YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Petty Enters a Different Kind of Race

Politics: Retired stock car driver is running for North Carolina secretary of state. But his 13-point lead has evaporated and he's now tied with Democratic contender.


SANFORD, N.C. — Some might wonder: Why run for North Carolina secretary of state if you're already "the king?"

But there he is, Richard Petty, the legendary king of stock car racing, working crowds, giving speeches, crossing the state at sub-NASCAR speeds--all for an obscure office that is often lost on North Carolina's long ballot.

"I look at it like I'm out here to give my resume to the voters of North Carolina," said the 59-year-old Petty, who retired from racing four years ago. "I'm giving them my resume and asking for their help.

"North Carolina has been awfully good to me, and I want to give something back."

When it comes to thrills, there is little comparison between Petty's old job and the one he hopes to win in November.

The secretary of state is where corporations register to do business in the state. It is the official keeper of election records, the office where lobbyists and notary publics register, the regulator for securities sales and the protector of trademarks.

It is the kind of job that doesn't get much notice. In fact, for most of this century it was held by the late Thad Eure, who was regularly and quietly elected to 13 terms.

"They may not be the most heavyweight duties in state government, but they are important," insists Elaine Marshall, the attorney and former state senator who is Petty's Democratic opponent.

Originally, it was thought that Marshall was a sacrificial lamb--a certain loser to a man who had 200 Winston Cup victories, a hugely popular figure in North Carolina and across the South.

And at first, it seemed to be a runaway, with polls showing Petty with a 13-point lead in May. But the lead evaporated in later surveys, and the latest poll--conducted before Petty pleaded guilty to bumping another car on Interstate 85 and driving away--reported a dead heat.

So Petty is in for the race of his life.

Campaign stops invariably end with the candidate at a table where supporters sell shirts, caps and other memorabilia with his campaign logo. Petty, used to the ways of fan-friendly NASCAR, speaks to every person and signs every purchase with a distinctive autograph that includes the number 43 that was emblazoned on his race car.

The crowd almost always includes children too young to have seen Petty drive into the winner's circle. "I have a lot of fans who are 6, 8, 10 years old," he said. "I don't understand it, but they're great."

Other Republicans line up to campaign with him because of his crowd-drawing abilities.

"He can stop alongside the road in the middle of nowhere and attract more people than we can at a planned event," said Tom Davidson, the GOP candidate for agriculture commissioner.

Petty says he is qualified for the office, because there is more to racing than just stepping on the gas and turning left.

"That's where people heard of me from, but all the time I was doing that, I also was running a multimillion-dollar business"--Petty Enterprises, his racing business, which has a larger budget than the secretary of state's office.

"I've done business with the secretary of state's office. I had to get trademarks registered," he said. "I've worked with corporate management people who would bring business to North Carolina. I feel like I'm very versatile because, basically, I've been there and done that."

He uses racing metaphors to make his points--for example, to plead for the election of fellow Republicans: "When you're racing, having the driver down there by himself is no good. He's got to have the car with him. He's got to have the crew with him."

Marshall's campaign doesn't sell souvenirs and she is rarely stopped for an autograph. But Marshall is not above stealing some of Petty's racing lingo for her own cause. Witness a recent breakfast meeting of the Democratic Men's Club.

"Democrats," she said, "start your engines!"

Los Angeles Times Articles