DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.-- For a long time, Kyle Petty couldn't decide what he wanted to be -- race car driver, country music singer, motorcycle rider. And maybe that's why the son of King Richard, the man who set the all-time standard for success with 200 NASCAR victories, has managed just eight victories going into his 19th Winston Cup season.
Or maybe, as some figure, the talent and competitive urge skips a generation, and it is Kyle's son, Adam, who will rekindle memories of Richard and great grandfather Lee.
"When NASCAR racing started 51 years ago, my grandfather [Lee] was there," says Kyle, 38. "Imagine, 51 years ago. Then came my father and then me, though you'd hardly know it.
"Adam wanting to follow in our footsteps, in the footsteps of his family, is a very big deal for us. In truth, I'm prouder of being the son of Richard and the father of Adam than I am in being Kyle Petty."
Adam, 18, is the only fourth-generation athlete to compete full-time in any major sports league. He takes the wheel today in his first Busch Grand National Race, the NAPA Auto Parts 300.
The only thing missing from the public view of this family picture is the originator of what Richard would call "the deal."
Lee Petty won NASCAR titles in 1954, 1958 and 1959, finished his career with 55 victories and is considered one of NASCAR's all-time greatest drivers. But Lee has been absent from the racing scene for most of the past 20 years. He declined to attend celebrations in recognition of his son, Richard, when he retired as the first seven-time champion and the all-time race winner with 200 races, or for NASCAR's 50th anniversary season last year, or for that matter, even for himself.
"Grandpa doesn't come around," Kyle says. "Even when they inducted him into the Hall of Fame, he didn't go. They called him up and invited him. He said, 'No.' They called him back and offered him a free airplane ticket. He said, 'No.' They called him back and offered him a free airplane ticket and money. He said, 'I don't need your publicity or your money. I'm not in it anymore.' "
Says Richard, 60: "In 1949, my daddy raced in the first [NASCAR] race. But my daddy is 84 years old now, and he's earned the right to stay home and do what he wants to do."
When Lee raced, he drove No. 42. Richard had 43, Kyle is 44. And when Adam drives his No. 45 Chevrolet Monte Carlo on the track, they'll recognize the Petty trend.
But Adam has broken one trend already.
His apprenticeship as a driver was much more gradual than the paths his elders took.
He began racing go-carts in 1987 at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway at the age of 10, under the skeptical eyes of track president Humpy Wheeler.
"I watched and I said, 'This is not going to happen,' " said Wheeler, who remembers how often Adam crashed and marvels at his climb. "I love him, but I just didn't think it would happen. But he kept working at it and he's kept moving up."
By contrast, Richard stepped right into competition with Lee in 1958. Kyle broke in, almost as abruptly, in the Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) race at Daytona International Speedway during these same Speed Weeks in 1979. Kyle won that first race, igniting grand expectations that have dogged him throughout his career, and shortly skipped up to the Winston Cup series.
Today, in the eyes of many fans, Kyle remains a disappointment because he failed to match his father's accomplishments. Not to Richard.
"I think Kyle has done a super job and I think Adam will do a lot better," Richard says. "I was still racing when we put Kyle in a race car and, for Kyle, it was a lot harder. Everyone looked at him to do what I did. He had a lot of pressure on him from the very beginning.
"If you only look at the racing, he didn't do what I did. But if you look at what he's accomplished off the racetrack -- his charity work, his family, the man of the year award -- he's got the biggest heart in the sport and he's accomplished things I haven't. I'm super, super proud of Kyle."
When Kyle was ready to race, it was only natural that Richard got him into Winston Cup as quickly as possible. The equipment in his garage was designed for Cup racing and money was tight.
"Now with Adam, obviously, I'm taking a different tack," Kyle says. "I've started him younger. When he gets competitive in one series, I move him to another. I want to keep the talent growing by moving him to sunlight."
Two days after high school graduation, Adam won his first pole. On June 27, he was in victory circle in Kansas City, Mo., having broken Mark Martin's record as the youngest ASA race winner.
In October, he won the ARCA race at Charlotte and surpassed his father as the youngest first-time winner in that series, too, at 18 years and 3 months.
But Adam also was forced to grew up a little faster than Kyle actually wanted, when his crew chief Chris Bradley, 40, was killed at a race at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds in midsummer.
On a routine pit stop, Bradley had gone under Adam's car while it was up on the jack. The jackman let the car down, and Adam was signaled to go. No one realized Bradley was still under the car. Adam pulled out, running over his crew chief. Bradley died in the hospital the next day. The Minnesota State Police investigated and determined it was no one's fault.
Kyle says there were days after that when Adam didn't want to come out of his room. And there were days at the racetrack, with his dad by his side, that Adam would just go off to a corner and work in solitude.
"I think a couple things helped him," Kyle says. "First, it was no one's fault. That, and the strong faith he has with Christ helped him. But, whether you are 18 or 81, something like that stays with you forever. Adam has Chris' initials embroidered on his driver's uniform and I'd bet they'll be there throughout his career."
Adam doesn't run from questions about the accident. He stands beside his race car and speaks earnestly in a quiet voice.
"I think it made me a better person," he says. "It brought me closer to the Lord and my family. Chris was my best friend. I lost my best friend -- and I'll never forget him. I learned a lot of people can get hurt at the races, not just the driver. It made me better to realize that and to appreciate the risk all those other people are taking for me.
"You know," he continues, "I didn't really trust in the Lord before Chris -- But at that time, He was really the only one I could turn to "
One of the most comforting things about being young is that memories quickly get pushed aside by the now. And as Adam moves around the garage, it isn't long before his thoughts are back on the Grand National series.
"Me, Dad and my grandfather, we're all very close," Adam says. "I know my dad and grandfather are behind me and there for me no matter what I do. I don't have any pressure. All I have to do is the best I can, whatever that is, and they'll be pretty pleased."
Like his father before him, Adam grew up in the infields at Winston Cup racetracks. There, he played football with his friends, the sons of other drivers -- Busch Grand National Champ Dale Earnhardt Jr. was among them, as were Bobby Hamilton Jr. and Justin Labonte, who are also beginning their racing careers.
"Some of them were in Busch before me, and I could have gone Busch last year, too, but I'm awfully young and I don't think I was experienced enough or mentally ready last year," says Adam. "The ASA series was good for me. I don't mind that I started in that series, a lot of Busch Drivers and Winston Cup champions started there."
And Adam can run down the list: Rusty Wallace, the late Alan Kulwicki, Mark Martin, Dick Trickle to name only a few.
This season, as 22 of his races will run on Saturdays at the same sites as the Sunday Winston Cup races, Adam knows he will be watched keenly by Dad and Grandpa. He doesn't seem to mind.
"I know they'll tell me what I've done wrong and what I need to do right," he says. "I think that's good. It will help me not to make the same mistake again and it will help me be a better driver. I do everything my dad says, because my dad is my leader. I go out and do the best I can. I get it done."
At 18, Adam loves pizza with no cheese, to play basketball and work out. He is 6 feet 2, 150 pounds and his body fat last measured 4 percent.
"My friends say I'm skinny as a rail, but I tell them I'm solid as a rock," says Adam, flashing the toothy smile. "I stay in shape for racing. Everything is for racing."
Adam's father also flashes the Petty keyboard smile. He says his son's world is bigger at 18 than his own was at 24. He says he is pleased that even with other choices, his son still decided to be a race car driver.
"But, in four years, he might change his mind," says Kyle Petty. "And if he does, that's OK, too."
Pub Date: 2/13/99