THE DAY ‘THE KING’ OF NASCAR opened THE THUNDERDOM

Richard Petty, ‘The King’ of NASCAR racing, was given the honor of turning the first official lap of a stock car at the Calder Park Thunderdome. Photos: an1images.com

RICHARD Petty remains one of the biggest names in the world of NASCAR stock car racing.

Though his last race was three decades ago, the deeds of the man who was crowned “The King” of NASCAR racing still stand. His 200 Cup Series victories will forever remain unrivaled, while his total of seven championships has only ever been matched, even then by sporting greats such as Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson.

Petty’s career has spanned the rapid evolution of stock car racing from a sport built on former “bootleggers” — drivers who delivered illegal moonshine whiskey in cars stoked to evade local law enforcement — in the south of the country to a multi-billion dollar company embraced by corporate America. and fans across the country.

When Bob Jane built Calder Park Thunderdome in the mid-1980s, the first superspeedway oval in decades to be built outside of America and the first to accommodate the American-bred V8 stock cars, he got NASCAR’s biggest star to come to his facility. give the label.

On August 3, 1987, Petty became the first driver to complete a full lap as part of a Goodyear tire test at the Calder Oval, and he was joined by Cup Series race winner Bobby Hillin and veteran speedway racer Rodney Combs at the Goodyear test .

Petty (#03) leads the fleet of Australian-built cars at Turn 4 at the Thunderdome. Photo: an1images.com

The session was the first NASCAR of any kind to run at the brand new facility, with the main stand, amenities and the towering billboards on the outside of the corners all still under construction.

Eight stock cars, built in Australia by a Calder Park crew led by John Sheppard, roared through a footy-style banner set up by VFL club North Melbourne to officially open the circuit for action.

‘The King’ led the charge, though not in his iconic #43 STP-backed Petty Blue and fluorescent red Pontiac. Instead, he drove a car that had made a piece of NASCAR history.

Petty, John Sheppard and Bobby Hillin Jr check out one of the stock cars built in Calder Park. Photo: an1images.com

Petty drove the #03 Oldsmobile that Allan Grice had driven in the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte earlier that year, becoming the first Australian-built car to qualify for a NASCAR race.

Missing, however, was Foster’s usual sponsorship. Petty avoided alcohol sponsorship throughout his career at the urging of his mother, Petty dynasty matriarch Elizabeth, though it’s an attitude that has softened in recent years. During testing, the blue machine sported the Goodyear and STP logos instead.

The Americans were joined by a trio of Australians, including recently crowned Australian Touring Car champion Jim Richards, speedway legend Garry Rush and two-wheeled Kiwi hero Graeme Crosby, who had recently switched to four wheels and had attempted to qualify for the Charlotte NASCAR race in another Foster-backed Oldsmobile.

The drivers face the media during their first Thunderdome experience. From L to R: Hillin, Petty, Combs, Crosby, Rush, Richards. Photo: an1images.com

Petty gave the new facility a big thumbs up and compared it favorably with other new tracks in his home country.

“The way the track was laid out was smooth and ready to drive on,” Petty told the media.

“Most people who build a track at home first build the grandstands and the concession stands where they can get the people’s money – and if they have time, they build a race track.

“(Jane) did the right thing; he spent his money on the track, then he’s going to spend money on the facilities. ”

Petty was one of several American stars who hoped to take Jane Down Under for Thunderdome’s first NASCAR race, originally scheduled for November 1987.

But ‘The King’ was missing from the grid when the inaugural race took place in February 1988, his place being taken by son Kyle Petty.

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