A Pioneer Remembered: Ned Jarrett And Junior Johnson Reminisce
April 6, 2000 | 12:00 A.M. EST
With the unfortunate passing of Petty on Wednesday, at the age of 86, only nine members of the elite group remain. Among them, two-time Grand National champion, Ned Jarrett, and Junior Johnson, both of whom have 50 wins and had the honor to race against Petty during their careers.
"Lee Petty brought integrity to the sport and he was an extremely hard-working individual," Jarrett said. "When you put those two qualities together, it breeds great things."
Petty built the foundation for America's first family of racing in a small shop 20 miles south of Greensboro, N.C. When Petty Enterprises celebrated its golden anniversary last year, the team had amassed 10 titles, 271 victories and started cars on the front row 335 times in 1,748 Winston Cup Series events.
Jarrett's first recollection of "really" racing with Petty occurred on April 4, 1959 at Columbia (S.C.) Speedway, a half-mile dirt track.
Turning back the clock, a little over 40 years ago, Petty, 44, won his first title five years earlier and was the current defending champion and point leader. Jarrett, 26, a rookie from Conover, N.C., was a Sportsman regular who had been racing sporadically in the series since 1953, but never in what he considered a competitive ride.
When Johnson became ill, Jarrett was given the call to substitute in the No. 11 Paul Spaulding Chevrolet, an opportunity that would showcase the young Carolinian's talent. It was an experience Jarrett remembers vividly.
"I didn't qualify that well, but after I got used to the car, I started picking off spots through the field," Jarrett said. "Lee was the only car separating me from the leader, Jack Smith. He was a racer trying to protect his position and I was a young guy trying to make a name for myself.
"I tried everything to get around him and he kept blocking me, so finally I bumped him from behind and he slid up the track and I got around him. When the race was over, Lee came up to me and said, 'Boy, was that you driving that No. 11 car?' And I said, 'yes, sir, it was.' Then he said, 'Boy, you need to learn some manners out there.'"
Jarrett explained to the veteran that he felt he had the faster of the two cars and should have been allowed to pass him. Although Petty did not agree with him at that point in time, when he saw Jarrett was without a ride at the following race at North Wilkesboro Speedway (N.C.), not only did offered encouragement, he offered Jarrett a ride.
"Lee saw me at the track and said, 'Boy, you got car in the race?' And I said no. He then said, 'Well, I wish I had known because I would have let you drive one of ours.'"
That was a pivotal moment for Jarrett. He knew he had earned the respect of the veteran and it elevated his level of confidence. The following year Jarrett would run his first full season and win the first of his two titles one year later, in 1961.
Johnson also raced against Petty from 1953, until Petty's retirement in 1964. Johnson enjoyed a friendly competition with the Level Cross crew throughout his career, especially as an owner in the 1970s and 1980s when each organization was sporting championship-caliber teams. Johnson says he has always considered Lee Petty to be one of the greatest competitors of all time.
"He really was," emphasized Johnson. "He was one of the few guys who worked on his own cars, his own set-ups and built his own engines. There wasn't anyone better at the time. When you beat Lee Petty, you beat the best of the best."
Jarrett agreed. He considered Petty a genius when it came to conserving his race cars so he would be a contender at the end.
"Back then we didn't have the technology we have today," Jarrett said. "The cars simply would not withstand the amount of pressure the drivers would put them through especially considering that we were racing on dirt.
"Lee Petty could conserve his machinery from start to finish so he would be ready to make a run at the end of the race. He would analyze the equipment so he knew how hard he could go, but he knew that you can't win unless you finish and he did a masterful job of that."
Johnson remembers a case when he fell victim to Petty's driving prowess in the closing laps of a race at his hometown track, North Wilkesboro, on March 27, 1960.
Johnson won the pole, but Glen Wood led the first lap. Johnson regained the lead on lap 2 and dominated the event for the next 145 laps. Petty eventually caught the No. 27 and spun Johnson into the guardrail.
"It was just me and him with 14 laps to go and he beat me out for the lead," Johnson said. "I was devastated because I had led so many laps and it happened in front of my home town crowd, but he was one tough competitor."
Petty won his 49th race on that occasion and passed Herb Thomas for the most career victories in the Grand National division. The win was bittersweet. The locals, loyal to Johnson who lived not far from the track, retaliated against Petty by pelting him with rocks, bottles and track debris.
Despite their battles on the track, Johnson credits Petty, winner of the first Daytona 500, with setting the standard for NASCAR competitors.
"Lee helped to develop NASCAR in its early stages and led it to the direction its grown to today," Johnson said. "His contributions to racing are immeasurable. He was always giving back to the sport, from the numbers of people he taught how to race, to his ultimate contribution -- his son, Richard."