At the time this biopic about NASCAR’s winningest driver was made, stock-car racing hadn’t yet vaulted from regional popularity in the South to nationwide notoriety. (Races didn’t find their way to national television until a few years later.) That might explain why only meager resources were brought to bear on this project, for which producers likely expected only limited exhibition opportunities. All of which is a polite way of saying that 43: The Richard Petty Story, which sorta-kinda stars Petty as himself, is a cheap-looking quickie with a dopey script, juiced only slightly by the inclusion of footage from real NASCAR races. It’s not much of a tribute to a sport’s reigning champ, but one gets the impression that no one involved took the project seriously, excepting of course Petty himself. As to the remark about him “sorta-kinda” starring, chances are the producers quickly realized that Petty had zero acting talent and not much more charisma, hence relegating him to a minor supporting role despite the presence of his name in the title. Much more screen time is devoted to seasoned actor Darren McGavin, who plays Petty’s father.
The flick opens with a simple framing device. After Richard wipes out in a race, his father, Lee Petty (McGavin), gathers with family members at a hospital to await news of Richard’s condition. This triggers memories of the time when Lee stumbled into a career as a stock-car racer during the sport’s early days. Specifically, Lee tried to buy a car from a redneck, only to get trapped in the car—alongside young Richard—while the redneck, a moonshine runner, sped down country roads to avoid capture by police. Exposure to fast cars, combined with other circumstances (such as the family home burning down), prompted Lee to become a racer, albeit one prone to costly wipeouts and fierce competitiveness. Eventually, Richard joined the family trade, and in one scene Lee berates officials into changing the results of a race awarding Richard’s win to Lee. If there was an interesting drama, or even a lively comedy, to be found in this material, the folks behind 43: The Richard Petty Story missed those opportunities. Beyond its minor historical interest and the lively textures of McGavin’s performance, the movie comprises 83 minutes of noisy nonsense. Whether or not the title alone gets your motor running should provide a good indication of how much you’ll enjoy the film.
43: The Richard Petty Story: FUNKY