Adam Petty had no chance. In May 2000, during a practice session at the Busch 200 NASCAR Race at Motor Speedway in Loudoun, New Hampshire, the young race driver entered Turn 3 on the circuit, but when the throttle came off, he lost control, forcing his car to enter. The racetrack wall at 130 miles per hour, killing him on the spot.
He was only 19 years old.
As explained by his father and NASCAR legend, Kyle Petty in his new book, Swerve Or Die – Life at My Speed in the First Family of NASCAR Racing“(St Martin’s Press]was in a London hotel with his 14-year-old daughter, Montgomery Lee, when he got a call from his friend and NASCAR Administrator Mike Hilton.
Within 20 minutes, Mike called again.
“Oh man,” he said, searching for the right words and realizing there weren’t any. “very sorry.
“Did not succeed.”
When he started, Kyle Beatty knew nothing but NASCAR. Born in Randleman, North Carolina in 1960, he was previously scheduled to become a racing driver. His grandfather, Lee Petty, started his own NASCAR team and raced the first NASCAR race in 1948. He also won the inaugural Daytona 500 race in 1959.
His father Richard was a NASCAR superstar, winning more than 200 races, including the Daytona 500 which is a record seven times. Meanwhile, Kyle Petty would make his motorsport debut at the age of 18, winning his first race in the 1979 Daytona ARCA 200 in one of his father’s old Dodge Magnums and becoming the youngest ever winner in such an event.
“I got a real nice trophy and a check for $4150,” he recalls.
“Did that make me a professional racer? I think it did.”
Adam Petty’s death came less than six weeks after his debut in the NASCAR Cup Series in Fort Worth, Texas, an appearance that made him America’s first fourth-generation professional athlete. “That sounded great,” Betty wrote. “But when I think about it, it was also a very heavy legacy for a 19-year-old.
“Adam was just a kid, as anyone who ever knew him could see that clearly.”
Kyle Beatty had always wrestled with the idea of his son following him in the race, but it was in the family’s DNA. “At the beginning of NASCAR, Grandpa Betty started a racing team, and when my dad came along, he drove for my grandfather’s team. The fact that my grandfather came before him means my dad has a place to start.
“My dad didn’t have to look for work. He didn’t have to go anywhere else. Same with Adam.”
Amid the many ups and downs of his 39-year racing career that spanned more than 800 races, Kyle Petty has also experienced some shocking declines, including the deaths of fellow drivers and friends like Dale Earnhardt, who was killed in a Daytona 500 crash in February 2001.
While Adam’s death was rock bottom, this wasn’t the first racing tragedy his family had been involved in.
In 1965, Betty’s father Richard was competing in a drag race in Dallas, Texas when his bike broke down, causing him to lose control. The car hit a dirt bridge, and when one of the front tires broke, it jumped over the safety fence and into the crowd, killing an 8-year-old boy.
Betty was also there when his uncle, Randy Owens, tried to pull his father out of a smoking car into a pit at the Winston 500 in Talladega in 1975. When his water tank exploded, throwing him 15 feet in the air, it crushed him. His chest then broke his neck when he landed. He was killed instantly. “It was horrible to witness. I was standing there. I was in shock,” Betty writes.
On Labor Day 1998, just three weeks after he turned eighteenThe tenth Birthday, meanwhile, Betty’s son Adam stopped during the Miller Lite 300 race at the Minnesota State Fair. When he stopped, Crew Chief Chris Bradley slipped under the car to fix a problem—but Adam didn’t see him.
When he raced away, he ran over Bradley. “When the car got off the winch, Chris was still on the ground under the car. Adam hit the accelerator,” Betty writes. “He later said he was shocked while pulling out. Did he run over the air switch? Tire, wheel, sprocket? He didn’t think about it again until circuit officials stopped the race, and Adam learned what had happened to his crew chief and his friend.”
Bradley was taken to the hospital, but died of his injuries.
Kyle Beattie was one of the lucky ones. Sixteen years after seeing his Uncle Randy die in Talladega, Betty was also experiencing death in the same race. When the cars in front of him crashed, one of them landed on his car. “I mostly wore a black uniform, but on this day, I wore white,” he wrote. “I looked at the legs of my white pants, and I noticed a red spot and something was piercing. It didn’t look normal.
“It was a bone protruding from my left thigh. Big bone. Very big bone.”
In a sport that can exceed 200 mph, accidents are inevitable. But for Kyle Beatty, permanent danger is inevitable. He writes: “The truth is that you cannot realistically ignore danger.” “But you have to separate it from all the other things you’re thinking of.
“Otherwise, you can’t go out and drive.” In this case, the injury was a compound fracture, and it took him a year to rehab. Missed 11 races.
Now, Petty, 62, an analyst with NBC’s NASCAR coverage, has used the tragedy of his son’s death to help honor his legacy. In 2004, he opened Victory Junction, a camp for seriously ill children on the 90-acre plot in the hills behind his parents’ house in Randleman (“it was a perfect location for a kids’ camp, and we didn’t have to pay a nickel for it,” he writes).
Honored by his parents, Richard and Linda Petty, he was interviewed by the NASCAR community that helped raise millions of dollars. He was also backed by some notable friends, including Hollywood icon and avid contestant Paul Newman who sent him a personal check for $100,000.