Former race car driver Kyle Petty was in Columbia on Wednesday to help raise money for Columbia International University’s fledgling athletics program and, as an aside, also managed to set the record straight concerning his feelings about Darlington Raceway, this weekend’s stop on the NASCAR circuit
“One time I said, ‘Fill it up with water and do stadium bass fishing with it,’” Petty told reporters during a quick interview session after his luncheon speech at Columbia International. “People say I said that about Bristol. No, I said it about Darlington. I used to tell those guys over there, ‘Love the people. Hate the track.’ I love Darlington. I love the area. I love the people. Huge race fans there. I just never liked the race track. I never got the hang of it, I never got used to it and I just never liked it. But the history of the place is just phenomenal and you can’t take that away from it. The history and the reputation that it has, it deserves to always be on the schedule.”
Petty retired from racing after the 2008 season, but stays active in the sport as a race commentator on the Speed network, TNT and others.
He’s known for his outspoken style of commentary.
“People get mad,” he said. “But they’ll get over it. Here’s the way I look at that. I drove a race car for 30 years. I was around my father driving a race car for 25, 30, 40 years, whatever he drove. Everybody is not always going to say nice things about you. And when you do something stupid, you should be called out for doing something stupid. It’s not the press or the media’s job to protect you. If I see something wrong or somebody did something wrong, I’m going to say something about it. Your opinion may be completely different from mine, but that’s OK.”
His work keeps him close to the sport he grew up in.
“It’s kind of like going fishing and never getting a chance to catch a fish,” he said. “I still do everything you’ve got to do to drive a race car, I just never get to drive a race car anymore. That’s kind of the way it is for me. It’s what I love to do. I love the people in the sport. I love to go to the racetrack and talk to the team guys, the drivers, the fans. Doing Speed, doing Turner, doing Showtime, being able to come out and do events like this, people are race fans and that’s the fun part.
“I miss driving. I miss that part. I don’t miss hitting stuff and I was pretty dang good at hitting stuff. But I do miss driving. I think if you ask any athlete when they quit playing the game what they miss, they miss the game. They don’t miss all the junk that goes on around the game.”
Petty never achieved the success of his father Richard and grandfather Lee.
Lee Petty was one of the founders of the sport and won the inaugural Daytona 500.
Richard Petty holds the vast majority of NASCAR’s records, including most career victories with 200.
Kyle Petty, 51, raced for 30 years and completed his career with eight Sprint Cup victories over 829 starts.
However, he’s carving out his own career niche through his race commentary and, more important, through his philanthropic efforts, some of which were born out of tragedy.
On May 12, 2000, Kyle’s son Adam, the fourth generation of Petty drivers, was killed at age 19 in a practice accident at New Hampshire International Speedway.
“In that one moment, your life totally changes,” Petty told the audience at Columbia International. “It totally changes your perspective on life. You expect your grandparents, yourself to go before your children. It totally disrupts everything. You question the seasons, you question absolutely everything. It shakes you to the core. It’s the hardest thing that any parent will go through. God bless any parents here who have walked that road.”
The Petty family wanted to do something to keep Adam’s memory alive. That something became the Victory Junction Gang Camp for terminally ill and special needs children.
Nearly 5,000 children attend the various sessions of the camp each summer, free of charge.
“The camp is an incredible place,” he said. “All we do is empower kids to be kids. That’s what we do.”