The line of autograph seekers snakes along the front of the Richard Petty Museum in Randleman, N.C., well before the scheduled opening at 9 a.m. on Saturday, May 24. Fans have gathered here for Pettyfest, the annual celebration of all things Richard Petty, and today is their chance to meet “The King” of NASCAR himself and get an autograph or two. But Paul DeSantis of New Castle, Penn., is a little different from the other fans waiting to ask The King to sign something. He comes bearing gifts.
Since retiring from a local Chrysler dealership in 2009, DeSantis has spent much of his time designing and building custom diecast vehicles with his friend Brian Pallerino. A lifelong Petty fan, DeSantis has already created several Richard Petty-themed models, two of which are currently featured in the museum. Today he has something special for The King, as well as for R.W. “Bob” O’Gorman, president of Petty’s Garage partner Automotive Lift Institute (ALI) and owner of the popular Richard Petty tribute car, Legacy by Petty.
Legacy by Petty is a custom Dodge Challenger R/T convertible built by Petty’s Garage, Richard Petty’s hot rod shop six miles away in Level Cross. The car features murals of Petty’s racing careerairbrushed on both sides by artist Mickey Harris, a custom Katzkin leather interior designed to match The King’s crocodile skin boots, Petty’s autograph on the odometer and, as the crowning feature, one of Petty’s own Charlie 1 Horse hats displayed in the back seat. Since the car is used to help promote vehicle lift safety, it also features ALI’s URL, www.autolift.org, under each door opening.
DeSantis is intimately acquainted with these details, since he has recreated them in 1:18 scale.
As the museum opens and the line moves inside, DeSantis,his buddies David George and Greg Gaskill, and O’Gorman are taken to a small office/storage/break room to wait for Petty. Like the man himself, it’s nothing fancy lots of shelves, a computer desk, a couple chairs, a table and a refrigerator every last surface covered with items awaiting The King’s royal signature. Petty is uncharacteristically running a little late this morning, having gotten caught up in cutting down some trees on his ranch. But he’s “on” now, striding into the room with his trademark sunglasses, cowboy hat, and friendly smile in place. He quickly greets DeSantis and O’Gorman, both of whom he’s known for years, and then DeSantis shows him Legacy in miniature. Petty admires the way DeSantis and Pallerino have recreated the intricate paint job, fascia, spoiler, convertible boot…even his own signature on the upholstery. Not to mention his hat in the back. It is with what appears to be a bit of hesitation that Petty then looks to his right and presents the car to O’Gorman on DeSantis’ behalf.
But it’s the King’s turn next. DeSantis hands him a box covered with Richard Petty wrapping paper. “I didn’t know if I’d make it back here for your birthday July 2,” DeSantis explains, “So I thought I’d bring you your present early.”
Unwrapping the package, Petty reveals a custom-made chrome Dodge Charger in 1:24 scale. The car’s hood features the STP logo topped with black and white images of Petty both as a child and as an adult with “Happy Birthday!” above. The iconic No. 43 is on the roof, with 1970s sponsor logos properly placed on the sides, along with various pictures of the King throughout, and the “Happy Birthday” message repeated on the rear bumper. After admiring the unique chrome paint job (the only one DeSantis knows to exist), Petty quickly hones in on the Eagle image on both front fenders.
“I remember this paint scheme,” he says. “We did it for the Bicentennial, but the sponsor just wouldn’t let us run with it. That was in ’76 and I’m going to be 76 this year. This is cool, buddy!”
“You’ll always be 43 to me, King,” DeSantis replies.
The group laughs and reminisces for a couple minutes, and then it’s about time for The King to greet the fans assembled outside. He gets to work, signing a pile of shirts, hats, watches and sheets of muscle car stamps before heading out to hold court. O’Gorman carefully puts the mini Legacy in its custom display case to carry over to Petty’s Garage where it will be displayed throughout the day at the Spring Fling Car Show sponsored annually by ALI. And DeSantis? He heads out to his truck to get a few more items forPetty to sign for his massive collection. Sure, he has to go to the back of the line. “But to have had the chance to spend some private time with Richard, it’s well worth it,” he says.
For more information about the Richard Petty Museum, visit rpmuseum.com or call (336) 495-1143. To learn more about Petty’s Garage, visit www.pettys-garage.com or call (877) 498-3745.