There were hundreds of attendees lining up early for the Keynote Address, launching off 2012 IRE convention like a race car at the green flag. Kyle Petty, the multi-talented racer/businessman/philanthropist of the legendary NASCAR family, gave a funny and touching speech about his experiences in racing, family and business.
As he reminisced about joining his grandfather, Lee, and father, Richard, in the exciting and dangerous sport of stock car racing, he pointed out a lot of similarities between racing and roofing. The main reason his grandfather was in the sport was to support his family.
“My grandfather was one of the first guys to make a living racing full time,” said Petty. “He didn’t care about the trophy. It was all about going to Daytona and getting that big check to help his family. As long as we could eat and run a race car, we had plenty of money.”
Recalling how the roots of NASCAR were in “the beverage transportation business” (running moonshine in cars modified to be faster than the law), Petty described how the sport evolved from a single car with no seat belts, to exotic racing teams with a fleet of cars that get 4 miles to the gallon and go through $4 million of tires each season. There were times when the racing team, Petty Enterprises, was nearly broke and stayed in hotels for free if they painted a logo on the car. But like any son entering the family business, Petty was hooked.
“When I got out of high school, I just wanted to race,” he said. “I just thought there was nothing better than being around the race track. In those first three years in every race, I hit a wall. I didn’t have a clue.”
However, he did have a good crew, which is where the races are won. Nowadays, money gets you in the game, but the shop makes it possible for a talented racer to win. Then it’s a matter of overcoming adversity, like a crash or getting fired. Whenever he talks to new racers, he reminds them that these are two certainties that every NASCAR driver faces. And it’s something he knows personally.
His son, Adam, became a fourth generation racer and ran alongside his dad in several races. But in May of 2000, he died in a crash during a practice run. He was 19. The whole family knew the risks involved, but had somehow avoided tragedy until that season, which saw four top racers die in crashes, including Dale Earnhardt at the Daytona 500.
“We had been in the sport since 1948 … but we all crawled out the window and walked away,” explained Petty, who started a charity for sick children, Victory Junction, soon after his son’s death. “It’s been phenomenal to go through this process. When I see these kids smile, I can see my son Adam’s smile.”
The cars are much safer now and today’s racers must have a strong mental capacity to keep focused for several hours in a car cabin that heats up to over 130 degrees F. He said the fiercest competitor he ever met was Dave Marcis, who never gave up.
“Dave would absolutely claw your eyes out to finish 12th instead of 13th,” Petty said. “Watch somebody that’s trying to keep their job and knows their butt’s on the line.
“There are no time outs in racing; there are only resets. If you slack off for any period of time, you get behind.”