July 4th Flashback: Richard Petty Wins 200th Race with Ronald Reagan in Attendance

The Firecracker 400 ran every July 4th from 1959-1987 at the Daytona Motor Speedway. They ran the race starting in the late morning to avoid the later afternoon Florida sun.

NASCAR was still a regional sport in those days, that was loved in the Southeast and had pockets of fans elsewhere.

Richard Petty was still a star, everyone knew the King.

Richard Petty, driver of the #43 STP Pontiac, sits in his race car just before the start of the 1980 Daytona 500 on February 17, 1980 at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

On July 4th, 1984, NASCAR took the first step toward the mainstream. Richard Petty was looking for his 200th win overall at the Firecracker 400. To put that in perspective, the next closest to him in the history of stock car racing is David Pearson with 105 wins. Jeff Gordon won 93 and is third overall. Petty raced from 1959-1992 and became the face of the sport.

DAYTONA BEACH, FL – 1984 (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

The red, white and blue #43 STP Pontiac was clearly the strongest car in the field on that morning of July 4th, 1984. There was a strong field that day, including his main rivals Cale Yarborough, Dale Earnhardt, Bobby Allison and Bill Elliott.

The command to start the race was given over the phone by the then President of the United States Ronald Regan, who was on Air Force One.

This amazing scene was broadcast on ABC, which showed the race on tape delay, hours after the race ended. Reagan was the first president ever to appear at a NASCAR race, and he stayed for the entire race.

80,000 people crowded into Daytona Speedway to watch a race that was close throughout. Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough were battling on and off the lead. Yarborough led the most laps in the race at 79. On lap 158, Doug Heveron wrecked in turn one. Under the then NASCAR rules, this would be the last lap of the race, because the next two would be under caution. Petty and Yarborough were two wide rubbing iron as they came to the line. Petty beat Yarborough by a bumper to capture his 200th win.

Richard Petty just nips Cale Yarborough at the start-finish line as the yellow flag comes out late in the running of the Firecracker 400 at Daytona International Speedway. With only three laps remaining, Petty cruised to his 200th career NASCAR Cup win under caution with U.S. President Ronald Reagan in attendance. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)
DAYTONA BEACH, FL – JULY 4, 1984: Richard Petty (right) dueled with Cale Yarborough to win his 200th and final race at Daytona International Speedway’s 1984 Firecracker 400. President Reagan became the first sitting U.S. president to attend a NASCAR race with his appearance. (Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

The winner’s circle was overflowing with racers and fans.

DAYTONA BEACH, FL — July 4, 1984: Richard Petty sprays everyone with champagne in victory lane at Daytona International Speedway after he won the Firecracker 400 NASCAR Cup race. It was Petty’s 200th and final visit to victory lane in his career. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

President Reagan didn’t just stay for the race, he stayed to congratulate Richard Petty. “Ronald Reagan’s connection to American car racing dates back to the 1930s, where, as a young radio announcer, he was calling races,” said John Heubusch, executive director for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. “That love stayed with him, and as President of the United States, he spent the fourth of July at the Daytona Firecracker 400, where he became the first sitting president to call a race.”

DAYTONA BEACH, FL – JULY 4, 1984: (L-R) Motor Racing Network (MRN) announcer Ned Jarrett, U.S. President Ronald Reagan, ’84 Firecracker 400 winner Richard Petty, and Petty’s car owner Mike Curb. (Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

That race in 1984 was the last race that Richard Petty ever won.

He ran the #43 car straight through 1992, piling up 1184 races. In his final year, every track celebrated the last race at the track for the KING.

Petty turned 85 earlier this week. Richard Petty Motorsports was recently sold and now is Petty GMS Motorsports, and Petty serves as chairman of the team, and it’s lead spokesman. Ty Dillon currently rides the #43 car.

Long live the KING.

Written by Bill Graff

Lifelong fan of all things sports and of common sense. I watch a lot of sports, just ask my wife. Go Terps. I've got soul, but I'm not a soldier.

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