my life. It was the greatest moment of TV racing that I had ever seen and it couldn't have come at a better time.
Richard Petty had provided the first moment of unbridled happiness since my father's death. The King had no idea how big that win was for a guy like me living a long way from Daytona and NASCAR culture. I grew up in an area where NASCAR was not a big interest for most people. But it was always a big ticket item for me because my father and Richard Petty drove the same car brand. And both of them were heroes to me.