Nearly 40 years ago, Richard Petty toed a hard line against women driving race cars. Today, not much appears to have changed.
Speaking at the Canadian Motorsports Expo in Toronto Sunday, the man known as “The King of Stock Car Racing” responded bluntly when asked by reporters if he could envision Danica Patrick winning a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.
“(Only) if everybody else stayed home,” said Petty, adding that ““if she’d have been a male, nobody would ever know if she’d showed up at a race track.”
Petty’s comments were similar to those made decades ago when Janet Guthrie attempted to make her mark in NASCAR. Guthrie made 33 starts in NASCAR top division between 1976 and 1980, recording five Top-10 finishes -- including a career-best sixth at Bristol International Speedway in August of 1977 – but never earned the approval of NASCAR’s brightest star.
"When I shook hands with Richard Petty, I thought I'd get frostbite," wrote Guthrie in her autobiography, Janet Guthrie; A Life at Full Throttle. “Later, he would be quoted as saying of me: 'She's no lady. If she was, she'd be at home. There's a lot of differences in being a lady and being a woman."'
Petty actually softened his stance in later years, expressing admiration for what Guthrie accomplished.
“She came in before you had any diversity deal,” said Petty in 2006. “She came in just as herself and done a decent job. She come in the hard way, because no one really welcomed her in. She said, `I'm here, I'm going to do it,' and she was able to get it done. You have to admire her for that.
"(But) I've still not changed my mind about women racing.”
Sunday, Petty said that while he believes Patrick is more flash than substance on the race track, her presence has been good for NASCAR.
“This is a female deal that’s driving her,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with that, because that’s good PR for me. More fans come out, people are more interested in it. She has helped to draw attention to the sport, which helps everybody in the sport.”
He said NASCAR has morphed over the years from “race time” to “show time,” with fans now interested in what happens off the track, as well as what takes place on race day.
“When NASCAR first started, it was racing,” he said. “Over a period of years, with what we had to do to get the fans to come, the first thing you know… the race is secondary. All the rest of it is buildup, buildup, buildup.
“It’s sort of like watching the Super Bowl,” said Petty. “It was a lot more exciting watching the buildup than the game. The game just happened to break out in the middle of a good party. We’re not quite that far along (in NASCAR), but in order for us to do what we need to do on race day -- the sponsorship and the fan stuff -- we have to do all this other stuff.
“It’s become a show-time deal.”