Ia Hidden Star: /Idoris Gammons

Walking into the Richard Petty Museum is like visiting a friend, and before most guests leave, they have found a friend in Doris Gammons.

Unlike the sparkling palaces that house the memorabilia of many NASCAR stars, Petty’s museum is more of a three-dimensional family scrapbook. Some visitors feel almost as if they are intruding on “The King’s” personal property as they tour the modest building looking at handcrafted gifts from Petty’s fans and touching the checkered flags that waved him to victory. However, Gammons, who has served as museum curator for nearly 14 years, quickly initiates them into the family.

“Most people come in here expecting to see Richard,” Gammons said. “He is here a lot of the time, but when he’s not, we still want his fans to be happy. They all want to talk to somebody about him – not just about the races he won, but about what kind of person he is. They just can’t believe we actually know him.”

So, what type of person is “The King”? According to Gammons, the same as everyone else around the museum and race shops. She said jeans are the typical uniform, supper is the last meal of the day and – despite the title of this story – no one around Level Cross, N.C., expects star treatment.

Gammons’ reputation precedes her, as employees of the nearby Texaco (a frequent stop en route to the museum) tell eager tourists they will “love Doris.” Cashier Jean Handy – who has been in the community for 22 years – noted that Gammons’ genuine kindness and sunny nature are hallmarks of the Petty organization.

“Have you ever met somebody that’s the same every day?” Handy asked. “That’s Doris. But, they’re all like that. You won’t find a nicer bunch of people.”

Gammons and her husband operated their own business for many years, but even before she retired and joined Petty enterprises, they were hardly strangers to racing. In fact, watching Lee Petty race at area dirt tracks was a thrill for them in the 1950s. Thinking back to those days, she said racing was actually more fascinating than today’s high-tech, high-dollar sport.

“Back then, the car they drove on Saturday night may have been what they drove to church on Sunday morning,” Gammons said. “Anybody could come in the shop. They had a little stand right here – near where the Superbird sits now. That’s where they sold T-shirts – if anybody happened to want one.”

One thing that has not changed a great deal at Petty enterprises is the fan-friendly atmosphere. Gammons’ son, now 42, recalls Saturdays when his mother took him to the old shop – which is now the museum. They casually walked through the front door as Petty himself hammered on the No. 43 car.

The shops for the 43, 44 and 45 cars are still next door to the museum, and although garage tours must be arranged in advance, Gammons insists the Pettys live up to their reputation.

“I have seen him sign autographs for 10 hours at a time,” Gammons said. “When he’s over here, he does not mind talking with the people. He’ll even let them stand right here while he tapes commercials.

Gammons and her co-workers are experts on the Pettys, but their knowledge comes from living in a certain part of North Carolina and following NASCAR – as opposed to required memorization. Naturally equipped with an understanding of stock car racing, Petty’s employees got even more of an inside view several years ago as some of the first guests of the ‘Be Petty Racing Experience.’ Gammons, in her mid-60’s at the time, was the oldest participant, but not the slowest to take the track in Concord.

“Especially with (Petty) watching you. Let’s just say it’s something you never forget,” Gammons said of her 120 mph adventure.

Every year more than 25,000 people visit the Richard Petty Museum. Regardless of whether they were lucky enough to meet their idol, they enter as fans and leave as friends - thanks to Gammons and her staff. The museum is not the “Garage Mahal,” of another superstar, but – just like her “Be Petty” laps – your experience there is something you never forget.”

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