The legendary Petty family is facing its toughest comeback after losing much of its racing past and future within five weeks this year, but a 50-year tradition and a dynasty will endure.
The death of Lee Petty, patriarch of Stock Car racing's first family and founder of Petty Enterprises more than a half century ago, at age 86 was not unexpected. But the untimely loss of Adam Petty, the 19-year-old son of Kyle and Patti, and grandson of king Richard and Lynda, when his race car hit the wall in practice at New Hampshire International Raceway May 12, was one of those tragic rarities that makes no sense to anyone.
The LegacyNot only has the loss of a wonderful son and beloved grandson devastated the Pettys, but there is now no certain successor to the Petty racing legacy. For the past 52 years there has been a Petty driving full-time in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, but when Kyle retires, there appears to be no one ready to fill his shoes.
But the Pettys race on, just as life continues on. If Kyle had decided not to go to a racetrack again or put another driver in his #44 Pontiac, fellow racers and thousands of fans would have understood perfectly. At the same time, it would have made Adam's death even more heartbreaking.
Quitting racing wasn't a consideration. Both Kyle and Richard have compared themselves to farmers. Even if a drought wipes out his crops one year, he just plants again the next. "This is what we've always done as a family," Kyle says. "My grandfather did it, my father did it, I've done it, Adam did it. This is what we do. This may sound a little crazy or a little stupid, but as much as Adam loved racing, he wouldn't stop, so there is no reason for us to."
The family isn't soured on racing. "The evening of Adam's funeral I felt real bad," Richard says somberly. "I thought that if I hadn't ever been in racing, hadn't pushed and worked with Kyle, this wouldn't have ever happened. Then I picked up the newspaper and read where two boys, 17 and 15, had drowned while swimming (in separate accidents). It (death) can happen anywhere at any time. That just lifted a big cloud off me."
According to an unofficial count, at least one Petty has competed in 1,773 of NASCAR's 1,899 points races for what is now the Winston Cup Series, starting with Lee, who drove in NASCAR's first Strictly Stock race in 1949. From 1972 through 1988, there was a Petty in 507 consecutive races. Adam carried the family banner in his lone Winston Cup start at Texas Motor Speedway in April as the only Petty officially in the race (Kyle failed to qualify but drove a car in relief).
Lee Petty, a true pioneer who died April 5 after surgery for a stomach aneurysm, blazed the trail with 55 victories-including a win in the first Daytona 500 in 1959-in 429 starts and won three championships over 16 seasons. Richard added 200 victories and seven championships in 1,177 starts over an incredible driving career spanning 35 years. Kyle, 41, in his 22nd season, had eight wins in 576 starts through May. Maurice Petty, Richard's brother and former crew chief, drove briefly in the '60s.
Sadly, there are no more racing Pettys on the way, but there is one on hold. Ritchie Petty, 31, Maurice's son, started four Winston Cup races in 1993 and 1994 before lack of funding forced him to quit. "It was a financial decision," says Ritchie, who works in his father's engine-building business at Petty Enterprises. "I want to race if the right opportunity comes along."
The cause of the fatal accident was not immediately determined, but NASCAR technical officials, based on tire marks leading directly into the Turn 3 wall at the 1.058-mile track and eyewitness accounts, suspect the car's throttle stuck. It is an infrequent but not freak occurrence. Crews attach extra springs to help open and shut the throttle and inspect the linkage often.
Drivers say if the throttle sticks at speed at the end of a straightaway approaching a turn, which allegedly happened to Adam, there isn't enough time for the driver to remove his hand from the wheel to shut off the engine. Gary Nelson, NASCAR's chief technical director, says NASCAR is convinced that Adam was a skillful driver and had proven he knew how to control his car.
"We want to know what happened before we say anything," Nelson says, adding that if findings confirm a stuck throttle, "we certainly want to make it better. Safety is number one with us. It looks like we would run out of things to make better, but something else always comes up."
No Heir to the King's ThroneAdam Petty, racing's only fourth-generation driver, was the future of Petty Enterprises, Winston Cup's winningest organization (at press time Petty Enterprises had 271 victories-198 by Richard-and 10 championships in spite of the organization's competitive decline in recent years). The youngster died at the threshold of becoming a regular at NASCAR's highest level. He likely would have been a part of a three-car Petty Enterprises team along with his father and John Andretti, fielding Dodge Intrepids next season.
"Petty Enterprises is going on," says Richard. "We're just having to reevaluate everything. Everybody knows we were preparing Adam to carry the torch for us in the future."
Kyle poured his heart and soul into developing and orchestrating Adam's career-from karts to Late Models, to Stockers in the ASA, ARCA, and NASCAR Busch Series-to the extent that his own career suffered. "Whatever success I have in racing, I will owe it all to Daddy," Adam said in an interview last year. When Kyle and Adam were at the track together, they spent nights in Kyle's bus talking racing into the wee hours.
"I think we were just really close," Kyle says. "We used to joke about being a father and son and best friends, but it was true. And I think all of us were the same way. We just tried to do that because we felt like that was more important than the racing stuff. Racing's important, but your family is a lot more important."
Death was no stranger to the Pettys, including Adam. Richard was left with a deep emotional scar after his drag racer veered out of control and fatally injured an 8-year-old boy in Georgia in 1965. Lynda Petty's brother, Randy Owens, was working as a crewman during a Winston Cup race at Talladega in 1975 when a water tank exploded and killed him. Although it was a miscommunication and no one blamed him, Adam had to live with the fact that he ran over his crew chief, Chris Bradley, during a pit stop at an ASA race in 1998, killing him. Bradley had not warned his crew that he was going under the car to make an adjustment.
Adam was badly shaken by the tragedy but said, "I had to pick up the pieces and move on," just as his grandfather had done three decades earlier and his family is doing now. "It made me closer to the Lord, made me realize that the guys in the pits, as well as the drivers, risk their lives every race, and it made me a better, more mature person overall."
The Racing Community Feels the LossThe Pettys received an outpouring of condolences and support in thousands of messages, including 17,000 e-mails in less than a week, from around the world. For that, the family has expressed sincere gratitude and appreciation.
"There were a lot more people that knew Adam Petty than what we thought," says Richard. "They didn't send letters and make calls from around the world just because they knew Lee, Richard, or Kyle. That surprised us.
"I don't think you see many 19-year-old kids who have touched as many people as Adam."
Kyle says much the same thing of his son: "He had such a short career, but that doesn't make any difference. It's like we've always said, we've had a lot of success on the racetrack as a family, but it's what you do away from the racetrack. It's how many people's lives you touch and help. I don't think he even realized how many people he touched. He was just a good kid."
The tragedy stunned the NASCAR community emotionally, leaving many mothers of young racers with their hearts in their throats. Among those hit hardest were Terry and Kim Labonte, whose son, Justin, 19, has begun a driving career. The Labontes reside just two miles from Kyle Petty's home near Trinity, North Carolina. Justin and Adam were close friends.
"It was one of the toughest times our family has had," says Terry Labonte, a two-time Winston Cup champion. "Our whole community was devastated. I had a talk with Justin. I wanted to make sure that he is racing because he wants to, not because he thinks I want him to or to make me happy. He assured me that it's what he wants to do. For that reason, I'm not going to tell him he can't race or make it hard on him-although it would be easier on all of us if he didn't. Teenagers get killed tragically in highway accidents. I can't tell Justin to quit driving on the road. Youngsters drown fishing. I can't tell him not to go fishing. I also reassured Justin that he doesn't have to race, that it will be OK if he wants to quit, and that he doesn't have to decide next week or next year." A week after his buddy's death, Justin raced in an ARCA 100-miler at Lowe's Motor Speedway, finishing an impressive fourth after starting 23rd.
Sterling and Paula Marlin's son, Steadman, 18, also is racing Stock Cars. "Adam's death made us think long and hard," says Sterling. "I told him not to take anything for granted, to check and double-check his safety equipment and his car. We raced against each other at Nashville the night after Adam died. I guess that was the best therapy for both of us."
Nobody pushed Adam to race. Kyle asked his children what they wanted to do and supported whatever interested them. Adam chose racing. Austin, 18, wants to be a professional pilot. Daughter Montgomery Lee, 14, shows horses. "I've been around racing all my life," Adam said in an interview last year. "It's all I ever wanted to do." Racing was his obsession.
Remembering Adam for What He WasAdam was a good kid, one of the nicest and most impressive youngsters I've interviewed in 36 years as a motorsports writer. He had the infectious and toothy Petty smile. He was tall, angular, clean-cut, outgoing, engaging, and met no strangers. He brought sunshine into the garage. He was a fun-loving cutup, yet mature for his age and very serious about racing.
"The majority of people who met Adam remember his smile, the pat on the back, his joking with them," Richard says. "I guess the best memory anybody could ever have is that he was a pretty good kid and got along with everybody. That's how I'm going to remember him."
Adam was honored to be a Petty and proud of his family's accomplishments but didn't flaunt his name and affluence. He wasn't the least bit cocky or pretentious and said he never would be. He could have driven a Mercedes to Trinity High School; he drove a pickup truck. "Beyond the family's full support, being a Petty doesn't mean much to him," Richard said last year. "When he's doing his thing, he could be Adam Jones."
What might have been for Adam no one will know. He had shown that he possessed the Petty racing genes and raw driving talent. Surprisingly, he had already done the Petty name proud, winning an ASA race in his 10th start and an ARCA race at Charlotte in his superspeedway debut. At the time, he was the youngest driver ever to win in either series. The victory at Charlotte was very likely the emotional high in racing for Adam and his family, a memory to cherish.
Naturally, Kyle was biased, but he felt his son was two years ahead of schedule and that he had the potential to be the next Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, or Jeff Gordon. Richard felt that way, too, but adds, "He was just too young for anybody to evaluate what his career was going to be from the professional standpoint."
Adam Petty seemed to have everything he needed to succeed in life and racing except what he needed most: time.
Memorials for Adam Petty may be sent to Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America, Winston Cup Racing Wives Auxiliary, 5700 Concord Parkway S., Harrisburg, NC 28075. Checks should be made to "Charity Ride."