NEW YORK -- Patsy's is a New York institution, an Italian restaurant whose bar area is adorned with autographed photos of famous customers, the names and faces spanning the decades from Carl Reiner to Selena Gomez. This was Frank Sinatra's place, and there's a hidden secret stairwell that leads up to the second floor, where a long table sits at the back of a room. Off to one side is a curtain, which could be pulled closed to give the Chairman a little privacy whenever he and his cronies were in town.
Needless to say, the place is well accustomed to hosting celebrities. But that doesn't lessen the impact when a tall man walks in wearing boots, a cowboy hat and a large belt buckle proclaiming him to be a seven-time NASCAR champion.
Eyes widen. Jaws drop open. Forks are halted in mid-transit between plate and mouth. People begin to give thumbs-up signs, offer handshakes, provide recommendations from the menu. Suddenly chairs are pushed back, and people are leaving their chicken contadina or veal rollatine to walk over and get a photograph taken alongside a smiling -- always smiling -- Richard Petty. There may not be a race in the metropolitan area, and the awards ceremony may have left six years ago for Las Vegas, but the King still reigns, even in New York.
Richard Petty took off his sunglasses for this photo, but people at Patsy's in New York City recognized him instantly. Petty is standing with Aric Almirola, left, and Patsy's Executive Chef Sal Scognamillo. (Photo tweeted by Patsy's official handle).
That much is inarguable. Petty spent the better part of two days this week in the Big Apple, where Smithfield Foods announced a three-year extension with Richard Petty Motorsports that includes a 29-race commitment to Aric Almirola's No. 43 car. New York can be a tough market for NASCAR, but look -- there's Dale Earnhardt Jr. smiling down from a video board in Times Square as part of a TaxSlayer campaign. And when the King walks the streets, New York might as well be New Bern or New Smyrna. The rock-star treatment remains the same, people flocking to the figure in the duster and the cowboy hat, NASCAR's greatest ambassador always seeming as happy to see them as they are him.
"It's amazing. He has that kind of impact on the entire U.S. It's probably more than just the U.S. It's probably the northern hemisphere," Almirola said. "But he's just an icon. And he's not only an icon in NASCAR. It's more than NASCAR. He's a national icon. And so when he walks in with that hat and sunglasses and belt buckle, he's instantly recognizable. And people spot him, and they know, and it's amazing to see that. He could probably skirt by and not get bothered at all, if he took his hat and sunglasses and belt buckle off. But that's not who he is. When you think of Richard Petty, you think of the guy in the hat and sunglasses. That's who he is, and people know him."
Even in New York. Andrew Murstein, an RPM co-owner and financier who lives in New York, sees it up close and personal whenever his business partner is in town. Tuesday night before meeting a host of Smithfield executives at Patsy's, Murstein took Almirola and Petty to Nobu, a Japanese restaurant co-founded by Robert De Niro where the city's elite meet to eat raw fish. With its stylish interior and star-studded clientele, Nobu is about as far as you can get from the Petty homestead in Randleman, N.C. But the King walks in, and all eyes are on him.
"Nobu, that's like the opposite of Richard Petty," Murstein said with a laugh. "It's froofy, it's very particular, they have these little dishes he complains about. The atmosphere there is all celebrities and power players in New York. And still, they all came over to the table to say hello to him. Like the table next to us was Hoda (Kotb), so her and her husband come over to the table and say, 'We just want to meet you, it's such an honor.' Curtis Martin, the (retired) NFL star was there, and also said, 'I'd like to meet you.' Richard really runs the gamut. He plays well anywhere, whether it's barbecue joints in the back area of North Carolina, or New York City's fanciest restaurants."
Murstein, who in addition to his share of the race team is a fixture at New York sports events, sees similarities between Petty and another friend -- Hank Aaron, the baseball Hall of Famer and one-time home run king. "Hank and Richard are very similar in my mind, in that they're both legends in their own sport, they're both transformational athletes, they're both extremely classy and humble men," he said. "But Hank Aaron doesn't have the cowboy boots, the hat, the glasses. He walks into Nobu, and he doesn't get as many looks as Richard does."
In that regard, among sports figures, Petty may very well be in a class by himself. By now, he's long used to it. "I've been doing this for so long, the Petty name has been involved all the way through the whole deal. Even if Jimmie Johnson is the hot dog now or when Dale Earnhardt was the hot dog, of Jeff Gordon, the Petty name still goes into that deal," he said.
"So you don't have to be out doing stuff to get notoriety. With all the TV and stuff, you turn on the race, and you're going to see a picture of me, even if I'm just walking through. The recognition is more than you'd like to have sometimes, but it's good for NASCAR, it's good for Smithfield. Because when a guy's walking in the grocery store, he's thinking, 'I don't know what he does, but I know I've seen him before.' But for people who haven't been around it, to walk down the street and stuff and listen to peoples' comments, it blows your mind."
It blows your mind just watching it happen. It's not just that Petty is so instantly recognizable, which helps make the King so valuable to sponsors even though he hasn't raced a car in more than 20 years. It's that he's so approachable. There's an easy magnetism about the man, one that makes people on the street not just gawk, but go up to him. When people approach the King, they don't seem nervous -- they positively beam. Petty smiles that famous smile and somehow puts them immediately at ease, and they leave the experience with wide grins plastered to their faces. Walking through Patsy's to his table, Petty patted diners on the shoulder as if he had known them for years.
"I think he was probably the very first guy in NASCAR that took NASCAR mainstream. That was proof," said Almirola, recalling the dinner scene. "We're in New York City, the place where people can do whatever they want and not get looked at weird. You see people walking down the street dressed all kinds of different ways, but you see Richard walking around in a trench coat, with his hat and sunglasses, and they spot him. He's mainstream. He really is. He brought our sport and NASCAR to that mainstream level a long time ago, and NASCAR's done a very good job of taking our sport and growing it from there."
In his driving days, Petty was famous for obliging every autograph or picture request, viewing each one as a small thank-you to those who had watched him compete. He hasn't changed. Petty was in the middle of dinner, seated against the wall in the middle of that long back table at Patsy's, when the chef brought over a friend he wanted the King to meet. "Wow," the man said, "you're at the Sinatra table." Petty stood up and wriggled his way past several dinner companions to shake the man's hand. There was never any doubt that he wouldn't.
"You're not only promoting yourself, you're promoting yourself and the people who are backing you," Petty said the next day. "Me doing that stuff last night, then when they go in and see Smithfield, they'll think, 'I know that.' But if I treat them bad, they may think, 'I ain't buying none of that crap.' When you're rude to people -- and you're going to be from time to time, but a lot of people are rude all the time -- it takes more energy than it does just to say, 'Hey guys, how are you doing?' And that's all you have to do. Instead of saying, 'Hey, get away from me,' or whatever. I don't know why people operate that way, but I've always been like how I am now. I just never thought about it. It's one of those deals, you want to treat people the way you want to be treated, basically."
And few treat people better than Petty, who by dint of his persona and reputation commands attention simply by walking into a room -- wherever that room is. Entering a private airport in White Plains, N.Y., for the flight back to Greensboro, N.C., all eyes once again turned toward the original seven-time champion, and some couldn't resist a smile. The King offered a slight wave and a nod, the brim of his hat bobbling up and down, another small token of thanks as timeless as a Petty blue race car or the No. 43. Because to Richard Petty, whether it's New York or North Carolina, in many ways every place is still the same.
The King, who remains a larger-than-life figure, paid a visit to the NASCAR New York office and stood amongst the skyscrapers. (Photo tweeted by Fuel 4 Business account).
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