Homer man receives thrill while installing Petty's water garden

About a month ago, Chris Sturdyvin of rural Homer received a fax.

It came from the home office of the nationally-known water garden company Sturdyvin became affiliated with a dozen years ago.

He knew the fax would reveal the name of a "high-profile" person who wanted an over-the-top pond and waterfall.

He knew he'd have to travel to do the job.

And he knew the folks in the home office had asked him if he liked NASCAR.

Sure, he said.

Then came the letter. The fax machine paused halfway down the page ... building the suspense. And then ... Zowie! There it was. Black ink on white paper.

Richard Petty.

The King.

The Legend.

NASCAR's inimitable, cowboy-hat-wearing champion with the long skinny legs and plate-sized silver belt buckle.

The winningest NASCAR driver. Ever. And maybe the most famous man ever to drive a car for a living.

And to think he wanted a water garden.

Sturdyvin packed a bag and within a week was in Concord, N.C., with a crew of 15 or so assembled by Aquascapes, driving through the big Graceland-style iron gates inscribed with the letter "P" and on up the long drive to the 500-acre ranch that Petty calls home.

Sturdyvin and the crew – including his son, Jason – got right to work installing the massive water garden, which included a waterfall, stream, pond and basin, complete with water plants, koi (ornamental carp) and lights.

Sturdyvin said he had no high hopes of seeing Petty during the trip.

"I figured he might drive out in his car and we'd see his little hand come out and wave – maybe," Sturdyvin said.

But they hadn't been at work long before No. 43 himself walked out, looking just like you'd think he'd look: "You know, the cowboy hat and sunglasses. A tall, skinny man."

The racing legend walked up to the crew and said, "Boys, what the heck you guys doing to my yard?"

Sturdyvin had genuine admiration for Petty long before he stood face-to-face with him.

And he had shared his appreciation for racing with his father, Ray Sturdyvin of St. Joseph, since a small boy.

"He'd drive me around to all the little dirt tracks and the county fair and Farmer City – we've always watched racing," Sturdyvin said. "I was a big fan."

Sturdyvin's favorite driver was Dale Earnhardt, and Sturdyvin was thrilled to finally get the chance to see Earnhardt race at the Daytona 500 in 2001. Sadly, that was also the tragic race in which Earnhardt was killed on the last lap.

"I kind of lost a lot of pizazz for (racing) after that," Sturdyvin said. "But I still like it. I'm not a big fan of anybody now. But I am a big fan of racing."

So when he was working on Petty's pond and The King started telling tales about the good ol' days, like about how the drivers used to settle their scores in the infield after the races instead of on the track, Sturdyvin soaked up every word.

Petty told them how back in the days after he started racing in 1959, the drivers would drive their race cars to the tracks with the kids riding in the back seat. When they got there, they'd put on bigger tires, the kids would get out – and off they'd go to the start line. If one of the cars got crunched, another driver would tow the wrecked car home with his race car and chains.

Sturdyvin loved hearing the stories, and Petty genuinely seemed to enjoy being with the water garden crew. He signed pictures and shirts.

He talked on the phone to one woman's husband and would have talked to Sturdyvin's father – except Ray didn't have his phone with him when Sturdyvin dialed up his cell phone.

Sturdyvin said he can't say enough about meeting Petty.

He asked questions, laughed and joked with them. And then at lunch time, Petty told them to jump in their cars and follow him.

He led them down a winding road to the race shop, which was a huge, spotless garage where the Petty cars – almost 30 of them – are worked on. The water garden crew ate lunch with the mechanics and other workers there.

Then one of Petty's assistants gave them a tour, and they all got souvenirs.

The crew went back to work and finished the water garden early that evening so Petty could see it before he had to leave for a weekend race. Petty got to plug it in and see it come to life.

"He was thoroughly impressed," Sturdyvin said. "He took a group photo of us all. He's just really neat."

Ray Sturdyvin is excited his son got this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet Petty.

"I always thought (Petty) was all right," Ray said. "He's got high morals. I know he won't drink and he won't carry beer (logos) on his car. He's still The Man, I guess.

"And as far as race car driving goes, nobody will ever catch him as far as records. That record will never be broke. Nobody will even come close."

The next day, Chris Sturdyvin returned to the real world – Homer – and his Chris' Water Gardens business, wife Jackie and children. He and his wife lost their home north of Homer to a fire last spring, and they recently moved into a new log home overlooking an expansive water garden with waterfall, stream, pond and basin that looks just like ... Richard Petty's.

It'll always be a conversation starter and Sturdyvin might never run out of stories to tell about the father and grandfather of Kyle Petty and the late Adam Petty.

"For me the best thing that he did was that (when we were finished) he went up and shook every person's hand and personally thanked them for the work they'd done.

"He put his hand on my shoulder and said 'Chris from Illinois, I'm glad you made the trip. It's been a pleasure talking to you and it's a beautiful, beautiful thing you did for me. And any time you're in the neighborhood, you stop by.' "

Sturdyvin said Petty is so genuine, he believes him. He said he'd have no qualms about knocking on his door five years from now and saying "Hey, I'm Chris from Illinois."

And if he ever runs across him at a race he's going to yell at him – "Richard Petty! Chris from Illinois. How's your pond?"

"And I think he'd remember," Sturdyvin said. "He's an awesome man. I think he has a heart of gold."

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