Famed drivers' sons seek their own racing niches


Auto Racing

April 29, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

It's curious to see how life works.

Two sons. Two fathers. The same sport. The same expectations. But different, still.

Kyle Petty, the son of Richard Petty, "The King" of Winston Cup stock car racing, has spent his entire life growing up in his father's shadow. For much of that time, expectations were that Kyle should live up to his dad's achievements. Seven championships. 200 victories.

But Kyle knew fairly early in his career that doing so was an impossibility. And so, he carved out a different image and niche for himself.

Where his dad had become a legend in terms of his competitiveness and ability on the race track, Kyle worked diligently to become legendary off the track. He has stepped out of his father's shadow by becoming one of the sport's most generous humanitarians, giving of himself, his time and his name.

"I may have won 200 races," Richard once said, "but off the race track, no one has done more than Kyle. There isn't anyone who has a bigger heart than Kyle. I'm so very proud of him."

Now there is another son of a famous race car driver who will spend the rest of his life maturing in the shadow of his father.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose late father, Dale Earnhardt, would have turned 50 today, will be forever compared to his dad. The elder Earnhardt, who lost his life at the Daytona 500 in February, also had won seven Winston Cup Championships.

Over the past few days, many stories have come out of Southern California, where the Winston Cup Series will race at Fontana today, about Dale Jr. and his adjustment to life and racing following his dad's death.

A monument was dedicated to Dale Jr.'s dad last week, and Dale Jr. made himself available for interviews. And, of course, the inevitable questions were asked about how he would meet expectations to live up to his dad's image.

"I have to be myself," he said. "If I don't win races, then I don't win races. If I'm done driving race cars at 50 and I've only won five, do you think I'll go home and sit on the porch and feel like a total waste?

"I like driving race cars, and I don't do it to live up to what everybody thinks I should be."

After leaving the news conference, Dale Jr. told Lowell Cohn of the New York Times News Service, "They were asking if I feel a lot of pressure now [that] it's just me, if I feel I need to be in front all the time. Well, I don't feel that pressure. I don't consider I'd put myself under that pressure. I will not make myself miserable."

I think he is a lot like Kyle in that. Both are astute, understanding the expectations outsiders have for them but smart enough to know they can't possibly be clones of their fathers.

Kyle has been fortunate, able to carve out his own personality and to establish his own image.

Dale Jr. obviously wants to do the same. But for him, it will be harder. Kyle has always had the benefit of Richard's advice and support, from the time Kyle started his career in 1979, the year his dad won his last title, until today, when his dad is the retired and wise elder.

Dale Jr. now will have to do it on his own. Here's a wish on this, his dad's birthday, that in the future he can find his own comfortable space, just as Kyle has.

Throw out the `plates'

Twenty-six of the 29 cars running at the end of the restrictor-plate race at Talladega last Sunday were on the lead lap and separated by .998-second (less than one second), and the first eight cars finished less than a half-second apart.

That finish inspired NASCAR officials to return to the track last week for tests in an effort to determine how to keep cars from being so tightly bunched in the races in which speeds are held down by a metal plate that limits air to the carburetor.

Winston Cup director Gary Nelson said the tests, which experimented with various width and height changes and roof and window changes, did not produce positive results. Sterling Marlin, who participated in the tests and who was irked by getting hemmed in during last Sunday's race, had his own idea about how to fix what he called the "stupid racing."

"Take the damn plates off," he said.

Hagerstown update

Rookie Devin Friese of Mercersburg, Pa., looked like a pro in leading every lap to record his first victory in the ITSI (Industrial Towel Supply Inc.) late model feature at the Hagerstown Speedway.

Richard Walls of St. Thomas, Pa., returned to victory lane after nearly a two-year dry spell, winning the 20-lap Hoosier Tires Mid-Atlantic late model sportsman main event. After three weeks of misfortune, Hagerstown's Mike Warrenfeltz got his first win in the 15-lap Ernie's Salvage Yard pure stock main event. Hagerstown's Jim Mullendore finished off the night with a win in the 30-lap enduro dash.

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