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Tuesday, February 7, 2023

NC trend: The Petty family grinds away at a high-performance garage

When her Filipino family visits Randolph County, Charina Reeder of Asheboro says there’s one clear way to show them “how America feels.” That involves a visit to the Richard Petty Museum and Petty’s Garage in Level Cross in rural Randolph County, 15 miles south of downtown Greensboro.

Rebecca-with-father-Richard-Petty
Rebecca Petty Moffitt and her father, Richard Petty.

In the Triad countryside, she is spot on — especially in NASCAR country, where the Petty name has defined motorsports for generations.

Within a 2-mile radius of the Petty museum and garage are acres of farmland, more than a dozen churches, motorcycle and gun shops, and a couple of mom-and-pop service stations. The sole national brand is Dollar General.

Remarkably, the Petty name is living on 30 years after the retirement of the most successful driver in NASCAR history, in large part because of the mechanical skills of about 20 technicians who attract a nationwide clientele. 

Richard Petty, 85, clocked 200 career wins and seven series championship titles during a career stretching from 1958 to 1992. David Pearson, with a total of 105 wins, is a distant second. Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt matched Petty’s seven NASCAR championship titles, but neither approached 100 wins.

The Petty legacy extends beyond Richard, of course. His father, Lee, won the first Daytona 500 in 1959 and set records for dirt-track racing before the sport moved to asphalt tracks. His son, Kyle, also had significant success in NASCAR between 1979 to 2009.

That legacy draws roughly 15,000 to 20,000 museum visitors annually, while the family’s racing business, Petty Enterprises, was sold and moved to Mooresville in 2008 to be closer to other NASCAR operations. While Richard Petty retains an interest in what is now the Petty GMS, its majority owner since 2021 has been  Maury Gallagher, the CEO of Allegiant Air. Jimmie Johnson bought a minority stake in November. 

The Petty family opened a museum in 1988 to showcase the NASCAR legend.

Separately, Petty’s Garage has become a substantial business since its formation in 2008. The garage has performed work for celebrity car buffs including musician Kid Rock, NFL quarterback Tim Tebow, and rocker-turned-racer Brian Johnson of AC/DC fame. 

“We work on cars from Texas, Michigan, New York, all across the U.S., and Canada; and people from all over the world order our parts. But the guy 15 minutes up the road doesn’t know we’re here,” says Rebecca Petty Moffitt, Richard’s youngest daughter and executive director of the Petty Family Foundation. 

Outside NASCAR, few people may know about their garage. But people who covet high-performance, speed-infused rides, from backyard mechanics to grassroots racers, find their way along the back roads of Randolph County. 

Petty’s Garage has continued the legacy of building high-performance cars at the site where it all began, utilizing a mishmash of buildings encircling the “reaper shed.”    

“My grandfather started racing in 1949 and this barn is where they built his cars,” Moffitt says. “They called it the reaper shed because the tractor was usually out farming.” 

The building is now listed as a historic landmark. It’s miniscule compared to the company’s main multi-bay garage.  

“I have the same birthday as the King, July 2,” says a visitor who had driven from his home in Pennsylvania’s Poconos Mountains to see the Petty museum. “Been waiting to meet him for over 30 years. It would be really cool if I could see him.” 

Thanking them for their visit, Moffitt says, “Looks like Daddy’s car is over there, so he must be around here somewhere.” She welcomes them to sit by the car and wait.

Richard Petty frequents the property and stays engaged with fans and the industry. Most of his followers are over 55, although Pixar’s animated 2006 movie “Cars,” which featured Petty’s voice for the Plymouth Superbird, has raised his profile with a younger set.

For all the nostalgia and history packed into the museum, Petty’s Garage is a serious business. A full restoration can run $150,000 to $200,000 and take 18 months or more to complete. A “restomod,” which Moffitt explains is a car that has the classic “old” appearance with modern tech and creature comforts, can be a similar undertaking. 

“If you’re looking at supercharging the car, which is more horsepower, it’s usually around $10,000,” she says. “The highest we’ve done is 1,000 horsepower.” 

Wolfgang Schulz, a self-proclaimed “car crazy,” follows NASCAR religiously and collects high-performance cars of all makes and models. His favorite: A 2010 Dodge Challenger, that he hauled from his home near Ottawa, Canada, to Petty’s Garage, where he invested around $40,000 getting the car rebuilt with a new motor, supercharger, sway bars, strut bars — the list goes on.

“I had it painted Plum Crazy Purple, with custom logos on the head rests, Petty floor mats, all kinds of things,” Schulz says. “That was 2019. Today I expect the same build would cost $55,000 to $60,000. But I got to meet Richard Petty and Dale Inman (Petty’s crew chief) when I picked up the car, and they signed the car
with me there.”

Schulz, an operations manager, typically does the mechanical work on his cars. But his 2010 Dodge was always destined for Petty’s signature build. 

“We might have a customer bring an $80,000 Hellcat [Challenger] in here and want some modifications to it, or we can take a $35,000 model and do $40,000 of add-ons to personalize it,” says Greg Steadman, the garage’s chief operating officer and a former NASCAR crew chief. “We’ve done race car restorations and some expensive classic muscle cars, but now we’re getting a lot of newer cars, 2005 and up.”

Restoration and performance upgrades make up 75% of the revenue with parts sales making up the balance. Plans call for flipping that percentage as capacity at the garage maxes out.

An expanded website, of which 90% of the products are Petty-branded parts, is expected to fuel that transition. “The parts and components we focus on are top of the line,” Steadman says. “Richard’s brand is built on high performance; we won’t be selling any bottom-shelf parts.” 

The company also builds vehicles used by corporations for promotional or charity campaigns. Clients have included Continental Tire, General Tire, and Wyndham Resorts. 

“We don’t donate the cars for charity auctions, but we work within their budget,” Moffitt says. “Like they’ll make $150,000 to $200,000 on a car we’ve built for $75,000.”

Wyndham started in 2021 with a Chevy Camaro contest as an incentive aimed at gathering contact information from potential customers. It followed up with a Jeep Rubicon as a prize in 2022, and a Ford Bronco is on tap this year.

“Petty’s Garage already has a solid base in the industry, but it is time to take the business to the next level,” Steadman says.        

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