NASCAR icon, 200 friends motor through Cody for good cause
Back during his racing days, NASCAR icon Kyle Petty and his buddies were looking for a way to take a cross-country motorcycle trip without upsetting the folks that call the shots — wives, team owners and sponsors.
“What happened was, there was about 10 of us that wanted to ride motorcycles from California to North Carolina, and we couldn’t figure out a way to do it without having everybody get mad at us,” Petty recalled. “So we decided we’d do it for charity, because nobody gets mad at you when you do things for charity. We did it for charity that first year and raised about $35,000 for different children’s hospitals, and we thought it would never get better than that.”
Boy, was he wrong. Fast-forward 22 years, and the annual Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America has become one of the largest charity events of its kind in the nation. Now in its 23rd year, the event has raised $17.5 million for children’s charities. To honor his son Adam — an up-and-coming NASCAR driver killed in a practice run in 2000 — Petty created Victory Junction in North Carolina, a free camp for kids with chronic or life-threatening illnesses. Victory Junction has become the primary beneficiary of the charity rides.
“This is a huge fundraiser for Victory Junction, and this ride alone has been responsible for sending about 8,000 kids to camp,” Petty said. “We’ve seen about 27,000 kids all told.”
The 2017 ride began Saturday in Portland, Oregon, and will end Friday in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Riders made several stops along the way, including at Buffalo Bill Village in Cody on Monday.
Each rider pays a fee to participate, two-thirds of which goes directly to Victory Junction. There’s never an issue recruiting riders and 200 registered for this year’s event.
“They know that, not only do they get to ride a motorcycle, they’re sending somebody to camp, so that’s part of it,” Petty said. “And at the same time we’ve got about eight or 10 people that have gone all 23 years, and about another 30 that have gone 15 or more years. We’ve got 26 new riders this year, so it’s gaining in popularity.”
Petty doesn’t have a problem recruiting celebrity riders, either, as familiar faces from NASCAR and the NFL routinely make the trip. Along for the ride this year is Petty’s father and seven-time NASCAR Champion Richard Petty, racing legends Harry Gant, Donnie Allison and Hershel McGriff, current driver David Ragan and a pair of Heisman Trophy winners in Herschel Walker and George Rogers.
“I’ve been laughing about it,” Petty said. “We’ve got multiple cup winners, a seven-time champion and Heisman Trophy winners on the ride this year.”
A memorable career
The name Petty has been synonymous with stock-car racing for over 60 years, beginning with Kyle’s grandfather, NASCAR pioneer Lee Petty. His father Richard, nicknamed The King, is widely considered the best driver in the history of NASCAR, finishing with seven championships and 200 wins. A great racer in his own right, Kyle Petty finished his 31-year career with eight wins and 173 Top Ten finishes. He retired from competitive racing in 2008, and is now a television analyst for NBC. Asked to compare the sport today to his heyday, Petty said it’s not as different as one might think.
“The technology is always changing,” he said. “The aero-packet, the power technology, all of it changes constantly. But it’s still the same sport. We still run 200-lap races, 500-lap races, you still got to get it done on the racetrack. No matter what all the hype and the circumstance is around it, you still gotta drive the car.”
NASCAR is in a bit of a transitional period, with some of the bigger names calling it a career over the past few years. Be that as it may, Petty believes the sport will be just fine.
“There are some good drivers out there,” Petty said. “But we’re transitioning from the Earnhardts and the Gordons and guys like that into the Chase Elliotts and the Ryan Blaneys, kids like that with a lot of young talent.”
Petty had the unique opportunity to race against his father for a number of years, an experience he shares with Dale Earnhardt Jr. He and the younger Earnhardt have had numerous conversations about what it was like to run against the old man.
“When you’re a little boy and your father teaches you how to throw a ball, you want to throw it just as hard to impress him,” Petty said. “Then when you get a chance to be in a professional light with your father and race against him, you want to beat him every now and then. Obviously, he beat me a lot more, but it’s still a special thing, to run races against your father.”
Almost a decade removed from his final race, Petty is in a good place in his life and career, but a part of him always wants to be behind the wheel.
“I miss the driving part; I don’t miss all the B.S. that goes along with it,” he said. “When you’re a little boy, you dream about driving, hanging on to that steering wheel, winning a race. When you have to quit, that’s the part you can’t do anymore, and it’s hard.”
Petty raced in an era that produced many NASCAR legends, none more prominent than Dale Earnhardt Sr. Called the “Intimidator” for his aggressive style of racing, Petty said competing against him was always an adventure. One race in particular, when he had just made the jump to NASCAR’s highest ranks, stands out.
“We’re at Wilkesboro [North Carolina] one year, and he kept banging on me and banging on me the whole race,” Petty said, laughing. “I think I was 22-23 at the time, and finally coming off turn two, I spun him out through the infield grass and he got up into the inside wall.” “When the race was over with, he come down and put his arm around me and said, ‘You just wasn’t going to take that anymore, was ya?’ I said no sir, and he looked at me and said ‘That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Take it for a little while, but don’t take it forever. You gotta retaliate,’” Petty recalled. “After that, he and I were good friends for the rest of his life. That was a cool moment.”