The first car on the track at World Wide Technology Raceway was driven by Richard Petty, who arrived in his iconic hat, sunglasses and black shirt Friday to kick off a weekend that will culminate with the facility’s first NASCAR Cup series race.
Eventually, NASCAR’s new Next Gen cars hit the track for the first time. But Petty, 84, got things started 30 years after he retired and quite a while since ‘The King’ last drove a lap anywhere.
“The pace car would have been faster than me,” he quipped. “It’s been about 15 years since I’ve been on a track, so I wasn’t going to take any chances.”
On Richard Petty Day, a new generation of drivers got its first look at the 1¼-mile track. It was the only chance to make adjustments before qualifying is held Saturday and the race Sunday.
WWTR broke through as a new addition to the NASCAR schedule for 2022, giving drivers a break from the mostly routine circuit of races.
“There’s a newness and fun of preparing for something different,” driver Kurt Busch said. “I’m happy we had an hour of practice and qualifying (Saturday). It’s the old normal of a nice Friday, Saturday, Sunday sequence. That’s the best rhythm to get into as a driver.”
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A majority of Cup drivers have competed at the track but not in this series and not in this car.
The practice session was largely uneventful except for the moment when Parker Kligerman’s car began smoking and then caught fire. Kligerman was able to get out of the No. 15 without any injuries.
The newness of the track was welcomed by Christopher Bell, who has won a truck race at WWTR but felt a freshness to the surroundings, struggling to even find his way into the infield upon arriving.
“I’ve been a big proponent of going to new venues, going to new tracks,” he said. “I think every year we should have different places to go and really diversify. Going to the same tracks, especially two times in a year, dilutes the event. So, it would be good to go once a year or every other year and rotate the schedule and make every event more special.”
Picking WWTR appears to have paid off in the first year of the race as all 57,000 seats and 1,200 camp sites sold out well ahead of the weekend.
After opening the season in Daytona Beach, Fla., as usual, the schedule moved west for a few races, but the majority of the NASCAR season is competed east of the Mississippi River. Petty suggested that adding St. Louis could help open more possible sites and sponsors for the sport.
He was the featured attraction, making the rounds at WWTR at a question and answer session with fans and a ribbon cutting at the start-finish line as well as driving his lap. He never raced at the track because his retirement in 1992 came before WWTR was built.
Others who have raced at the track more recently still felt the practice session was critical to their preparation.
“Some things I remembered, but it took a handful of laps to kind of get going and up to speed,” Chase Elliott said. “I do think it helps the guys who have been here recently. It helped me a little, but I was trying to dig into my memory bank of what it was like.”
Busch recalls what it was like if only because of a poor ending to his last race at the track. He led with 10 laps remaining but couldn’t get to the finish line before he ran out of gas.
He spent time at Tri-City Speedway on Thursday night where his nephew was racing at the dirt track. He was impressed by the merging of fans of various forms of racing and the willingness to move into a new market.
“All the schedule changes are exciting,” Busch said. “The tracks that were locked in with that TV contract or whatever that was all seems to have dissolved and created new opportunities. As a veteran, it gets me excited because we’re seeing something different.”
For Petty, the day was a throwback as he climbed into a replica of his 1981 No. 43 that won the Daytona 500, and slowly cruised the track. On Sunday, he’ll be on hand to watch a new era of drivers at a new race.
Photos: Richard Petty takes the lead as NASCAR drivers practice on the WWT track
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