The family business

Auto racing: Kyle Petty knows he'll never match the accomplishments of his father, King Richard, but he's a proud member of the sport's royalty that started with Lee Petty 51 years ago.

February 13, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. — 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.

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