Kyle Petty has been away from full-time racing since 2008, but since then he’s found a comfortable role as an analyst for NBC Sports. As a driver and now a member of the media, Petty has also been one of the most popular figures in the NASCAR garage due largely to his charitable works. Inspired by his late son Adam (who died tragically in 2000 during a race practice in New Hampshire), Petty spearheaded the building of Victory Junction Gang Camp, which caters exclusively to children with chronic and life-threatening diseases. He also hosts the annual Chick-Fil-A Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America in which hundreds of motorcyclists drive from coast-to-coast to raise funds for the camp and various children’s hospitals.
In this CSJ Conversation with managing editor Chad Bonham, Petty talks about his career as a broadcaster, why the Victory Junction Gang Camp continues to be one of his greatest passions in life, and how his faith has inspired him to help others.
Chad Bonham: What do you enjoy most about working as a broadcaster?
Kyle Petty: Really, it’s just hanging out at the race track. That’s the main thing. That’s the big part. Obviously you drive a race car for so many years and then when you go do something else, you don’t get to be around the people you always grew up with and the people that you’ve always been around. Doing the TV stuff lets me be around those people, so that’s the best part of it.
Bonham: I suppose being around the track is also a benefit to your charitable work and keeps you in the forefront of people’s minds, right?
Petty: Yeah, it keeps you engaged. Obviously it keeps you at the race track and that’s where a lot of the donor basis is. The NASCAR fans are your donor base. If you can stay engaged with those people, the better off you are.
Bonham: Do you miss anything about driving?
Petty: The only part I miss about driving is driving. That’s it. I don’t miss all the other stuff that goes along with it—all the other PR stuff. Anybody, when they quit driving, they miss the driving part. It’s the physical getting in the car for the race.
Bonham: So do you miss driving against the other guys and trading paint?
Petty: I just loved the driving part. Look, if I didn’t race anybody, it didn’t make any difference as long as I could drive. That’s what I’m trying to say. It’s just the physical part of getting in the car and being able to go run fast and being able to drive. That was the fun part.
Bonham: How are things going at Victory Junction Gang Camp?
Petty: The camp is going really good. When you look at stuff with the economy the way it is, obviously everything’s slowing down a little bit. It’s slowed down for us too. But at the same time, you look at where we’re at and what’s going on now and we’re still able to continue to grow. It just continues to get better.
Bonham: When you get to hang out at the camp with the kids today, do you still get the same feeling you did when you first opened it up back in 2004?
Petty: Oh yeah. Yeah. That part of it never changes. Being around the kids, talking to the kids, that parts never going to change. I don’t care if you get to be a hundred years old. That part’s never going to change.
Bonham: For those who have never been there, how can you describe why that place is so special?
Petty: The special part about camp is the kids. It’s like asking, “What’s the special part about Disney?” You can stand back and look at Disney and think the coolest part is all the cool rides and all the cool buildings and everything everybody does. And then, the kids get there and you see the look on a five-year olds face, you see the look on a 10-year olds face and you’re like, “Oh my God. It’s really not about all the stuff we do. It’s about the kids.” That’s really what camp is. The camp is just a regular camp. If you’ve been to Boy Scouts camp, Girls Scouts camp or any kind of camp, when you experienced that environment and what camp meant to you, then that’s all camp really is. (Victory Junction Gang Camp) is just for children that happen to have chronic and life-threatening illnesses. That’s the only variation on the whole thing. It’s what the kids that come to camp feel. They’re not able to go to other camps. So it’s just all about the kids.
Bonham: When you know it’s something you’re supposed to be doing and it’s almost like a calling, doesn’t it make it easier to deal with any challenges that you might face?
Petty: Oh yeah. If you love it, it doesn’t matter what you do, if you love what you do, then you don’t sweat the little things. You just don’t pay attention to them. Then when the big things come along, they’re never as big as what they seem to somebody who doesn’t have a passion for it and doesn’t really love it. I think that’s the way we look at it. When stuff comes along, it’s just another issue we have to deal with. It’s not a roadblock. It’s not a stumbling block. It’s not a time to throw in the towel. It’s, “Hey. We’ll just work around this.” That’s the way it’s always been. That’s the way it was at Victory Junction and that’s the way it is with a race car. People that fold up their tent and go away probably didn’t believe in what they were doing in the first place.
Bonham: Are you still amazed at the support you get from the NASCAR fans and the drivers?
Petty: Yeah, but I think it was just something that came along at the right time for our sport. Our sport was looking for something. So many drivers had foundations but they needed something to rally around and when you look at Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman and what Kurt Busch has done and what Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have done—Tony Stewart and Michael Waltrip. I think they were just looking for a place (to support) and this is a place that jumpstarted their foundations. We were just in the right place at the right time when the sport was really growing and when fans and drivers were looking to help out. The camp has been able to flourish because of that.
Bonham: How did Adam’s death inspire you guys to start the camp?
Petty: We had been to another camp in Florida called Foggy Creek, which is a sister camp to our camp. It’s part of Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang association of camps. At the time that Adam was driving, he was doing stuff with the Starbright Foundation. We were also doing our Chick-Fil-A Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America and we were giving money to different children’s hospitals. That was the whole intent and the whole purpose of the motorcycle ride. It was to give money to children’s hospitals to help pay medical bills for children who couldn’t afford medical attention. And then Adam’s accident happened. We had talked about building the camp before his accident but then it became our main focus after his accident. When something like that happens, it doesn’t only happen to your family, it happens to this entire community. This is a community. That’s what you’ve got to keep in mind too. When you talk about this sport, you’ve got to remember, we’re going to go over there, we’re all going to work on our cars, we’re going to go out there on the race track and try to beat each other’s heads in. But after all that’s over, we’ll come right back over here and we’re neighbors with each other.
Bonham: How has your faith also inspired you to help others and work with these kids?
Petty: My grandmother Petty went to a Methodist church in Lovell Crossing and my grandmother Owens went to a Methodist church in Randleman. They were always doing something. We grew up in small communities and the churches are the hearts of small communities. I don’t care how you look at it. I know that the President Bush introduced faith-based initiatives, but faith-based initiatives start in rural America. When somebody’s house burns down, the church is the first one there to try to do something. The church has the covered dish suppers to raise money for a family who’s lost something or had a tragedy. That’s faith in action. Do to others as you would have them do to you. That’s it. Everything sprouts from that.
Bonham: NASCAR is still so different from other sports. How do the sport’s strong ties to the Christian faith tie back to the giving spirit we see within the community?
Petty: I think faith is the one common denominator between everything that goes on at the race track—a faith in Christ. You walk through (the garage) and talk to Kyle (Busch), you talk to Kurt (Busch), you talk to Kevin (Harvick). You talk to any of them. It doesn’t make any difference. We have all felt like we were incredibly blessed to do what we do and to drive a race car. So when you look at it, all of them say, “Man, I’m very fortunate, very blessed to do this. I’m in a position where I can help other people.” They grew up that way. They grew up in communities that helped other people. Their parents helped other people. Their families helped other people. I don’t think you ever lose that spirit of giving and caring, whether its instilled in you by a teacher, your parents or your grandparents or Vacation Bible School. It doesn’t make any difference. Once that seed is planted, I don’t think that seed every goes away. And it’s not only the drivers. We talk about the drivers because they’re the names that everybody knows. But when you talk about the fans that pull for Kevin or the fans that pull for Kyle or Kurt, that spirit is all a part of NASCAR and it always been. You go back a long time ago. We didn’t have the camp but you can talk about so many disasters and so many things that have happened in this country that the NASCAR community has stepped in to help out for so many years.
Bonham: Do you think that political correctness will ever catch up to NASCAR and force it to consider making changes to certain expressions of faith such as the pre-race prayer and the strong presences of ministries like MRO?
Petty: That’s a good question but I don’t really see it changing, because our sport has always been a Southeastern sport and it’s kind of rooted in that and (faith) is a part of the sport. It’s been a part of the sport since the first race was run. I don’t think political correctness makes any difference. Once that’s in your DNA, you don’t pass an ordinance or pass a law or all of the sudden change your DNA. I don’t think NASCAR can change its DNA. I think it’s passed on from one generation to the next. The fans expect it. The drivers expect it. And more importantly, I think we all want it. I don’t think they’ll ever be able to rule it out.
Bonham: When it’s just you and God, how has He helped you deal with the difficult times you’ve faced as a driver, as a husband and father and as someone fully engaged in giving back to the community through your charitable work?
Petty: That’s a good question, but my prayers are not any different from the guy who plows the field for a living or the lady that teaches school, you know, or the pastor that stands in front of a church every Sunday. You take whatever problem—and there’s no problem big or small—you take all your problems to Christ and that’s your sounding board, that your rock, that’s everything. That’s what faith is—that belief that there’s somebody there that’s going to help you and push you and be that person that’s there for you when you’re in your deepest, darkest moment. At the same time, you pray for the safety of your family, for a better future and for everything. I don’t think that I’m any different or that I approach how I pray any differently than the guy who’s riding a tractor right now or the lady that’s standing up in front of a third grade class.
Bonham: But you’ve found strength in the prayers?
Petty: Oh yeah. That’s what faith is. Having faith is all about knowing that there’s somebody there to make you stronger. There’s somebody there that won’t leave you alone; God’s always standing by you. That’s what that is. If you didn’t believe that then why would you even get out of bed every morning?
For more information about Victory Junction Gang Camp, check out the camp’s official website.
(Photos: Mike Stobe/Getty Images for NASCAR; Bob Leverone/NASCAR via Getty Images; Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR; HHP/ Harold Hinson)