As the saying goes, you can either lead,
follow or get out of the way. For NASCAR driver Adam Petty, who began driving at
a very young age, all three directions applied at some point during his racing
career. In 2000 Adam was in his second full season in the NASCAR Busch Series,
Grand National Division and qualified for his first Winston Cup start at the
Texas Motor Speedway. The fourth generation driver remembered how he felt in
very beginning of his career.
"My first racing experience, I was six years old in Salisbury, NC and all I remember is that I was in the way," Adam says, "but I remember learning a lot and having a lot of fun too."
Adam may have believed he was in the way that first time on the track, but it did not discourage him from continuing in the footsteps of the three generations that preceded him. For the Petty Family, racing is their business, and one that they have succeeded in for over 50 years.
Combined, the Petty's have won over 260 Winston Cup races, starting with Adam's great grandfather, Lee, who won the first Daytona 500. Lee's son Richard, known to fans as the "King," won 200 races and seven championships during his career. The story continues with Kyle, who is a third generation driver with more than 20 years of NASCAR competition under his belt. So, when Adam Petty showed interest in carrying on the family legacy, no one was surprised.
"I guess it gets into their blood and they want to be a part of what's going," says Lynda Petty, Adam's grandmother, who has seen both her son and now her grandson climb behind the wheel of a racecar.
Adam Petty raced go-karts from the age of six until twelve, when he moved up to compete in select Mini-Sprints races. When he turned thirteen, Adam decided to take some time off from racing. He reasoned that the travel was tough for an adult, much less a thirteen year-old. Petty tried his hand at several sports including football, basketball and baseball, but after just a year he was ready to climb back behind the wheel of a race car for good.
In 1995, Adam participated in the Legends Car Competition, but his main goal was to get into a stock car. For his fourteenth birthday, his father, Kyle, bought him a Winston Racing Series Late Model Stock chassis and told Adam that it was now his job to get the parts to put the car together.
"It was just the chassis," Adam recalls. "He told me to put together the sponsorship, get the parts and build the thing myself. It took me two years to do it."
Kyle continues the story, "He worked on it diligently for about a month, then quit. The car sat untouched for months. One day he said let's get the thing together and he jumped on it. That's when I was convinced Adam was serious."
Richard, Kyle's father, agrees with his son about Adam's dedication to racing. "Racing was an obsession with Adam," says Richard. "Adam was devoted from the start. He's consumed by it. He's the kind that's upset when a race ends and he has to stop driving."
In 1997, Adam competed in 25 NASCAR Winston Racing Series Late Model Stock Car races. The first part of the season proved to be rough for the youngest Petty driver. In nine races at Caraway Speedway near his hometown, Adam recalled wrecking between four and five times. "Some of them were my fault - rookie mistakes," says Adam. "But then again some of them were definitely not my fault."
Adam decided, with the help of his father, to branch out by running several different tracks during the second part of the season. At tracks such as Myrtle Beach, South Boston and Nashville, Adam had eight top-fives and two top-10 finishes in the final ten races of the season. "I got used to running longer races at those tracks and it prepared me for the even longer races that I ran in the ASA series," states Adam.
The American Speed Association (ASA) series was the next step for Adam the following season. "I had to make a career decision," said Adam. "My ultimate goal is to race in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, and ASA was a stepping stone to achieve that goal."
On April 11, 1998, Adam made his professional racing debut at Peach State Speedway in Jefferson, GA. With this debut, he became the first fourth generation professional athlete in the United States. While he didn't win that night, getting caught in an accident that was not his fault, he would not have to wait long before finding Victory Lane. Just a little over two months later in his tenth ASA start, Petty came from two laps down to win the race at I-70 Speedway, a half-mile track in Odessa, MO. With this win he became the youngest driver to win an ASA race, stripping NASCAR Winston Cup veteran Mark Martin of that title.
Adam called his father from Victory Lane to tell him the good news. "It was kinda funny." Adam recalls. "Dad said, 'How'd you do?' I said,Well, we did all right.' He said, 'Where are you right now?' I said 'I'm on the podium getting my picture made.' He said, 'Way to go, man,you finally cracked the top three. I said 'Nah, man. We did more than crack the top three. We won the race.'"
Adam ran the full season in the ASA, winning two pole positions at Orange County Speedway and Minnesota State Fairgrounds. Although he would not win another ASA race, he would return toVictory Lane in the 1998 season.
In October, Adam made his Superspeedway debut in Charlotte at Lowe's Motor Speedway in his first Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) event. After convincing his parents to let him run the race, Adam took the wheel in front of a crowd of family and friends, and he did not disappoint them. After running through oil and backing the car into the wall during an early practice session, Adam came back to hold off Mike Wallace and win the race by .100 of a second. With the victory he started somewhat of a tradition in the Petty family. Adam surpassed his father as the youngest ARCA Superspeedway winner at the age of 18 years and 3 months. (Kyle also won in his first ARCA start in 1979 at the age of 18 years and 8 months).
"Winning this ARCA race is the biggest thing that has ever happened to me," said Adam after the event. "Having my dad in my pit tonight with my mom on the back straightaway, and my brother and sister and my grandmother and grandfather and all my aunts and uncles here and all the [NASCAR] Winston guys watching, it's unreal."
Only three weeks later, Adam made his NASCAR Busch Series debut in St. Louis at Gateway International Raceway. He finished in 27th spot, two laps down but he knew the Busch Series is where he would run in the 1999 season.
With the start of the 1999 season in Daytona, Adam was thrust into the middle of a flurry of media and fan attention, as everyone wished to speak with the fourth generation Petty during his first Speedweeks as a driver. Even at the age of 18, Adam did not let the excitement of Daytona take his focus off of racing. This helped he and his team accomplish a sixth place finish at the historic motorsports facility.
Adam would experience his own set of peaks and valleys on the track during the 1999 season, but did accomplish a fourth-place finish at California Speedway and two fifth-place finishes at Nazareth Speedway and Memphis Motorsports Park. He even entered two NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series (CTS) races to pick up extra seat time and had a tenth-place finish in his first CTS start at Richmond International Speedway. Adam ended the season 20th in the 1999 NASCAR Busch Series point standings.
For the 2000 season Adam drove the No. 45 Sprint Chevrolet, entering into the first year of a three-year deal with the telecommunications company. In addition to racing the full NASCAR Busch Series schedule for a second year, he also attempted to qualify for his first Winston Cup event. At Texas Motor Speedway Adam qualified the Sprint Chevrolet in 33rd spot making his first Winston Cup start in his first attempt. One might have thought that a driver in Adam's situation felt some pressure, but he handled it with the maturity beyond his 19 years..
"I'm honored to be a Petty," the 19-year-old said. "My dad and grandfather put no pressure on me at all. I just do the best I can."
On May 12, 2000 Adam was practicing at the New Hampshire International Speedway when his car hit the turn three wall with a great impact. Adam was rushed to the local hospital but could not be revived ending a promising life at an early age. In the following days the outpouring of love and affection from the fans was astounding. Over 18,000 e-mails were received as well as numerous gifts, cards and letters showing just how much Adam affected the lives of racing fans world wide. His smile and quick wit along with his love of God, family and racing are missed by family, friends and fans everywhere.
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