97: A Little Further Down the Road

97: A Little Further Down the Road

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tales of Golf and Sport

A Little Further Down the Road

Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow.

~Swedish Proverb

Up until the time that I was eight or nine years old, I thought everyone’s father had a race car. I didn’t know that anybody did anything else. I never thought of what my father did as being different from what anybody else’s father did. We just went to races on the weekends and traveled around and saw a lot of the country from the time I was in the first or second grade. We went to California, New York, Florida and a little bit of everywhere.

We used to go up and down the highway in station wagons or regular passenger cars. This was long before the minivans or big vans were around. It was nothing for us to leave on a Thursday afternoon and drive straight through to Michigan, which could take fifteen or sixteen hours. If you say, “Okay, how can families be close together?” I say, “Just lock them in a car and make them ride around for sixteen hours, and they’ll be close.” My sisters Sharon and Lisa had their own little world, playing with Barbies; I’d be in the back with a baseball glove, and we’d all be talking together. I think that’s why we are such a close family now. We talk almost every day.

When anything new came along on a car, like electric windows or lights in the back, we’d run the battery down. There’s nothing my father hated worse than to come out after a race and the battery be dead in the car. On one of our trips to Michigan, a fuse blew, and we got locked in the car because we couldn’t get the automatic door locks to open. My mother pulled up at a Chrysler dealership, and the salesman came out to find this woman with three kids in a car screaming through the window because the window wouldn’t roll down, either.

We grew up next door to my grandfather in a small farming community called Level Cross where everybody knew you. The guy down the road was a dairy farmer and in the other direction was a tobacco farmer. To them my father wasn’t Richard Petty; he was just Richard, and my grandfather was just Lee.

The family farms around here have been here for seventy-five or a hundred years. I always compare our racing business to a family farm. For us, our farm was the race cars; we have cars instead of crops. This has always been a family endeavor. When my grandfather started, it wasn’t about going out and winning the trophies; it was about putting food on the table for your family. It was about survival when they started, but this is all we know, and it is all we do.

There are times when the family connection hasn’t been the best thing, and we’ve suffered tragedy because of it. From the time my father started dating my mother, her only brother, Randy, helped in the business. Uncle Randy thought Richard Petty hung the moon. He was only five years older than me and was more like a brother than an uncle. To my father, he was like a son. Randy always wanted to work on race cars and helped Dad during the summers of his junior high and high school years, then full-time after high school. He had been working for a couple of years when a pit-road accident happened in Talladega. An air tank or water tank blew up and killed him. After the accident, Dad had to come back and be with my mother and my grandparents, and that was very hard for the family to get through.

I started hanging out around the business when I was twelve. From the time I was in the third grade, I went all summer long with the race team. As soon as baseball season was over, right after school was out, I would travel with my father. In my senior year of high school I told my father I wanted to drive and race. He told me I had to wait until I was twenty-one. He said, “Well, you know your mother and I really want you to go off to college.” I told him, “Just let me try it and if I don’t like it, then I’ll go to college.” That was the kicker because I think he knew I was going to like it, and he knew I’d never go to college. My mother wanted me to be a pharmacist. I can’t imagine myself being a pharmacist.

I ran my first race when I was only eighteen years old. It was the ARCA race at Daytona. I had no experience, just really good people working with me, and I don’t remember a lot about it. They gave me a car and said, “Go run 195 miles an hour.” I was fortunate and won the race. When I look back on it, it was just a lot of fun, but it wasn’t my job. My job was still working on the pit crew and working for my father. I drove his car one weekend and won a race, and then as soon as Monday came around, I was back at the racetrack working on his car and doing other things with him.

I met my wife, Patty, through my sister, Sharon, and their horse shows. Patty worked for Winston, and she was one of the R. J. Reynolds girls. We dated for a couple of years and then married in ‘79. She didn’t grow up around racing. Her father worked a regular nine-to-five job and had weekends off and took normal vacations. I think it was hard on her in the beginning, but gradually she’s gotten used to the racing lifestyle. That was twenty-two years ago, and we still have horses. Now I have a daughter, Montgomery Lee, who shares Patty’s love of horses.

Our son Austin has always loved kids, even when he was still a kid. As he got a little older, he started spending time at camps and doing things with church organizations. When he was sixteen, he joined a mission group that went to Romania to build playgrounds and orphanages. For the past four years, he has been a camp counselor for critically ill children with AIDS, cancer or hemophilia.

I did with Adam what my father did with me—I neither encouraged nor discouraged him from pursuing racing as a career. I have steered Austin and Montgomery Lee in the same way. I tell them, “One day, you’re going to wake up and decide what you want to do and what you want to be. When you’re sure in your heart of hearts that’s what you want to do, I’ll help you any way I can.”

Adam started by running go-carts, then he wanted a late-model stock car. So we bought it and I told him, “You put it together, we’ll work on it, and we’ll go racin’.” We worked on it for about three weeks, and then he didn’t show up anymore. About six or seven months went by, and one day he came back and said, “I think I’m ready to put that thing together now.” We went back and worked. He was ready.

After Adam’s death, our family sat down and talked about who would drive the #45 car. It has been a healing process for me to drive it, to get back in the car and feel that connection, that closeness. Going to the shop and seeing those guys working on the car has been a part of the healing process for our family.

Patty and I have always spent a lot of time with our children. One important thing we’ve done from the beginning is to live in small houses. We never had a big house. Everybody’s room was right there together. Even today, Montgomery Lee and Austin’s rooms are right above us so that when they get out of bed in the middle of the night, you can hear them and you know where they are and they know where you are.

Every night before we go to bed, we all gather in our room and say prayers, and we always have. From the time that Adam was born, and from the time that each one was old enough to walk and talk and understand what prayer was, we have prayed together. Even with the recent tragedy of Adam’s death, Montgomery Lee and Austin still come in, and we all get together and say prayers before we all divide up and go to our own rooms. Austin may be gone to a movie until eleven-thirty or twelve o’clock at night, but when he comes in we get together, even if it’s only for five or six minutes.

I’ve always wanted to be a part of everything my kids did. During the years my grandfather was raising a family, his main focus was keeping his family alive. He was molded and shaped by being born in the early 1900s and coming through the depression and two world wars. Society taught men that you go off to war, you fight, you come back and you don’t talk about what you saw. There was no such thing as being “shell-shocked” and having “syndromes.” Guys just came back and picked up and were basically expected to carry on from where they left off.

My father came along and was molded, to some degree, by the changes in America during the ‘50s and ‘60s during the time of Vietnam and the civil unrest. His focus, too, was on putting food on the table for his family. When I was born, Vietnam went on, but as a nine-year-old, I paid no attention to the war. I had the luxury of being able to relate to my family in a different way than my grandfather or father could.

It’s easier for fathers to show emotions to their little girls than to their sons. I can’t imagine not kissing Montgomery Lee or telling her I love her every time she walks out the door. At the same time, I think that’s what you should do with your sons, too. Austin never leaves on a date, never goes to bed, never hangs up the phone without me telling him I love him. Adam never got into a race car that I didn’t kiss him and say a prayer and tell him I loved him. He never walked out the door or hung up the phone that I didn’t tell him.

The last time I talked to Adam, Montgomery Lee and I were on an airplane flying to England, and we called him from the air. We both told him we loved him. There’s not a doubt in my mind he knew that when the accident happened. I think that the most important thing in life is to tell your kids because they know they are loved, and then they’ll pass that love along to somebody else.

When I look back on the forty years I’ve been alive and the things that have happened in my life, there are only really two or three defining moments that changed the course of my life. The first one was when my Uncle Randy was killed when I was only fourteen. I realized that you couldn’t just take the hands of the clock and click it back and rearrange events to make it not happen. At the same time, in the same hour, I realized that I needed Christ as a personal Savior because there was more than just being here on Earth and doing what we do.

Adam’s accident was another defining moment. You begin to question what is important. Winning races and all the other stuff isn’t important. Montgomery Lee’s important, Patty’s important, Austin’s important, and my relationship with Christ is important. Helping other people and making people’s lives better or happier is important. We refocused on that sort of thing after the accident, supporting the Starbright Foundation that Adam had been a part of and several other children’s charities.

It has definitely refocused me and my Christianity. To say that God gave his only son, you can’t imagine how hard that was. I’ve got two sons; I had Adam, and I’ve got Austin. One of my sons is gone. I can’t imagine how hard it was that his only son was sent to save all of us. It would be an incredible sacrifice for a human, much less for a God.

We are blessed that God gave us life, and we should go through life loving it, enjoying it and making the most out of every day. We should try to help somebody along the way, too. There is a great saying I’ve heard that goes, “You never help somebody climb the hill without getting a little bit closer to the top yourself.” I think that’s the way it is. As we go through life, if we can help somebody along, the first thing you know, we’re a little further down that road, too.

~Kyle Petty
Chicken Soup for the NASCAR Soul

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