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Kyle Petty was born into the world of NASCAR.
He is the son of Richard Petty, who carries the weight of his own nickname “The King”. Kyle is a third generation driver who proudly carries the torch. In his autobiography, “Swerve or Die: Life at My Speed in the First Family of NASCAR Racing,” the 62-year-old provides insight into the life and legacy of racing through life at his own pace.
A legacy rooted in NASCAR began with his grandfather Lee, who participated in the sport’s inaugural race and went on to become a pioneer of stock car racing. The legacy continued with arguably the greatest racer of all time, Richard Petty. The racing gene was passed down to Kyle, who passed it on to his son Adam, who was said to be the first fourth generation athlete in modern American sports. Adam, in a practice session for what would have been his 48th professional race, died in a head-on collision in 2000.
His death was one of three incidents in 2000 that led to some safety precautions in NASCAR today, such as the kill switch. In his autobiography, Kyle Petty highlighted his family’s adaptation and how he was embracing the evolution of the sport.
“Change has always been a part of NASCAR, so why should we stop now?” he writes in his autobiography. “It’s about changing the sport and making the sport more inclusive.”
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That change is finally one to be proud of.
During a Zoom interview with Fox News Digital, Petty talks about his family’s life and legacy and how his evolution parallels the sport he’s dedicated his life to.
Fox News Digital: The title is provocative. Why do you feel this is the perfect time to publish your autobiography?
Kyle Petty: The pandemic forced me to publish it. For the first time in my life I had the opportunity to stop and look back at the things I had done, the places I had gone. I have a lot of crazy stories. So when the pandemic started, I started writing some stories about my wife, Morgan, my three little boys and racing. Then it kind of came on. I contacted Elice (Henican) and we started writing. It’s about the things I’ve been through, whether good or bad. It’s about changing direction. If you don’t change direction, you will die. You basically stop living. It is also about our sport as a chameleon and how it has changed and continues to grow and be relevant. You know what we went through the last few years with everything in society, with Bubba Wallace, with the Confederate flag. It came in a way to stay relevant, to change, to try to be more inclusive, to try to be more welcoming. And the sport continues at its best. So that’s where the title comes in a bit.
How have you been able to navigate being a third generation NASCAR driver? Was there any pressure? Did it weigh you down at any point?
I never felt pressured. Some say it’s a double-edged sword. I just saw it as single–edges. My grandfather won three championships, 50 races. My father won seven championships, 200 races. I won a few races. Then I had a son, Adam, come with me. There were four of us, but we were all allowed to be who we were and what we wanted to be. If you had a chance to sit my grandfather down and talk to him, and put my dad down and me and Adam down there, you’d leave that conversation and say, ‘Those four guys don’t know each other. even.’ And that’s how different we all were.
I never wanted to be a father or a grandfather. I didn’t want to be a clone. I had to be Kyle. Adam had to be Adam.
At a young age, you tell your son Adam to do what makes him happy. When did you learn that lesson in your journey?
I think I was about the same age as Adam – 13 or 14.
I realized that there was something special about my father. Even in a day and time where there were so many great and impressive race car drivers going on in NASCAR, it was all over the place at the time. I watched Bobby Allison and David Pierce. I looked at the greats of that time. And I’m thinking, ‘Man, if they’re not doing that, how am I going to do that?’ You know, I’m better with me. My mom had a lot to do with that. I am more like my mom than my dad in many ways. She had a lot to do with putting that into us – even my three sisters. My mother insisted that we didn’t have to live up to our Petty surname, or chase something we weren’t going to find. Just be happy with who you are.
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As far as controversial races go, Bobby Hillins 1993 crash at the Daytona 500. Do you think you could have won the race if you hadn’t crashed?
No, because so many other things can happen. I think people want to express that and look at it that way. If it was up to me, I’d have a trophy, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. You can’t look at it that way. I tell people, ‘You can be like any professional athlete or any 4-year-old kid. You can blame someone else, but you can’t.’ All in all, we had a great year after that, so I can’t complain about anything. It’s not something that’s on my mind.
Explanation of the 1996 protest car that mimicked Dale Earnhardt’s car. You were able to galvanize your followers, which inspired change. Did you feel a sense of power and influence after that event that you may not have felt before?
Not really. You know, I laughed about it. I went into it with an open mind and had a lot of fun. I was surprised by the reaction of the fans and how they got behind it. It’s like one of those things where you come up with a saying and you put it on a T-shirt. Next thing you know, you’ve sold over 15 million T-shirts. It was a joke. But listen, there’s nothing like NASCAR fans. They are the most wonderful, faithful. If they pull for you, they pull for you. But let me tell you, when they pull against you, they pull hard against you.
Philanthropy is something you are passionate about. Talk about the importance of Victory Junction and Charity Travel Across America.
We run a motorcycle just because of my love for motorcycles. We wanted to ride from California to North Carolina. We started that in ’95 with some of my friends, but we also wanted to help families. We would stop at various children’s hospitals to help families pay their medical expenses. That’s what it was all about. Having a child with a chronic illness, a life-threatening illness, and spending so much time in hospital can be financially devastating for your family. Then in 2000, when my oldest son, Adam, was killed in a racing accident in New Hampshire, right then, we talked about building the camp and we built the Victory Junction Camp. The camp has hosted nearly 100,000 children from all 50 states since it opened in 2004, free of charge. We have raised over $20 million since opening. It was very special to see the people who helped build the camp and who continue to support the camp.
In your book, you mention that while NASCAR races take place on Sundays, the business takes place Monday-Saturday. How have you successfully navigated the business and the race itself?
It’s a tough balance. It’s almost as if your side is racing. Your main market is to be in your business, trying to put everything together. As the years go by, you have to keep looking for sponsors, which is tough in itself. That’s one thing. Our sport is very much driven by the OPM: other people’s money. I was more successful as a driver when I didn’t have to go looking for money. As an owner, it’s tough. You have your good days and your bad days. At the end of the day, that’s what we signed up for.
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Are sponsors worried about the risk? How did you learn to make the process of finding sponsors easier?
NASCAR has done a great job from softer walls to the cars we have now. Many companies see NASCAR as a benefit to their advertising and customers. There was a time when many looked at the dark side of the sport, based on the possibilities that could happen. I don’t think that’s the case now. That has been a big issue for the last 15 or 20 years.
As a commentator, how are you using your platform to educate current drivers and promote the sport?
I have such a broad knowledge base of the sport that people see when I say something and they’re like, ‘Oh, well, maybe that’s right. It’s been around for a while.’ Also our fan base has gained more knowledge. Likewise, we need to be honest with them in our analysis and tell them things they don’t want to hear. I guess that’s where I come in. I speak the truth. If you don’t like it, I’m sorry. We all have opinions and so do I. More importantly, I come from a place where I feel fairly confident that my opinion is close.
To close the book, you talk about the evolution of sport and how it changes based on today’s societal events. How important is the development of sport in relation to diversity, inclusion and green energy?
First, our sport was born in the South. At the time, things were the way they were because it was a different time period. My father, Richard Petty, was born among them. So to see a man who was in NASCAR’s first major race stand next to Bubba Wallace in 2020 and support him in removing the Confederate flag, it was a big time. NASCAR is inclusive and welcoming. When it comes to green energy, everyone is going to focus on motor sports because we use fossil fuel. I will say this, ‘Every time the Yankees get on a plane to go fly and play ball somewhere, they use fossil fuels.’ How is all this weighed? I don’t have all the answers. What I do know is, NASCAR is a leader and the sport is headed in the right direction.
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How do you define success at this point in your life and career?
I have success getting up in the morning. My wife, Morgan and I have been together for six years. We have three wonderful little boys. I have to be the best dad I can be. That’s how I define success. I have won races. I was on TV. It’s not about those things anymore. It’s about my family, my friends, changing the sport of NASCAR, making it more inclusive and being a leader in the industry to make the sport greener. It’s about taking the sport in a direction where everyone wants to be a part of it, like they did in the NFL, basketball and baseball. Most importantly, when my little boys say, ‘Daddy’ that is the biggest success for me.