Playing Petty politics.

Author:Martin, Edward
Position:Businessman Richard Petty as candidate for governor in North Carolina

At the Danbury, Conn., headquarters of First Brands Inc., Richard Petty reviews his annual report with Ray Pinion, STP Automotive Division president. At stake is a contract that will help a NASCAR team with $5 million in annual operating expenses.

Few fans see this side of the king of stock-car racing, but he's as much at home cutting a deal with corporate bigwigs as he is looking under the hood of a race car.

With four decades of experience in racing, Petty has proved he can wheel and deal. But can he govern? Tar Heel insiders, both business and political, give even odds that he'll make a run for governor in 1996, and any noise about not being a candidate is political coyness.

No matter what, the Petty political action committee, formed at a $250-a-head banquet held in Level Cross in January for 275 GOP faithfuls such as former Gov. Jim Martin, assures him a role in state politics. But how would a stalwart Republican from a county that hasn't elected a Democrat to local office in 20 years fare in Raleigh? Can a multimillionaire who jealously guards his business privacy stomach mandatory financial-disclosure statements, campaign-spending reports and the scrutiny of dirt-digging opponents?

If Petty, 58, can stand the transition from a stock-car star to a man-of-the-people pol, he could wind up a conservative, pro-business candidate cut from the Martin mold but with a lot more populist appeal.

Although some see him as nothing but a cowboy-hatted folk hero with a perennial grin, he's built a solid reputation as a businessman and politician. A Randolph County commissioner since 1978, Petty has pushed through increasingly larger allocations to the Randolph County Economic Development Corp., including $124,000 this year.

Walter Sprouse Jr., Randolph County Economic Development Corp. president, says Petty lobbied state and county officials for water, sewer and highway improvements while the county was courting Canton, Ohio-based Timken Co. In September, the company opened the first phase of its $120 million roller-bearing plant in Asheboro.

"We've been able to attract a lot of good industries without getting into the bidding wars going on in counties around us," adds Phil Kemp, chairman of the Board of Commissioners. "Richard has been one big reason."

Randolph's top vote-getter has also been fighting for a regional reservoir that would provide water for Randolph and Guilford counties. What's unusual, says Alice Dawson, administrative director of...

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