Ride into Victory lane: NASCAR legend gives back on a bike
JACKSON HOLE, WYO – How do you make a name for yourself when they call your father “The King?” Kyle Petty grew up in the shadow of one of the greatest race car drivers of all time, just like his daddy before him. While Kyle never matched the on-track success of his legendary father, King Richard, he did pick up the ol’ family habit of giving back. Watching his dad sign autographs after a race until every last fan got one, Kyle learned stardom comes with a debt. And when personal tragedy nudged Kyle to give even more, he did. Like a Petty, he’s always been quick to help those in need.
Lee Petty begat Richard, who had three daughters and a son named Kyle. The three-time NASCAR champion helped elevate stock car racing from its humble shine-runnin’ southern roots to a nationwide sporting sensation. His son, Richard, drove the iconic STP No. 43 to the winner’s circle a record 200 times on his way to seven NASCAR championships. It was up to Kyle to continue the family tradition and in the most important ways, he did just that.
Behind the wheel, Kyle Petty was a force to be reckoned with in the ’80s and early ’90s. He retired with eight wins and 173 top-10 finishes. Respectable numbers for a mortal, but fairly pedestrian for a Petty. Where Kyle really took the checkers was in his pursuit of charitable causes.
Kyle was inspired by frequent visits to Camp Carefree in Stokesdale, N.C., in the 1980s. Immediately after his retirement from racing, he began leading a group of friends on motorcycle outings. They would ride to various NASCAR races around the country, stopping to pick up additional bikers on the way while visiting hospitals for children.
Kyle eventually approached Paul Newman about a kid’s camp for the terminally or chronically ill. On May 12, 2000, the desire to make a safe haven for children was fast-tracked by the death of Kyle’s son. Adam Petty, the sport’s first fourth-generation racer, crashed while practicing for a race at New Hampshire International Speedway. He was 19.
“Here’s what happened, really,” Petty said during a recent phone interview. “We were stopping at children’s hospitals on these rides. We stopped at 20-some different ones across the country in the four or five years right before we joined Paul Newman’s group, SeriousFun Camp. We had talked with him about camps and were looking into camps. After Adam’s accident, obviously that accelerated the whole process.”
Kyle and his wife, Pattie, began fundraising for their new camp, to be called Victory Junction Gang Camp. On June 20, 2004, Father’s Day, the camp opened its tent flaps to its first campers in Randleman, N.C. Kids and their families now enjoy a swimming pool, recreational game room, computer lab and medical clinic. In 2006, work began on a “superdome” to host indoor sporting events, after fellow NASCAR driver Kurt Busch kicked in the first $1 million. Other drivers, team owners, team sponsors and NASCAR itself have given substantial donations to the camp.
“NASCAR has always stressed charitable involvement. They have this NASCAR Foundation, which is a group that helps promote community involvement and charity work,” Petty said. “So you look at guys like Ryan Newman and Greg Biffle – they are heavily involved in the Humane Society. If you go to a Kyle Busch or Kurt – these guys are more involved in military-type charities. Jeff Gordon and myself, we do a lot for kids, and kids with illnesses. It all really falls under this great organization – the NASCAR Foundation – that gets drivers involved.”
Former NASCAR champ Bobby Labonte (2000), drove for Petty’s PE2 Motorsports team in the late ’90s. He also has been involved with Victory Junction as has former gridiron star-turned-MMA fighter Herschel Walker.
“Bobby’s a good guy. He’s a nice person. From the very beginning he’s been there and still is,” Petty said. “Herschel Walker goes with us every year also. And we are excited to have [NASCAR on SPEED personality and co-host of Top Gear America] Rutledge Wood join us this time around.”
Wood called the camp at Victory Junction the happiest place on Earth he’s ever been to.”
The altruistic rally has grown over the years. Now in its 19th running, Petty is expecting around 150 riders to join him along the way. Rather than collect money via sponsor miles, the weeklong annual event now includes major donors and sponsorships. The 2013 ride will cover 2,100 miles in seven days, from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho to Tempe, Arizona. This will be the first time the ride has come through Jackson.
“That first year I didn’t have a clue what we were doing,” Petty admitted. “We were on our way to a race in Phoenix. We had friends that lived in Oklahoma, friends that lived down in West Texas, and we just picked them up as we went. There were maybe seven or eight of us to start then we picked up a group of four more, and we started thinking maybe we could do this across the country: just pick up more and more riders, kind of like a bike-a-thon.
“Now we’re up to 125 or 150 riders and it keeps getting bigger and bigger and growing all the time. All the money from the ride goes to the charity camp.”
Manheim, a facilitator in the used vehicle market, sponsors the Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America through 2015. Coca-Cola, Dodge, Pilot Flying J, Racing Electronics, FLUIDYNE Racing Products, WinCraft Racing, Krispy Kreme, FGX International and the Petty Family Foundation also are providing support this year. In the nine years it has been in operation, Victory Junction has hosted more than 7,650 children at no cost to their families.
It’s a bit early in the season to be two-wheeling into Jackson Hole. Kyle, whose father owns a place in Alpine, knows all too well what he might be in for, weather-wise.
“We’ve all got cold weather gear,” Petty said. “I’ve got snowmobile stuff. My father has a place in Alpine and going down there and riding snowmobiles that’s what we expect it could be like. Most of us have heated suits, heated socks; all that stuff. As long as it’s dry it’s OK. Wet and cold is totally different than dry and cold.”
Petty, who once took in views through the scuffed up windshield of a stock car doing 190 mph, is looking forward to seeing the Tetons at a more relaxed pace from the saddle of his Harley road bike.
“I’m going to compare it to something you could relate to out there in Jackson Hole, Wyoming,” Petty said. “It’s like riding a snowmobile across country. You get that same sensation. The wind, the weather, where there’s not a roof over your head and you are seeing absolutely everything. The scenery is so amazing and when you are on a motorcycle you not only see it, but it’s almost like you feel the scenery. That’s the cool part about being on a bike all the way across country.”
Petty says he and his motorcycle club of 150 will roll into Jackson from the south. He’s already sweating the new roundabout at Hoback Junction.
“We’re coming up through Hoback. I guess once we get to the traffic circle we take the second left. I can see it on a map but I don’t know what the road is called,” Petty said studying the route. “I’m from North Carolina, and let me tell you this, we have some roundabouts here and we are about wore out with them. Because everybody gets in a roundabout but nobody knows how to get out of a roundabout.”
It’ll be months yet before the rumble of Sturgis-bound bikers is again a familiar summer sound in the valley. This Sunday, an early preview is on the way. When asked whether he’ll do the typical biker tourist thing while in Jackson – Harley Davidson store, park out front of the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, etc – Petty said he just hoped the greeting committee wouldn’t be wearing parkas.
“If anything’s open we’ll check it out. We’re being told everything will be closed when we get there. It’s still a week or so ahead of the season, I guess,” Petty said. “We’ll take the red carpet, just not the snow.”
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