BYRON -- More than 40 years after he last sped around Middle Georgia Raceway, Richard Petty made a return Saturday.
This time he made a slow lap around it in a Chevy Suburban before walking to the stage to speak to hundreds of fans.
Its good to be back here, he said. This was a good racetrack and a good place to see a race.
Petty, known by fans as King Richard, raced at the Byron track after it opened in 1966 and was part of NASCARs Grand National series, which is now the Sprint Cup. He won four races there, part of his record 200 wins in NASCAR.
On Saturday he was the star attraction at the third annual Middle Georgia Racers Reunion, which seeks to honor the tracks history even though many years have passed since the last race was held there.
Organizers had hoped to draw 5,000 people or more with Pettys appearance, but the crowd appeared to be well short of that. It was a good thing, though, for those coming to get Pettys autograph. Attendees were warned only VIP ticket holders were assured of getting an autograph, and Petty would be there for only two hours. But after an opening ceremony, he went through the VIP ticket holders in less than an hour, so that left time to go outside the tent and tackle a long line of autograph seekers.
He took a short time in between to speak with media.
NASCAR grew up on tracks like this, he said. Even though they dont have races here anymore, Im glad its being preserved and people can come out here and see it.
Even in his prime, Petty was famous for his willingness to sign autographs for fans, no matter how many were surrounding him.
He said that grew out of his early days in racing, when there werent any sponsors.
If we werent good to the fans, we werent going to make it, he said. It was just like saying Thank you, every time I signed an autograph.
Asked if he figures he holds the world record for the number of times he has signed his name, he said Pretty dadgum close, I imagine. Id challenge anybody, I think.
A condition of Pettys appearance was that a sizable donation be made to Victory Junction Gang Camp for chronically ill children.
Jeff Smith Chevrolet agreed to make the donation, and presented him with a $15,000 check. Pettys grandson, Adam Petty, had the idea for the camp when he was a teen. After Adam Petty was killed in a racing crash, the Petty family decided to make his vision a reality.
Michael Smith lives right across from the track, and when he heard Petty was coming he dug a toy from his childhood out of the attic. It was a 1980s era model of Pettys distinctive blue-and-white STP car.
I knew I had kept it all these years for some reason, he said. I thought I would get it out and see if I could get him to sign it.
Mike Brooks, of Dublin, came to the track wearing a Petty T-shirt.
Hes just a straight up good old Southern boy, Brooks said.
The event also featured vintage race cars, a car show, helicopter rides and moonshine samples.
Track owner Tim Thornton is planning a moonshine festival next year to memorialize the discovery of an elaborate, underground moonshine still federal agents discovered there in 1967.
To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.