President Ronald Reagan was among the estimated 80,000 race fans at Daytona International Speedway on July 4, 1984, when Richard Petty scored his 200th victory in NASCAR’s premier stock car series.
The event is widely recognized as the most significant in the history of American auto racing as Reagan became the first sitting U.S. president to attend a major motorsports event and Petty achieved what turned out to be the final victory of his storied career.
President Reagan gave the command to start the engines via phone from Air Force One while en route to the speedway, and all eyes were on Cale Yarborough and Petty as they dominated the Firecracker 400.
As the laps wound down, Petty set the pace in the STP Pontiac with Yarborough’s Hardee’s Chevrolet riding his rear bumper. Then, on lap 158 of the 160-lap race, Doug Heveron spun and flipped in the first turn. Petty and Yarbrough had just passed the start/finish line when the accident took place, resulting in a nearly 2.5-mile battle back to the caution flag.
In one of the sport’s most dramatic finishes, Petty held off Yarborough by inches in a paint-trading slugfest to claim the milestone victory.
“From what the president said, I think it blew his mind that we were running at 200 mph and beating on each other like that,” Petty noted.