Maurice Petty: Hall of Fame Horsepower
January 28, 2014 | 10:39 A.M. EST
Master engine builder Maurice Petty (right), shown here in 1970 with brother Richard, is one of five who will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Wednesday night. (Photo: ISC Archives)
(This is part of a series in advance of the 2014 NASCAR Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday. Motor Racing Network - "The Voice of NASCAR" - will have live coverage starting at 7 p.m. (ET) with live streaming at MRN.com. Tim Flock, Jack Ingram, Dale Jarrett, Maurice Petty and Fireball Roberts comprise the Class of 2014.)
Maurice "Chief" Petty has been proclaimed as the "silent" figure at Petty Enterprises.
Yet his value as the team’s engine builder cannot be overstated. Petty, a self-taught mechanical magician, squeezed horsepower – and longevity – out of engines designed not for high-speed competition but daily use on America’s highways.
His creations supplied the horsepower that propelled his older brother, Richard Petty, to a majority of his record 200 NASCAR victories in what is known today as the Sprint Cup Series, plus his seven championships and seven Daytona 500 wins.
Their father, Lee Petty; Buddy Baker, Jim Paschal and Pete Hamilton also won with Maurice's engines. He was the crew chief for 1970 Daytona 500 winner Hamilton, who also swept that season’s two races at Talladega Superspeedway.
Maurice Petty’s induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame closes the circle for stock car racing’s first dynasty. He joins earlier inductees Richard; Lee, the organization’s patriarch and two-time Cup Series champion; and cousin/crew chief Dale Inman.
"He (also) drove the truck and worked as a tire changer," said Richard Petty. "He was the complete package. We had our own little part and kept to it. We were all successful. We didn’t think about it at the time, we were too busy getting ready for the next race. But I guess now, they have recognized us for everything. It was a real team effort by all of us."
Each of the four contributed strengths that made the sum much greater than the individual parts, according to Kyle Petty, Richard's son and a one-time Petty Enterprises driver who now does television commentary.
"It shows that none of them probably could have accomplished any of this without the others," he said.
"Maurice and the Pettys kept their cars to a very, very high standard," said former Petty Enterprises crew member Robin Pemberton, now NASCAR’s vice president of competition and racing development. "They never had mechanical failures. The old saying was that there’s a right way, a wrong way and the Petty way of doing things."
As an engine builder, Maurice Petty - now 74 - had few peers.
"There were no computers, no engineers," said Leonard Wood, a NASCAR Hall of Fame crew chief for the rival Wood Brothers. "What you came up with, you came up with yourself. You didn’t want anyone else to have it. He’s probably kept some of those secrets up until now."
Petty doesn’t disagree.
"When you did something to get competitive, everybody didn’t know about it," he said several years ago. "Even the people that worked for you didn’t know. You did it in the middle of the night."
Although Petty ultimately built race-winning engines for Chrysler, Ford and General Motors cars, he was best known for his work on the Chrysler Hemi power plant – to the point that fellow competitors complained that the manufacturer gave Petty Enterprises an advantage when the NASCAR rule book stipulated parts should be available to all.
Petty responded that he’d be happy to provide a Petty engine for anyone who had $6,500 to spend.
"I wasn’t the brains behind it and the motor was around since the '50s," he said. "Lee raced a Hemi in 1952 and 1954. Back then, it had to be a production road engine before you could put it in. I first got my hands on one in 1963. We didn’t have a dyno or anything. You just built it and crossed your fingers."
Petty, who overcame polio as a child, had a brief driving career running 26 races with seven top-five and 16 top-10 finishes between 1960 and 1964. A 1961 Daytona 500 accident effectively ended Lee Petty’s driving career and to keep the business afloat, he decided that Richard should drive and Maurice would work behind the scenes.
"Richard had his job to do and I had mine to do," Maurice said. "Lee told us what he wanted us to do and that’s what we did."
Petty attended King’s Business College in Greensboro, N.C., where he learned basic business accounting, marketing and sales. That came in handy when dealing with Detroit executives and NASCAR’s first corporate team sponsors, including STP’s Andy Granatelli. Maurice Petty negotiated the STP contract that resulted in enough money for wind tunnel testing and computer-controlled machining.