Petty tries to drive past pain

Grieving racer sees son's face everywhere

June 03, 2000|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DOVER, Del. - This is as far as Winston Cup driver Kyle Petty has ventured from his home in High Point, N.C., since his 19-year-old son, Adam, was killed at New Hampshire International Speedway May 12.

"I think I'm ready to come back," said Petty, whose face seems to have aged dramatically in the past three weeks. "It's a hard question to ask, `Am I ready?' It's a harder question to answer. And I don't know whether getting back in the race car is the best way to cope, but it's the only way I know. I've never had anything affect me like this. I've been devastated, to be honest."

Petty held an emotional news conference early yesterday morning at Dover International Speedway before practice for today's MBNA Platinum 200 Busch Grand National race and tomorrow's MBNA Platinum 400.

Petty will drive in both races, but it is the Busch race that promises to be the most trying, because he will drive his son's No. 45 Sprint Chevrolet. Yesterday, he qualified Adam's car 20th for the Busch race and received a standing ovation from a crowd of about 25,000. Late in the afternoon, he didn't fare quite as well in his Winston Cup Pontiac, turning in the 37th fastest time. He'll have a chance to re-qualify again today.

Earlier in the day, he sat on a stool before a microphone in an overcrowded press room. He tried to smile when he said hello to everyone, but couldn't maintain it long. He started by talking about the support he and his family have received in cards and letters from people he doesn't know and never will.

"Every afternoon, Patti and I sit down with the mail," said Petty, speaking of his wife. "And every afternoon we cry. The letters people write, letters from small children, letters from fathers and mothers who have lost a son or a daughter. It's phenomenal. I've joked in the past that all we do is ride in circles, but I never realized how whole families are touched by what we do. There are so many people who come to think of you as part of their family."

Petty moved from the microphone and wiped eyes hidden by tinted glasses.

"Adam had such a short career, but it doesn't make any difference," he said. "It's what you do away from the racetrack that matters. A guy I didn't know from Texas said, `I never met your son, but in all that's been said and written I've not found anyone with anything bad to say. He must have been a good kid.'

"And that's what Adam was. He was a good kid."

It makes the father proud that so many know about his son, who had followed in the footsteps of his father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather. It makes the father draw a deep breath and admit his son "is still so fresh in my mind and heart that I can look out across this racetrack and see him now."

When Adam crashed during practice for the Busch race at the New Hampshire track, NASCAR's senior vice president and chief operating officer tracked Kyle down in London.

"NASCAR did an incredible job after Adam's accident," Kyle said. "I was in London with Montgomery Lee. I had spent so much time with Adam at the racetracks, I felt I needed to spend more time with my other children, Montgomery Lee and Austin.

"When we were flying to London, we must have called Adam three or four times in New Hampshire on the airphone. Montgomery Lee thought it was cool that we could make telephone calls from the plane and we just called him in New Hampshire again and again to tell him we loved him.

"And then Mike Helton [of NASCAR] called and told me what happened," Kyle said. "The way he handled it, he'll be my hero forever."

The Petty family has always been close. While other Winston Cup drivers have complained about the sport forcing them to miss time with their children, Kyle and his dad, Richard, have always made the time.

"Adam and I used to joke that we were more like best friends than father and son," Kyle said, then lost his composure. Through choked tears, he continued.

"It's a lot truer," he said. "And I think it's true of all of us in the same way - Montgomery Lee, Austin, Patti, my mother and father and my three sisters. The day I found out about Adam, I kept it from Montgomery Lee until we got home, about 24 hours. Since then, we've all been in our own little world together."

But the Pettys are racers. That's what they do. Kyle said, "We're a lot like a bunch of farmers. Just because something goes bad, you don't quit."

So Kyle stayed away from last week's Coca-Cola 600, because all he could think about was how excited Adam was that he was going to get to race in both the Busch and Winston Cup races at Charlotte Motor Speedway that weekend. This week, it was time to get back to the family business.

"The hardest thing was going to Adam's garage and seeing his uniforms and car seats all there waiting for him," Kyle said, his voice breaking again. "You'll never know how hard that was. But the Pettys have had a long relationship with Sprint and the team wanted to get back on track. And the team voted that they didn't want anyone but me to drive the car. So ... "

So Kyle and Patti got on their motorcycles and rode to Dover in time to come through the gates Thursday evening. For Kyle, that was another difficult time.

"Thursdays at the races were always our time together," Kyle said. "Coming in here and seeing people for the first time since it happened and coming in here to talk about it, is an emotionally very hard thing.

"But I don't think getting in Adam's car and driving it will be that bad. Maybe it will take my mind off what happened. I haven't been able to find any place to take my mind off of it. Maybe the car will."

MBNA Platinum 400

What: NASCAR Winston Cup race

Where: Dover Downs International Speedway, Dover, Del.

When: Tomorrow, 12:30 p.m.


Pole-winner:Rusty Wallace.

Defending champion: Bobby Labonte.

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