Many gears, many years; Pettys are only family to compete full time in four generations


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Occasionally, the son of a famous baseball, football, basketball or hockey player will successfully follow his father's footsteps. Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds, Peyton Manning and Brett Hull come to mind.

But few sports can claim a family tradition to match that found in stock car racing.

And only NASCAR, among professional sports organizations in the United States, has had four generations of performers.

Adam Petty, 18, will compete in the Busch Grand National series this season, thus making the Pettys the first family to have four generations compete full time in a major professional sport.

Adam, who will drive the No. 45 Spree Chevrolet, follows his great grandfather, Lee, grandfather, Richard, and father, Kyle, into major-league stock car racing.

"Four generations is really unusual," says David Neft, co-author of the sports encyclopedia, "Baseball and Pro Football," and an expert sports historian and statistician. "It's unusual in anything, except, say, a family-run business. It's a very rare thing."

In NASCAR, families have long been the story, as the brothers Allison, Wallace, Waltrip, Labonte and Bodine testify. Offspring also bear witness: Davey and Clifford Allison, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Petty, Justin Labonte. And now, Adam, a great-grandson.

The Hamiltons -- Charles (Preacher), Bud, Bobby -- will also see a fourth generation racing this season, with Bobby, Jr. beginning his first year in the Busch series. But Bud Hamilton didn't race full time and, in fact, made his name as a mechanic, thus leaving the Pettys to claim a first as full-time competitors in major league sports.

But are all these family ties by accident or design? Is there something in the genes or is it environmental? Nature or nurture?

Adam says all he has inherited from his family is a desire to drive race cars.

"They all had a love for driving race cars, and I have the same love," he says. "I want to spend my life doing this. I just love to go out and drive."

But long-time promoter Humpy Wheeler, the president and general manager of Charlotte (now Lowe's) Motor Speedway, who has watched the children of a lot of racing parents grow up, sees it differently. He insists splendid eyesight is handed down through the parents and it is "something in the eyes" that allows them to succeed where others don't.

Great golfers see the ball better on the putting greens. Memorable running backs see the holes openning in an instant and can change course to daylight. The classic hockey scorers can thread a puck through a gap the size of a mole hole.

"It may be an infinitesimal difference, but if we could measure that vision difference in a 16-year-old," said Wheeler wistfully. "I've ridden on the street with a lot of great drivers and I have to tell you, they always saw the red light further down the road than I did and the cat about to cross the street.

"Dale Earnhardt can see into the infield while he's driving and see bumps on the track in the next, far turn as he's coming out of the near one."

Derrike Cope, who won the 1990 Daytona 500 when Earnhardt suffered a flat tire on the last lap, has said, "I really believe Dale Earnhardt can see the air moving around his race car and can take advantage of it."

It may be in the eyes, but Adam's father, Kyle Petty, says it's more than that. He says it is the way the sport is organized and an individual's mental determination, not genealogy, that make the real difference.

"Racing isn't like other sports," says Kyle. "If I played third base for the Orioles and my kid was playing in Pony league and looked like he really could play baseball, I couldn't just say to him one morning at the breakfast table, 'Hey, come on out and play with the O's.' It just ain't going to happen.

"In racing, we eliminate two-thirds of the steps. You can cuss it or discuss it, but ours is a year-round sport. We don't have any other jobs. We don't take a break and then go to training camp. Our kids grow up in the lifestyle. They either embrace it or hate it."

And even when they embrace it, there's no guarantee. Buddy Baker won 19 Winston Cup races, but his two sons couldn't compete and win. Only one of two-time Winston Cup champion Ned Jarrett's two boys has made it in the driver's seat. Only one of Dale Earnhardt's two sons appears headed for stardom.

Even Kyle Petty wasn't able to come near the success his daddy Richard has had as a driver.

"You can argue genes," says Kyle, who last season was named NASCAR's man of the year because of his charity work off the track. "But I don't think that's really it. I think it's mostly mental determination that does it.

"If Richard Petty had decided when he was just a little boy that he wanted to be a great basketball player, he would have been a great basketball player. If Michael Jordan had grown up dreaming that he wanted to drive race cars, he would have been Richard Petty.

"Determination and desire, I think that's the common denominator."

Pub Date: 2/13/99

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