Adam Petty has no chance. In May 2000, during a practice lap at the Busch 200 NASCAR race at Motor Speedway in Loudon, New Hampshire, the young racing driver entered the third turn on the track but when his throttle stuck, he lost control, forcing him to enter his car the raceway wall at 130mph, and he was killed instantly.
He is only 19.
As his father, and NASCAR legend, Kyle Petty explained in his new book “Swerve Or Die – Life at My Speed in the First Family of NASCAR Racing” (St Martin’s Press]he was in a hotel in London with his daughter, 14-year-old Montgomery Lee, when he got a call from his friend and NASCAR official Mike Helton. “Adam’s been stabbed,” he told me. “He’s been taken to the hospital .”
Less than 20 minutes later, Mike called again.
“Man,” he said, reaching for the right words and realizing there were none. “Forgive me.
“He didn’t make it.”
When he started, Kyle Petty knew nothing but NASCAR. Born in Randleman, North Carolina in 1960, it was all but pre-ordained that he would become a racing driver. His grandfather, Lee Petty, started his own NASCAR team and raced in the very first NASCAR race in 1948. He also won the inaugural Daytona 500 race in 1959.
His father Richard was a NASCAR superstar, winning more than 200 races, including the Daytona 500 a record seven times. Meanwhile, Kyle Petty would make his stock car race debut at age 18, winning his first race at the 1979 Daytona ARCA 200 in one of his father’s old Dodge Magnums and becoming the youngest ever winner of such an event.
“I got a really nice trophy and a check for $4,150,” he recalled.
“Do I become a professional racer? I guess it did.”
Adam Petty’s death came less than six weeks after he made his NASCAR Cup Series debut in Fort Worth, Texas, an appearance that made him America’s first fourth-generation professional athlete. “That looks good,” Petty wrote. “But when you think about it, it’s also a very heavy legacy for a 19-year-old to carry.
“Adam is still young, as anyone who knows him can clearly see.”
Kyle Petty has long wrestled with the idea of his son following him into racing, but it’s in the family DNA. “At the beginning of NASCAR, Grandpa Petty started a race team, and when my father came along, he drove for my grandfather’s team. The fact that my grandfather preceded him meant that my father had a place to start.
“My father doesn’t have to look for a job. He doesn’t have to go anywhere else. Same thing with Adam.”
Amidst many career highs in a 39-year racing career that spanned more than 800 races, Kyle Petty also witnessed some terrible lows, including the deaths of fellow drivers and friends like Dale Earnhardt, who was killed in a crash at the Daytona 500 in February 2001.
Although Adam’s death was the nadir, it was not the first career tragedy involving his family.
In 1965, Petty’s father Richard was competing in a drag racing event in Dallas, Texas when his dragster malfunctioned, causing him to lose control. The vehicle hit a dirt embankment and when one of the front wheels came off, it bounced off a safety fence and into people, killing an 8-year-old boy.
Petty was also present when his uncle, Randy Owens, tried to pull his father from a smoking car in the pits at the Winston 500 race at Talladega in 1975. When a water tank exploded, throwing him into the 15 feet into the air, it crushed his chest and then broke his neck upon landing. He was immediately killed. “It was a terrible thing to witness. I was standing there. I was shocked,” Petty wrote.
On Labor Day 1998, just three weeks after her 18thth birthday, meanwhile, Petty’s son Adam stopped for a pit stop in the Miller Lite 300 race at the Minnesota State Fair. When he pulled over, crew chief Chris Bradley slipped under the car to fix a problem – but Adam didn’t see him.
As he ran away, he ran into Bradley. “As the car came off the jack, Chris was still under the car. Adam hit the accelerator,” Petty wrote. “He said after a while he felt a bump as he was being pulled out. air wrench? A tire? He thought nothing of it until the track officials stopped the race, and Adam found out what had happened to his crew chief and friend.
Bradley was taken to the hospital, but died from his injuries.
Kyle Petty is one of the lucky ones. Sixteen years after he saw his Uncle Randy die at Talladega, Petty also had a death in the same race. While there were cars ahead of him, someone got into his car. “Usually I wear a black uniform but today, I happen to be wearing white,” he wrote. “I looked at the legs of my white pants, I noticed a red stain and a sting. It didn’t look normal.
“It’s a bone sticking out of my left thigh. A big bone. A huge bone.”
In a sport where speeds can exceed 200mph, accidents are inevitable. But for Kyle Petty, constant danger is inevitable. “The truth is you can’t ignore the risk,” he wrote. “But you have to separate it from all the other things you’re thinking about.
“Otherwise, you can’t go out and drive a car.” In this case, the injury was a compound fracture, requiring a year in rehab. He missed 11 races.
Now an analyst for NBC’s NASCAR coverage, Petty, 62, used the tragedy of his son’s death to help honor his legacy. In 2004, he opened Victory Junction, a camp for seriously ill children on a 90-acre plot in the hills behind his parents’ home in Randleman (“It’s a perfect location for a camp of kids, and we don’t have to pay a nickel for it,” he wrote).
The generosity of his parents, Richard and Lynda Petty, was matched by the NASCAR community who helped raise millions of dollars. He also received support from some high-profile friends, including Hollywood icon and keen racer Paul Newman who sent him a personal check for $100,000.