Seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion Richard Petty was named North Carolinian of the Year on Thursday, joining Billy Graham, Dean Smith and others in receiving the honor from the North Carolina Press Association.
Petty, 70, won a record 200 NASCAR Winston Cup races and seven Daytona 500 races. He won 27 races in 1967 alone, 18 races in 1970 and 21 in 1971. Since 2000, no driver has won more than eight in a season. Only the late Dale Earnhardt matched Petty's seven NASCAR championships.
Petty was honored at the press association's annual meeting, held this year at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord. Petty attended the award ceremony with his wife, Lynda.
"I really appreciate this honor. I'm in there with a bunch of heavy hitters. Those are people North Carolina can be proud of," Petty said.
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The award started in 1993 and is given to North Carolinians who bring honor and recognition to the state. Besides Graham and Smith, past winners also include Elizabeth Dole, now a senator, banjo-picker Earl Scruggs and Meadowlark Lemon of Harlem Globetrotters fame.
Those receiving the award are first nominated by the association's sitting president, who this year is Deuce Niven, editor of the Tabor-Loris Tribune in Tabor City.
Niven praised Petty for his longtime habit of making time for fans, saying "The King" never turned away those asking for autographs.
"I've never heard that he did, and I don't believe that he did," Niven said.
Petty retired after the 1992 season, and President George H.W. Bush awarded him the Medal of Freedom that year.
Petty is principal owner of Petty Enterprises in Level Cross, where a 60,000-square-foot racing facility houses NASCAR team Nos. 43 and 45. The organization was founded in 1949 by his late father, Lee Petty. Kyle Petty, Richard Petty's son, drives the No. 45 Dodge for Petty Enterprises