Maurice Petty can sum up in one word the reason he got into auto racing. And that word is his last name.
When your father is Lee Petty, who was one of the pioneers of NASCAR, and your brother is Richard Petty, who would go on to be crowned The King of the sport, well, your options might seem a bit limited. Especially when growing up in rural North Carolina in the 1950s.
“It’s sort of self-explanatory, ain’t it,” Maurice Petty said with a chuckle when asked why he pursued a career in motorsports. “You grow up in it and there’s nothing else to do but that. It just happened. I didn’t know anything else.
“Back then, if your daddy was a farmer, you went to work on the farm. My daddy was a racer and was always piddling with cars and things, so that’s what you did when you came home. There wasn’t any other choice, so that’s what happened.”
Of course, racing turned out to be a pretty good option for Maurice. As the head engine builder at Petty Enterprises, Maurice helped brother Richard score five of his seven NASCAR Cup Series championships. All told, Maurice’s engines accounted for 212 Cup victories and 754 top-10 finishes for several drivers from 1961-85.
But while Maurice is best known for being an engine builder, he is quick to point out that he actually did much more than that.
“Back then you got a road car and you tore it down, tore everything out of it, and then built it back up into a race car,” Maurice said. “I’ve done it all with the cars. I’ve scraped them, welded them, wired them. I’ve put the roll bars in. I’ve done every bit of the race car. I never asked anybody to do anything I couldn’t do.”
Maurice Petty was born on March 27, 1939 in Randleman, N.C. Like his brother, Maurice worked in the shop with his father as a teenager and then began some occasional racing when he turned 21. He made a total of 26 Cup starts from 1960-64, with 16 top-10s and a career-best finish of third at Spartanburg in 1961.
Maurice said he enjoyed being on the track and might have spent more time as a driver if not for his father’s serious crash at Daytona International Speedway in 1961. The wreck effectively ended Lee Petty’s racing career and created a serious financial issue for the family business.
“We didn’t have any sponsors back then. We were trying to keep racing out of the hip pocket,” Maurice said. “I tried to go racing every once in awhile, but there were other jobs that had to be done, and that came first. That’s the reason I never ran any more races than I did.
“When Richard and myself took over, it was a deal where you did whatever it took to get the job done. You knew they were going to have a race that week, and they were going to throw the green flag whether you were there or not. There were no set hours. You worked until the job got done, one way or another. So there wasn’t time for me to race.”
That was especially true after Richard Petty won the Daytona 500 in 1964. Suddenly, the family’s little race shop was big business.
“Winning the Daytona 500 was a big leap forward. That was when we got full-time 100-percent sponsorship from Chrysler,” Maurice said. “And that’s when somebody had to really concentrate on the motors. That’s what took me into that area. Somebody had to go full time building engines and looking after them. And I said, ‘OK, I’ll do this.’ ”
So while Richard drove the cars and won the races and smiled for the cameras, Maurice was largely behind the scenes, creating the team’s powerful motors and taking care of all the day-to-day duties at the shop.
“I ran the business as far as ordering the parts, signing the checks, handling the stuff as it came in,” Maurice said. “I handled pretty much every aspect of it except for the PR end, which was mainly Richard’s deal.
“It was a job. Passion would have been driving, but it didn’t work out. And that’s OK. That was what was handed me, and I made the best of it.”
Did he ever. Maurice, Richard and crew chief Dale Inman were a dominating trio throughout the 1960s and into the ‘70s. Richard picked up nearly half his record 200 Cup victories during a five-season span from 1967-71. He took the checkered flag 92 times in 233 races, meaning he won nearly 40 percent of his starts.
“We never went to a race without the attitude that we were going to win,” Maurice said. “That put the fire in everybody. When things were rolling, it really seemed like you could do no wrong. And you didn’t. When you were winning races, everything went your way.
“And when things didn’t go your way, you worked harder.”
There’s no doubt it was work. Before NASCAR trimmed its official Cup schedule beginning in 1972, the Pettys were competing in an average of nearly 50 races per year. It was not unusual for the team to race three times in a single week.
“Even though we were winning a lot, there wasn’t that much money involved and you didn’t have a lot of people working for you,” Maurice said. “So you’d win one, and then get everything ready and tow the car to the next race. It was all I knew.”
Maybe so. But Maurice Petty definitely knew it very well.
Tickets available for the 2011 International Motorsports Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, scheduled for April 14, 2011, at the SPEED Channel Dome in Talladega, Ala. This black-tie ceremony consists of a reception, banquet and awards ceremony. (Tuxedo Required Event) Individual tickets are $125 and a table for eight may be purchased for $1000 by calling 256-315-4631 or 256-315-4528. Visa, MasterCard and Discover are accepted.