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Kyle Petty was born into the world of NASCAR.
He is the son of Richard Petty, whose nickname “The King” carries its own weight. 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 describes a 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 pioneered stock-car racing. The legacy continued with the greatest racer of all time, Richard Petty. The racing gene was passed on to Kyle, who passed it on to his son Adam, who is said to be the first fourth-generation athlete in modern American sports. Adam, during his 48th professional race practice, died in a head-on collision in 2000.
His death was one of three incidents in 2000 that led to several safety precautions in NASCAR today, such as the kill switch. Throughout his autobiography, Kyle Petty highlighted his family’s transformation and embrace of the sport’s evolution.
“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 what he’s most proud of.
In a Zoom interview with Fox News Digital, Petty talks about his family life and legacy, and how his evolution has paralleled the sport he’s dedicated his life to.
Fox News Digital: The headline is provocative. Why do you feel now is the right time to publish your autobiography?
Kyle Petty: Pandemic inspired 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 been. 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 evolved. I got in touch with Elise (Heniken) and we started writing. It’s about things I’ve experienced, good or bad. It’s about changing direction. If you don’t change direction, you may die. You basically stop living. It’s about our sport as chameleons and how it’s changed and grown and stayed relevant. You know what we’ve been through the last couple of years with Bubba Wallace, with everything in society with the Confederate flag. It found a way to be relevant, to change, to try to be more inclusive, to try to be more welcoming. And the sport continues to strive. So that’s where the title comes from.
How have you been able to navigate being a third-generation NASCAR driver? Was there any pressure? Does it weigh you down at any point?
I never felt pressured. Some say it’s a double-edged sword. I saw it as a single–edge My grandfather won three championships, 50 races. My father won seven championships, 200 races. I won some races. Then I had a son, Adam, come along. There were four of us, but we were all 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 then me and then Adam down, you’d leave that conversation and say, ‘Those four guys don’t know each other.’ And how different we all are.
I never wanted to be my father or my 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 make him happy. When did you learn that lesson in your journey?
I was Adam – I think I was around 13 or 14.
I realized that there was something special about my father. In a day and time where NASCAR had so many great race car drivers and so much greatness happening, he was a cut above everyone else at the time. I looked over at Bobby Allison and David Pearce. I saw the greats of that time. And I’m thinking, ‘Man, if they don’t do it, how am I going to do it?’ You know, I’m better off being me. My mum had a lot to do with it. I am more like my mother than my father in many ways. She did a lot to instill that in us – including my three sisters. My mother assured us that we wouldn’t have to live up to our last name box or chase something we’d never get. Be happy with who you are.
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In terms of controversial races, Bobby Hills crashed in the 1993 Daytona 500. Do you think you could have won the race if not for the crash?
No, because many other things can happen. I think people want to point it out and see it that way. If that was the case, I would have the trophy and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. You can’t see it like that. I tell people, ‘You can be like any professional athlete or any 4-year-old. You can blame it on 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 I have in mind.
Describe the 1996 protest car imitating Dale Earnhardt’s car. You were able to cheer up your fans, which ushered in a change. Did you feel a sense of power and influence after that event that you didn’t feel before?
Not really. You know, I laughed about it. I went into it with an open mind and enjoyed it a lot. I was surprised by the reaction of the fans and how they got behind it. It’s one of those things where you just come up with a saying and put it on a t-shirt. Next thing you know, you’ve sold over 15 million t-shirts. It was funny. But listen, there’s nothing like NASCAR fans. They are very wonderful, faithful. If they pull for you, they will pull for you. But I tell you, when they pull against you, they will pull hard against you.
Philanthropy is something you are passionate about. Talk about the importance of Victory Junction and the charity ride across America.
We ride motorcycles because of my love for motorcycles. We wanted to ride from California to North Carolina. We started it in 95 with some friends of mine, but we wanted to help families. We stop at various children’s hospitals to help families pay for their medical expenses. It was what it was. Having a child with a chronic illness, a life-threatening illness, can be financially catastrophic for families who spend a lot of time in the hospital. Then in 2000, when my oldest son, Adam, died in a racing accident in New Hampshire, we talked about building a camp and we built Camp Victory Junction. The camp has hosted nearly 100,000 children from all 50 states for free since its inception in 2004. We’ve raised over $20 million since launch. It was incredibly special to watch the people who helped build the camp and help support camp.
In your book, you mention that while the NASCAR races are on Sundays, the business is Monday-Saturday. How have you been able to successfully navigate both the business and the actual race?
It’s a tough balance. It’s almost like racing is your side hustle. Your core business is being an entrepreneur trying to put it all 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 OPM: other people’s money. I’m more successful as a driver when I don’t have to go looking for money. As an owner, it’s tough. You have good days and bad days. At the end of the day, that’s what we signed up for.
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Are sponsors concerned about risk? How did you learn to facilitate the process of finding sponsors?
NASCAR has done an amazing job from the soft walls to the cars we have now. Many companies view NASCAR as a plus for their advertising and customers. There was a time when many saw the dark side of sports based on the possibilities of what could happen. I hope not now. It was a big problem for the last 15 or 20 years.
As a commentator, how are you using your platform to educate current drivers and advance the sport?
I have such a broad knowledge of sports that when I say something, people look and they’re like, ‘Oh, that might be right. He’s been around for a while.’ Also our fan base has gained more knowledge. On the same token, we need to be honest with them in our analysis and tell them things they don’t want to hear. I think I’ll get there. I speak the truth. If you don’t like it, sorry. We all have opinions and so do I. More importantly, I come from a place where I feel confident enough that my opinion is close.
To close the book, you talk about the evolution of the sport and how it transforms based on today’s social events. How important is the evolution of sport in relation to diversity, inclusion and green energy?
First our sport was born in the south. At that time, things were the way they were because it was a different time. My father, Richard Petty, was born in the middle of it. So to see a guy in the first big NASCAR race of 2020 stand next to Bubba Wallace and support him in taking down the Confederate flag, it’s a big moment. NASCAR is inclusive and welcoming. As far as green energy is concerned, everyone is focused on motorsports as we use fossil fuels. I say this, ‘Every time the Yankees fly on a plane and go play ball somewhere, they use fossil fuels.’ How does it all weigh? I don’t have all the answers. What I do know is that NASCAR has taken the lead and the sport is headed in the right direction.
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How do you define success at this moment in your life and career?
Waking up early in the morning is my success. My wife, Morgan, and I have been together for six years. We have three wonderful little boys. I want to be the best father. This is how I define success. I won races. I am 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 that everyone wants to be involved in, like it did in the NFL, basketball and baseball. Most importantly, it’s a huge success for me when my little boys say ‘Daddy’.