On April 5, 2000, Lee Petty, an early star of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) and the patriarch of a racing dynasty that includes his son, NASCAR legend Richard Petty, dies at the age 86 in Greensboro, North Carolina. Lee Petty won more than 50 races during his career, including three NASCAR championships, the first driver to rack up that many championship titles. He also won the first-ever Daytona 500, held in 1959.
Lee Arnold Petty was born March 14, 1914, in North Carolina. He worked as a mechanic before starting his professional racing career in his 30s. His first NASCAR race was in June 1949 at the Charlotte Speedway in Charlotte, North Carolina (the track closed in 1956). Petty won his first NASCAR (then known as the Grand National Series) championship in 1954, and captured the title again in 1958 and 1959. On February 22, 1959, he defeated Johnny Beauchamp in a photo finish at the just-opened Daytona International Speedway in Florida to win the first-ever Daytona 500. The 500-mile race was so close that Beauchamp was initially declared the winner by William France, the owner of the track and head of NASCAR. However, Petty challenged the results and three days later, with the assistance of news photographs, he was officially named the champ.
In 1961, Petty was seriously injured in a crash during a qualifying event at Daytona. Following the crash, he drove in a handful of races before retiring in 1964. Petty’s son Richard (1937- ) became one of the greatest drivers in racing history, with a record 200 career victories, seven NASCAR championships (only Dale Earnhardt won as many times) and a record seven Daytona 500 victories. Richard Petty’s son Kyle (1960- ) was also a NASCAR driver. Kyle’s son, Adam, was the first fourth-generation driver in NASCAR history; he died at the age of 19 on May 12, 2000, after crashing his vehicle during a practice run at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway.