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The day ‘The King’ of NASCAR opened the Thunderdome

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 crowned as ‘The King’ of NASCAR racing still stand tall. His 200 Cup Series wins will forever remain unmatched, while his tally of seven championships has only ever been equalled, and even then by greats of the sport such as Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson.

Petty’s career spanned stock car racing’s rapid evolution from a sport built on former ‘bootleggers’ – drivers who delivered illegal moonshine whisky in cars that had been hotted-up to evade local law enforcement – in the nation’s south to a billion-dollar business embraced by corporate America and fans around the country.

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

On August 3, 1987, Petty became the first driver to turn a full lap as part of a Goodyear tyre test on 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 off Turn 4 on the Thunderdome. Pic: an1images.com

The session was the first NASCAR running of any kind on the brand-new facility, with the main grandstand, amenities and the towering billboards on the outsides of the corners all still under construction.

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

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

Petty, John Sheppard and Bobby Hillin Jr look over one of the stock cars built at Calder Park. Pic: an1images.com

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

Missing, however, was its usual Foster’s sponsorship. Petty avoided alcohol sponsorship throughout his career at the insistence of his mother, Petty dynasty matriarch Elizabeth, although it’s a stance that has softened in recent years. Throughout the testing, the blue machine instead bore the logos of Goodyear and STP.

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

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

Petty gave the new facility a big thumbs-up, comparing it favourably to other new tracks in his homeland.

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

“Most people who build a track back home, the first thing they do is to build the grandstands and the concession stands where they can get people’s money – then if they’ve got time, they build a racetrack.

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

Petty was one of a host of American stars that Jane hoped to bring Down Under for the Thunderdome’s maiden NASCAR race, which was originally slated for November 1987.

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

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