The late Linda Petro would have been proud, her husband Russ standing in front of the crowd at the Old Timers Reunion on Saturday at the Bartholomew County 4-H Fairgrounds, accepting the Hometown Hero Award.
Russ Petro, now 71, dominated stock car racing like few others during his career, winning “well-over 500 feature events” that landed him in the National Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame in Walton, Kentucky.
Asked why he loved racing so much, the life-long Columbus resident had a quick answer.
“You know what the deal was,” he said. “Winning.”
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But after talking about his career as the crowd bustled around him, checking out the vintage racecars and memorabilia on display, he started talking about why he was able to win.
“This was a family deal,” he said softly, his daughter Russanna Hendrickson and his son, Randy Petro, alongside him. “You see a lot of these (drivers) and they go off by themselves. I never left any of (his family) at home.”
His daughter verified her dad’s account and added that even when she was in college at Purdue, she would race home to leave on a racing trip with her family. It was in the Petro blood.
Randy Petro, who has 299 career feature stock car wins himself, was born in 1968 when his dad was going full throttle with his career. He grew into the sport, and he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“It is good when your hero is your dad,” Randy Petro said.
Russ Petro didn’t get introduced to racing by his dad, but rather his older brother, Gene, who allowed Russ to help him wrench on the car. Everything escalated when Russ turned 18.
His friend had a go kart that his dad had just purchased and the two buddies took the kart to Seymour’s Freeman Field for a race. When they got there, though, Russ’ friend decided the kart was just a bit too powerful.
Or as Russ explains, “He kind of chickened out.”
So Russ ended up in the driver’s seat, as well as taking the checkered flag.
As he said, “Things started happening from there.”
The Hometown Hero Award is presented annually to those who have made outstanding contributions to racing and certainly, Russ Petro has had a long and glorious history.
He won his last feature in 2010 by driving a “bomber” class car. The bombers usually are 8-cylinder engine, American produced cars with fewer modifications than the other classes.
And even at 71, he is considering the possibility of trying to add one more win to his career so he could win a race in every decade from his teens to his 70s.
Unfortunately, Linda wouldn’t be there to see it since she passed away about four years ago.
Although Russanna said the Petro women didn’t add much to the team in terms of mechanics, and mostly did the cleaning and aesthetics work, Russ said his wife was invaluable to his success.
“She could clock cars like nobody else,” he said. “She had a board with four stop watches on it.
“I knew how fast my first lap was, and how fast my last lap was. I knew how fast everyone around me was going.”
He certainly will miss Linda’s expertise if he tries one final race.
Russanna was asked if she was worried about her dad getting back on the track.
“I know one thing,” she said as she glanced proudly at her father. “I had better be there.”
Jay Heater is The Republic sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 379-5632.