Kyle Petty, racing analyst and former NASCAR driver, enjoyed a successful 30-year NASCAR career which included eight wins in the elite Cup Series, along with 52 top-five and 173 top-10 finishes.
Born into a racing family, Petty’s grandfather Lee was a pioneer in NASCAR racing, while his father, Richard, remains the all-time winningest driver in the sport.
In 2007, while still an active competitor in NASCAR, Petty was offered a part-time gig providing race commentary on TV. He proved so successful in the role that he continued doing television after his racing career ended. He currently serves as a race analyst on shows such as NASCAR RaceDay and NASCAR Victory Lane on SPEED TV.
Today, Petty is perhaps best known as a philanthropist, working tirelessly to support the Victory Junction Gang Camp, located in Randleman, North Carolina. The year-round camping facility serves children ages 6-16 with chronic medical conditions or serious illnesses. The camp was started by Kyle and wife Pattie in honor of their son Adam, who died in a racing accident at age 19. Since opening in 2004, Victory Junction has enriched the lives of more than 14,000 children and families.
On Saturday, April 27, Petty and a group of more than 175 motorcycle riders will set off from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho on a cross-country motorcycle trek to benefit the Victory Junction Gang Camp. Fans are encouraged to visit one of the daily scheduled fuel stops or overnight locations along the route to show support for the riders, meet Petty, and contribute to the Charity Ride’s “Small Change, Big Impact” fund. For complete details, visit www.kylepettycharityride.com.
Q. Growing up in a famous racing family, it seems like you were destined to go into racing. Did you ever consider doing anything other than becoming a NASCAR driver?
A. No, I didn’t. There was a time when I did some music stuff, but I was still doing the racing stuff at the same time. I grew up, like you said, around race cars and racing families in rural North Carolina. I always looked at it like this – all of my friends grew up farming, and they naturally went into the farming industry in some way, shape or form, whether it was tobacco farming or chicken farming or cattle farming. We had race cars, so we ‘farmed’ race cars and I went into that business. I never thought about doing anything else.
Q. How old were you when you drove your first race?
A. I was 18 when I first started driving, but I had been around race cars since the day I was born.
Q. Do you feel like you had success early on in your career, and did that keep you going? Or did you struggle at the beginning?
A. I think both. There were days that I looked at it and I thought it was good – nobody else might have thought it was good, but I thought it was good – and then there were days that I looked at it and I thought it was terrible. But, at the same time, that’s the way the sport is and that’s the way life is and that’s the way work is. You have some great days at work and you have some terrible days at work, and you don’t quit every time you have a bad day. You just keep plugging along.
Q. Things have changed in NASCAR so much since back in the day, especially back when your dad and granddad were racing. Do you think overall the sport has changed for the better or for the worse?
A. I think it depends on your perspective. I really do. Thank goodness things have changed, because if it was still the same sport it was 40 years ago, then it wouldn’t have grown with the times and we wouldn’t have TV and radio and technology in the sport. It would just be an antiquated sport. It has to grow and, as it grows, the fan base shifts and changes and the way you do business shifts and changes. The sport itself is still the same – the point is to go out and run as fast as you can and beat everybody. It’s just like football. The sport of football has never really changed; getting the ball over the goal line – that’s what the sport is. But, they hit harder, they run faster, they play in bigger stadiums, their TV contracts are bigger, they’re bigger superstars than what they were 30 or 40 years ago. I think with growth comes change, and, with change, some people adapt and some people don’t and some fans adapt and some fans don’t. You lose some fans and you pick up new ones and you just keep moving.
Q. It’s great that you’ve been able to make the transition from being a driver to having a TV career. How did you initially get involved in broadcasting?
A. Honestly, I was driving a race car and the guys from Turner, from TNT, a man named Jeff Behnke called me and he said, “Hey, would you be interested in doing this?” And I said, “Nope, because I’m not ready to retire.” He said, “Well, would you be interested in doing it part-time?” So, I just started doing stuff for TNT, for that network, for Turner Broadcasting. It kind of evolved and when I retired I had nothing to do, so I started doing stuff for SPEED and it evolved into a Showtime show that we did for the last couple of years and some radio stuff. I had no plans to go into the media or go and do this stuff. I was at a place and time where the sport, again, was changing and my career was changing. I had an opportunity and I took it.
Q. When TNT first came to you, did they tell you what it was about you that made them want to hire you? Was it your personality, your outspokenness? What were they looking for?
A. I think they were looking for a little bit of the outspokenness and the honesty that you bring sometimes and not pull any punches. You just say what you think. That’s just the way I’ve always been, whether it’s been as an athlete or as a private citizen or something on TV – I still just tell you what I think about it. I think, for those guys, that was the biggest thing.
Q. It seems like that honesty has worked well for you, although I know sometimes the fans get a little annoyed with some of the things you say. I get the feeling – especially on twitter – that you like messing with people a little bit.
A. Yes, I definitely like messing with people (laughs). The point of messing with people is to get them to think outside their comfort zone – think about it a different way. And I learn so much – so much – from people on twitter, and that’s no joke; even the people that argue with me. Now, when they get personal, I just leave it alone. But I have had some great discussions on twitter with race fans who see something different than I see and, to listen to their argument, they change my mind. It makes me look at it different. It makes me look at it from a fan’s perspective and not from my perspective.
At the same time, my perspective is from a guy that grew up in the sport, with a grandfather and father that did it, and then I did it, and then I had a son that did it. So, I see it from a totally different angle than that guy does when he’s watching it on TV. I see different things. When you look at it, it’s a great forum for discussion. But, in the end, it’s just all opinion. It’s my opinion, it’s their opinion, and we may agree to disagree, but, as long as you can have a valid conversation, it’s good.
Q. It’s nice that you’re open to that, because some people in your position might just say, “Hey, I’m the expert and you don’t know what you’re talking about.” I think the fact that you’re willing to engage in that kind of exchange with fans says a lot about you.
A. I am not an expert. I’m a guy – and this is what I always say – that grew up around it and I know a lot about it, but I’m not an expert on it. And one thing I am not is an expert fan, because fans see the sport different than I do. When they start telling me stuff, then I have to listen to what they say, because they’ve got a different vantage point than I do.
Q. You have certainly had ups and downs in your career, as you mentioned, and then there was the devastating loss of Adam. How did you get through those really tough times?
A. I think friends, family and prayer will get you through. There’s nothing – I’ve never run across anything – that just stops you. There are roadblocks, but that doesn’t mean you can’t go around the roadblock. It doesn’t mean that the road you’re on doesn’t change and you go down another road. I think that has happened a few times in my life and – especially when Adam’s accident happened – the road I was traveling at the time, that road just ended, and you had to choose another road. You just didn’t sit there and wait for something. You had to go do something else. I think you deal with it. Your family and friends help you through it, and a lot of prayer helps you through it.
Q. You’ve been able to channel your pain into some amazingly positive initiatives like the Victory Junction Gang Camp, and you’ve got the Kyle Petty Charity Ride coming up. Tell me a little bit about that.
A. We’ve done the Charity Ride for 19 years and we’ve gone from California back to North Carolina, from California to Florida, from Maine to Miami, from Michigan to Florida. We just chose something a little bit different this year. We’re going from the Pacific Northwest, really Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and we’re going down to the Southwest, to Tempe, Arizona. We’re going to Jackson Hole, Boise, Durango, Grand Junction, Show Low – it’s a little bit different ride than what we’ve done in the past. But, the focal point of the ride is to raise money for Victory Junction, so it doesn’t make any difference. As long as the ride is raising money for kids, that’s what’s important.
Q. How do people along the route support you and support Victory Junction?
A. We have a Facebook page and you can follow me on twitter (@KylePetty) or (@KPettyCharityRide), or go to the camp website (VictoryJunction.org). It will tell you the route and what cities we’re stopping in overnight and what cities we’re stopping in for just a gas stop during the day – like when we come down to Show Low, we’re leaving Show Low and we’re having lunch up in Roosevelt, so we’re going to be up in Roosevelt, Arizona to have lunch and then we come in. All of that will be on the website and if fans want to know where we’re going to be or want to track us a little bit, they can come out and see us.
Q. If fans do come to one of the stops on the route, will they be able to meet you and talk to you?
A. Oh, yes. There are over 100 riders and they can talk to all of them. (Former NFL player) Herschel Walker is with us and I’ll be there. We’re all running around like chickens with our heads cut off and grabbing a sandwich or doing something, but there’s plenty of time to spend with fans and to talk to people about camp, about NASCAR, about football, about whatever you want to talk about.
Q. Getting back to the topic of careers, what is the best career advice you ever got?
A. The only advice I ever got was, when you look in the mirror, just make sure the person you’re looking at did the best job they could do that day – because you’re the one, in the end, who has to be happy with yourself. I don’t care if you go out and win a race or you go out and run dead last in race – if you did everything you could do, and that’s all you could do, then you’ve got to be happy with your day.
Q. I’m guessing that’s the same advice that you would pass along to young people today?
A. Yes, because, in the end, you’re the only one that knows whether you’ve given 100 percent. You’re the only one that knows, at the end of that day, how hard you worked or how hard you didn’t work. You don’t have to be told by a million people how great you are or what you did was good or what you did was bad. You know it more than anybody else and you’re your harshest judge. If you can look at yourself in the mirror and say, “You know what? We ran a race today and we ran dead last, but that’s the best we could do today,” then you’ve got to be happy with that. At least you did all that you could do.