Did Richard Petty Autograph a Live Duck?
The King of NASCAR has signed millions of autographs. But did he sign a bird? An investigation led us to the North Carolina State Fair, a legendary racer (of pigs), and a man who loved to wear khakis.
Gaze upon the image above and be honest: Do you recognize the person this picture is based on? Look at the hat. The glasses. The tiny mustache. Anyone who knows even a little bit about racing knows that this duck is giving off major Richard Petty vibes. The King retired from racing 30 years ago but is still as recognizable today as he was at the height of his driving career.
Which leads me to this minor mystery, unearthed by a tweet from a news anchor in Greensboro:
Even if you watched the video, I think it’s worth saying it again. Out loud. RICHARD PETTY ONCE AUTOGRAPHED A LIVE DUCK.
I had never heard about this, but apparently this has become part of official Petty lore:
I know this sort of sounds like a silly thing because, well, it is a silly thing. But did he actually do this? Did a grown man actually pull out a marker and sign his name on a bird? Did another grown man give that grown man a LIVE DUCK? Who was this man? And, more importantly, where did a guy just, you know, get a duck?
Folks, I got to the bottom of it. Not all the way to the bottom. But really, really close to the bottom. Our investigation led us to a man who fits the description. A man who became a legend in his own right. And a man who loved to wear khakis.
I began by looking up every claim I could about this, and the stories appear to start back in 1992. That’s a significant year, because it was Petty’s last season as a race car driver. By this time, The King’s legend had long eclipsed his driving ability. His last NASCAR win was in 1984. During his final season, he finished, on average, in 23rd place. Which, you know, is not all that bad for a 55-year-old man. Plus, he moved a lot of merch during what he called his “Fan Appreciation Tour.” Back in 2015, I was in an antiques store in Cameron and stumbled upon this treasure:
THE ORIGINAL 23-YEAR-OLD PEPSI WAS STILL INSIDE. How did it taste? Unfortunately, I didn’t pony up $3 to find out.
Around this time, newspapers started writing sentimental stories about Petty’s long and unparalleled racing career. Many of them focused on how he seemed to sign autographs for everybody. Petty’s signature was as unique as it was legible, and after he signed his first autograph in Columbia, South Carolina, it became his way to say thank you to fans.
Petty’s team once estimated that he’d signed more than two million autographs since the beginning of his racing career.
One of them, it seems, was on a live duck.
I went back and looked for newspapers clippings. The oldest one? From May 17, 1992, in the Daily Press in Virginia:
The oddest request? ''It was last year at the State Fair in Raleigh,'' he said. ''The guy running the petting zoo brought me a live duck.
''I guess the autograph lasted until ol' Fred lost his feathers.''
The duck anecdote appeared again in July, in the South Florida Sun Sentinel:
On the most bizarre autograph request during his farewell tour: "Some guy in Raleigh (N.C.) asked me if I could sign a duck. He goes into this pond and grabs Fred the duck. After I sign Fred, he throws it back in the pond."
Later that year, Petty’s wife Lynda had changed the story somewhat for an interview in the Washington Post:
A couple years ago, at the North Carolina state fair, a girl handed Petty a white duck and asked him to sign it, Lynda Petty said. The duck, nonplussed by it all, left the fair with "Richard Petty 43" spread jaggedly across its back.
"I'm sure the feathers grew out," Lynda Petty said, "but the girl left happy."
From there, the story just keeps going on and on. In 2000, a version of the story in the Kansas City Star says that Petty actually turned down the guy who offered the duck up for an autograph, opting to sign a piece of paper instead. In 2003, Petty said his signature on the duck lasted for a year, until the duck molted and replaced its feathers. The story seems to pop up every couple of years. Most recently, Petty himself told it to fans before a NASCAR Cup race in Illinois in June.
Alas, there are no surviving pictures of Petty signing the duck. So, I asked a free AI image generator to make some for me:
Let us never speak of these images again.
For what it’s worth, I tried contacting Petty directly through his museum in Randleman. His daughter replied, and said she asked her dad about it. He thought it was a maintenance man who handed him the duck.
There are a few consistencies. For one, the duck seems to have been named Fred, implying that this duck wasn’t, you know, just some random duck off the street. For another, the earliest stories refer to Petty having been at the fair the year before, in 1991. And, based on a 1991 fair schedule, Petty would have been signing autographs in the folk festival tent behind the Scott Building on the east side of the fairgrounds on Wednesday, October 23, 1991. There’s just one small problem: There’s no pond nearby.
The map above is from the Raleigh News & Observer in 1991. Petty would have been signing autographs in the folk festival tent (29). That’s pretty far from the lake and the children’s barnyard (16, on the other side of the grandstand).
At this point, I threw up my hands and asked the folks at the state fair if they’d ever heard of this. The official historian replied that no, he had not. But! He’d mentioned that the folks who race pigs nearby might know something.
For more than 40 years, Dennis Cook and others from Circle C Farms in Newton have been coming to the fair to show and race pigs, goats, and … ducks. And, based on a Facebook post from what they call the Hogway Speedway, they used to be set up between gates 9 and 10. You know who else was set up between those gates in 1991? Richard Petty’s autograph table.
I called up Brent Cook, Dennis’s son. I caught him at an interesting time. This week, Dennis announced that he’s officially retiring from the pig racing business, and the Hogway Speedway would not be appearing at the state fair this year. “It was a great run,” Brent told me.
Brent checked with his parents to find out if Richard Petty had signed one of their ducks. They didn’t think so. Neither did Brent. Besides, they weren’t anywhere near Petty’s autograph booth in 1991. Circle C was running a petting zoo on the other side of the fairgrounds. If someone was racing ducks near gates 9 and 10, it wasn’t them.
Brent got in touch with his connections in the pig racing industry, but nobody could remember anything about this. One person, though, told Brent that she had a hunch that the man with the duck might have been Merle Mills, one of the most legendary pig racers of them all. There was just one problem, though. Merle died 23 years ago.
His wife, though, was still alive.
Frances Mills is 90 now, and still lives in the house the Merle built for her in Germantown, Maryland. She picked up the phone on Wednesday evening and, to my great surprise, did not laugh at me when I asked her if her late husband had given Richard Petty a duck to autograph. Right off the bat, she didn’t remember Merle saying anything about it. But! “It sounds like something Merle would do,” she told me.
Merle Mills was a plumber by trade who raised pigs on his farm. One day, the secretary for the Montgomery County Fair came to Merle. She’d just gotten back from a convention in Las Vegas where she’d heard about the fairly new sport known as pig racing. She asked he he could pull off a race in Maryland.
"I'd never tried to get a pig to do anything other than eat," Merle told the Baltimore Sun. "As for getting a pig to run around a track, I thought that was crazy as hell -- and so did a lot of other people."
Still, he gave it a try. In 1984, Merle spent six weeks in his backyard, training young little Yorkshires how to race (side note, teaching pigs to race around a track is HARD). The work paid off. The event he held at the fair that fall—”The Dash for Mash”—was such a huge hit that newspapers from around the country came to report on the spectacle. After that, Merle got so many requests that he quit his plumbing job to go on the road and race his pigs full time. “He had to go all out,” Frances said.
It is here that I’d like to point out that the life of a young racing pig was fairly short. As the Sun put it: “For a pig, Mr. Merle's traveling show is a brief stopover on the road to becoming a pork chop.”
Anyhow, Merle started racing other animals in the years that followed. First goats. Then ducks. Frances, mostly, stayed home and looked after the farm while Merle was on the road. I asked whether Merle had gone to the North Carolina State Fair in 1991. She put the phone down to go upstairs and look at a calendar. When she came back, she said yes. Brent Cook later told me that Merle and his pigs were set up between gates 9 and 10 that year. Right next to Richard Petty.
Merle wasn’t a big stock car racing fan, Frances said. But he definitely knew who Richard Petty was. “Everyone did,” she said. I mentioned that Petty thought a maintenance man brought him the duck, and Frances mentioned that Merle sort of dressed like one. “He wore khaki pants and a khaki shirt all the time,” she said.
I asked if Merle ever had a duck named Fred. “He would have,” she said. “He named the animals after our neighbors. Fred was our neighbor.”
The more I talked to Frances, the more she became convinced that Merle was the man who brought The Duck to The King. “That sounds so much like him,” she said of Merle. “He would do anything that anyone suggested. Nothing was too big or too difficult or too silly.”
So, can I say for certain that Richard Petty autographed a live duck? No. But it sure seemed like he did. And can I say for certain that Merle Mills was the guy who gave him that duck? No. But, again, it certainly seems like he did. Does this matter? No. It doesn’t. But it’s a fun story, and fun stories were something that Merle enjoyed too. Maybe the memory of an autographed duck means the memory of Merle lives on, just a little bit. “He was a funny guy,” Frances said. “He enjoyed life.”
The family of Merle Mills really enjoyed your article! It brought back memories of those days and how much he enjoyed going to the fairs meeting the people and bringing so much enjoyment to the fair-goers. Great investigative work!
Jeremy, if I were trying to evade my past, I would not want you on my trail! Brilliant investigative work, my man!