I have few autographed items, mostly because it's inappropriate and unprofessional to collect them while on the job.
One of the most famous signatures I do have has the least value. That's because, in the past 80 years, Richard Petty has signed his name more often than other sports figure in the country.
A few days before the July 1992 NASCAR race at Talladega Superspeedway, I was invited to ride along with Petty, a couple of track officials and two other writers to the Big Oak Boys' Ranch, a home for children in need established near Rainbow City by former Alabama football player John Croyle.
Petty was known for his accessibility to fans and media, but this more private time was something to cherish. At journey's end, I asked the King to sign my Talladega press pass. It was inappropriate and unprofessional — and it now hangs on my wall, a memory of one of those days of privilege a lifetime of typing can sometimes provide.
Petty, whose 80th birthday was celebrated this past Sunday with myriad tributes in advance, is NASCAR's winningest driver and is on the short list for its most talented. (David Pearson was the best, Petty once told me.) He's still the most influential driver in the sport's history because of his mainstream appeal and his touch with the fans.
Some of his 200 career victories came in places like Huntsville, Ala., Hickory, N.C., and Savannah, Ga., back when a season might include more than 45 races. But, really, that's where Petty built the sport and built his image.
"Early in his career, Petty figured out the dynamic between racers and faces," Mike Hembree recently wrote in USA Today. "When he started winning and people started noticing, he went beyond the norm to accommodate fans, staying hours after races at dirt tracks in the middle of nowhere to sign autographs for all fans willing to wait.
"His handsome face and piano-key smile helped make him a natural, and the winning cars consistently churned out by mechanics at the Petty shop in Level Cross were the perfect complement."
What a smile. Dale Earnhardt Sr. had a sneer-smile. Jeff Gordon's smile is from an Olan Mills portrait. But the King's smile is radiant and natural, coming from underneath that thin mustache, below the shades and the Charlie 1 Horse cowboy hat.
On a Sunday afternoon during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, while strolling through the Forbidden City, I spotted a Chinese man wearing a T-shirt that read "Petty Enterprises Inc." with a No. 43 on it.
I took a photo and showed it to the King at Talladega that fall, and it delighted him.
"Heck," he said, "that's probably one of my old shirts."
Then he smiled.
Happy birthday, King.
Contact Mark McCarter at email@example.com.