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Kyle Petty is a third-generation racer from, as he puts it, “the first family of NASCAR racing.” That’s part of the subtitle of Petty’s new book Swerve or Die, “Life at My Speed in the First Family of NASCAR Racing.”
The subtitle is no exaggeration. Petty’s grandfather, Lee Petty, is a three-time champion at NASCAR’s highest level and the founder of Petty Enterprises in Randleman, North Carolina.
Petty’s father, of course, is Richard Petty, the acknowledged King of NASCAR racing. Richard Petty won seven Cup Series championships and holds records for most career victories (200), most victories in a season (27) and most consecutive victories (10), among many others.
As the third in line in the dynasty, Kyle Petty never achieved the level of success enjoyed by his father or grandfather. In a driving career that spanned 30 years and included 829 Cup starts, Petty won eight races.
But his contributions to the sport and to life beyond the asphalt extend far beyond on-track achievements. Petty is an accomplished broadcaster, a spellbinding storyteller and a singer/songwriter who has grace the hallowed circle at the Grand Ole Opry.
Without doubt, however, Petty’s most important works are his charitable endeavors. After the death of his son Adam in a crash during practice at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2000, Petty founded Victory Junction Gang Camp in Adam’s honor.
The camp enriches the lives of children with severe illnesses or chronic medical conditions by providing camp experiences that are exciting, fun and empowering—all in a medically safe environment at no cost to the camper or the camper’s family.
Before Adam’s death at New Hampshire, Petty already had launched the Kyle Petty Charity Ride across America, at first a loosely organized endeavor that benefited a variety of causes.
But when he lost Adam, two months short of his son’s 20th birthday, the creation and support of Victory Junction Gang Camp became the focus.
The Victory part was a nod to racing, Petty writes. The Junction part was left over from Petticoat Junction, the last time that TV show has ever been mentioned by any of us.
And then we got into the real work ahead of us, turning a high-flying dream into a down-to-earth reality, raising a pile of money and building an amazing camp for some very deserving kids.
Adam’s death left a huge void not only in Petty’s life but in the plans of Petty Enterprises. The young driver with the dazzling smile—closely resembling that of his grandfather Richard—also had inherited his grandfather’s talent.
While we all got busy honoring Adam’s legacy, his sudden passing also created an urgent issue for Petty Enterprises, Petty says. Adam was our future. What were we supposed to do now?
Ultimately, the answer for Petty to drive the Petty Enterprises car.
What I saw then was that I needed to drive the car, Petty says. I needed to be at the racetrack. The sponsors wanted me to, and the company needed me to. We had to keep moving forward. We had to keep Petty Enterprises alive.
Though Kyle struggled behind the wheel of the Petty Enterprises car, the concept of the Victory Junction Gang Camp captivated the entire racing community.
So many things at camp just happened, Petty writes. People had ideas. Connections were made. If something worked, we did it again. If something didn’t, we changed. We took advice from the best medical specialists, and we listened to the campers and their families.
They were often the real experts. We tried to be guided by them.
In fact, it had been Adam’s idea for the Charity Ride to support the camp, something he had expressed to his father on a visit to Daytona and Camp Boggy Creek, whose mission is similar to that of Victory Junction.
Why don’t we build a camp like this and let the Ride help pay for it? Adam had suggested.
The Kyle Petty Charity Ride celebrated its 26th anniversary this year, after two years on the sidelines because of the coronavirus pandemic. In 2022, the caravan of motorcyclists raised $1.8 million on its 1,500-mile tour across Arizona and Utah.
The story of Adam, Victory Junction and the Charity Ride just begins to scratch the surface of Swerve of Die, which captures in an intensely personal way the triumph and tragedy in Kyle Petty’s remarkable life.
Written with Ellis Hencian and published by St. Martin’s Press, the book goes on sale on Tuesday, August 9.
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Award-winning motorsports writer Reid Spencer has served as lead writer for the NASCAR Wire Service for 16 years, having also spent a four-year stint as NASCAR columnist and beat writer for Sporting News. He is currently serving as president of the National Motorsports Press Association. Email: [email protected]More info on Reid Spencer
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