Wednesday 4th July 1984
Richard Petty, the king of stock car racing, won his 200th career victory at the Firecracker 400 race in Daytona, Florida, in front of a record crowd that included NASCAR’s first presidential patron, Ronald Reagan. Petty’s record for wins will very likely never be broken. The Firecracker 400 win was especially dramatic, as Petty hadn’t been winning regularly on the circuit and had suffered an embarrassment eight months earlier when he was found to have run too big an engine in his victory at the 1983 Miller 500 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The convergence of the king’s 200th win, the presence of the president, and the date of July 4th led NASCAR critics to suggest that the win may have been arranged. NASCAR had long been suspected of aiding certain drivers in need, the most serious allegation being that it allowed Junior Johnson to run illegal engines in 1994 in order to encourage McDonald’s to remain a team car sponsor. Petty fans bristle at the accusation that the king’s crowning achievement wasn’t courtly, and while their case is solid, a shadow of doubt remains. His supporters contend that Petty leased his car engine from Robert Yates, the headman of the Digard racing team–whose driver was Petty’s lifelong rival, Bobby Allison. Why would Digard give Petty a bigger engine than Allison? Moreover, Petty had been caught running too big an engine eight months earlier, and the so-called “Pettygate” scandal had resulted in a lot of unpleasant publicity for NASCAR. Additionally, Petty’s cars had been running strong all year. He’d led over 200 laps already in 1984, and he had won five weeks earlier at the Dover 500, where Daytona 500 champion Cale Yarborough had described Petty as “real strong” at the season’s first event. Finally, Petty had never relied heavily on power to win him races, instead preferring to outmanoeuvre his opponents and preserve his car for the later stages of the race when he could take control. NASCAR’s restrictor plates create fertile ground for conspiracy theories, as slight size adjustments in the plates can create an edge in horsepower that would give an insurmountable advantage to most of today’s drivers. It’s true that the ’80s saw NASCAR trying to promote itself to a broader fan base, and that a spectacle such as an Independence Day victory for the sport’s greatest racer in front of the nation’s president was an irresistible lure. But there was a reason Richard Petty won his first 199 victories when his closest competition won only 105–so why question number 200?