Kyle has plenty to say about 'The King'
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Kyle Petty laughed when first approached about introducing his famous father at Sunday's inaugural induction ceremony for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
He initially thought it was funny because it appeared those who asked were nervous he might say no, thinking he still was upset that his father basically ended his driving career in 2008 when Petty Enterprises merged with Gillett Evernham Motorsports.
He thought it was even funnier when he was asked to sum up his father's career in three to five minutes and approximately 475 words, and to have the speech written down a week ahead of time so it could be put on a teleprompter.
The son of seven-time NASCAR champion Richard Petty can't excuse himself to the bathroom in 475 words. He can't imagine any of the other four inductees -- Dale Earnhardt, Junior Johnson, Bill France Sr. and Bill France Jr. -- being introduced in such short fashion.
"Like I told them, if I'm gonna go up there and introduce my father and read it off a teleprompter, I'm going to look like a schmuck," Kyle said. "If I were to introduce the president of the United States, OK, I've got no skin in the game.
"But if you introduce somebody you know and you've got to read it off the teleprompter, that "
This is where funny goes out the window. How do you sum up the career of a man whose record 200 wins and seven championships make him one of the greatest drivers to grace the sport? How do you sum up the career of a man whose contributions beyond victories and titles make him Hall worthy?
How do you sum up a man you think was the "best father in the world," the one who has you saying his trademark "you know what I mean" about as often as he does?
Kyle isn't sure what he'll say when he steps onto the podium at the 150,000-square-foot shrine. He'll just say it from the heart, just rattle on, as he likes to say.
He'll probably shed a tear or two, as well.
"What's been written or said about Richard Petty the race car driver?" Kyle said. "It's all been said. It's all been written. It's all been done. It's been done in dramatic fashion. It's been done in tongue-in-cheek fashion. It's been done in sarcastic fashion. It's just been done.
"That's the hard part about introducing him, because a lot of it will be about him being a father, about him being the man Richard Petty."
The man Richard Petty can't be summed up in 10,000 words. He can't be summed up by telling how he won a record seven Daytona 500s, how in 1967 he won a record 27 races, how he and rivals David Pearson and Bobby Allison made the sport what it is today.
"What that doesn't tell is the kid he went to see in the hospital in 1967," Kyle said. "It doesn't tell the story of him sitting on his butt and signing autographs for five hours. Numbers only tell the factual side of the story. They don't tell the emotional side of the story.
"Most of the time I don't think about things, but I will say I thought about that."
Kyle will get emotional. He has seen what goes on beyond the dark sunglasses and cowboy hat for which his father is synonymous. He's sat at dinners with NASCAR founder France Sr. and his son France Jr. and listened to "The King" go toe-to-toe with them.
That's one reason he's so unfiltered in the television booth, because he saw firsthand you can stand up to the governing body and live to tell about it.
That's why he's so perfect to introduce The King.
"I don't think there is anybody that could have inducted me into the Hall of Fame better than Kyle because he has been there through thick and thin, good and bad," Richard said. "He knows more about me than anybody, except my wife."
Before we go any further, Kyle calls his father "The King" just like most fans. He has since the fourth grade, when he started doing it, so he would feel like one of the guys in the shop back at the original Petty Enterprises in Level Cross, N.C.
Richard never thought twice about it.
"We're a strange family if you haven't noticed," Kyle said.
Were the family anything else, Kyle probably wouldn't be introducing his father. He might not even attend the ceremony, harboring the kind of ill feelings that break up a lot of families.
Let's digress. Richard went from being Kyle's father to his boss and teammate to a competitor, to a teammate and business partner to simply a father again. It is a multilayered relationship that most can't imagine or understand.
"I get the question all the time: What's it like having Richard Petty as a father?" Kyle said. "It's the only father I've ever had, so I don't have anything to compare it to. He was a normal father for me. He would be an abnormal father for you."
It's doubtful Kyle will conjure up memories of Richard's great wins during his introduction. His memories are of driving to the track with his sisters, going to the lake with the Allisons and watching Davey do a "half-gainer" into the lake like an Olympian into a pool.
He didn't grow up in awe of The King. His heroes were David Pearson and Bobby Isaac.
"My memories are strange because that's like saying, 'What's your first memory of what your father looked like?'" Kyle said. "You don't have a memory of it. He was just there. My father always drove a race car, so all my memories run together."
Not all of the memories were Hall of Fame material. Kyle left Petty Enterprises after going winless in 133 starts because, in his mind, the business model wasn't working. As many great things that have been said about The King leading up to this induction, few if anybody have said he was a great owner.
"I don't think great race car drivers become great owners," said Kyle, who finished his career winless in 391 starts at Petty Enterprises. "That's why Richard Childress is a great owner and Richard Petty is not."
So Kyle went to the Wood Brothers and then Felix Sabates, with whom he collected his eight career wins. He returned to Petty Enterprises in 1999 in part to help pave the way for his son, Adam, to be the family's next great driver.
That ended in May 2000, when Adam was killed in practice at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. That the anniversary of Richard's induction comes so close to the 10-year anniversary of that tragic incident makes this week somewhat bittersweet, knowing how much Adam looked up to his grandfather.
"I had a little twinge of emotion when I walked through the museum for the first time and they've got the Petty display and it's got Adam's helmet and stuff in there," Kyle said. "That set in because just because."
I read stuff in the paper about us fighting. We're not on the same page on the business side. I'll admit that. But when it's Christmas, it's time to be family again. When it's your birthday, it's time to be family again.” -- Kyle Petty
In a way this induction ceremony for the Pettys is like a link from past to present, just as in a way it will be with Dale Earnhardt's induction when wife Teresa and son Dale Earnhardt Jr. put aside their differences to honor the driver of the black No. 3.
But the Pettys always were able to keep business and family separate without ripping family apart. That doesn't mean Kyle didn't get upset with Richard. He was more than a bit mad when AJ Allmendinger was put in a retro paint scheme for the 2009 Daytona 500.
"I was hurt and I'm not going to get over it for a while," Kyle said at the time. "That was my paint job and my car and my number and my stuff from my first win. Not for Petty Enterprises or GEM or whoever it is."
But Kyle didn't hold that against his father any more than he did the decision not to keep him in a car after 2008. He admitted his career was for all practical purposes over when Adam began racing, that he only returned after Adam's death to keep his son's name and the family name alive on the track.
"The Pettys are funny people," Kyle said. "My grandfather [Lee] started this. There is business and then there's family. You can argue all day long at the track. I don't have to like the decisions you make. I don't have to like how you're doing something. I read stuff in the paper about us fighting. We're not on the same page on the business side. I'll admit that.
"But when it's Christmas, it's time to be family again. When it's your birthday, it's time to be family again."
And when your dad is being inducted into the Hall of Fame, it's definitely time to be family again.
"The King and those guys, they raced because it was like inheriting the family farm," Kyle said. "That's what you did. They never talked about getting into the Hall of Fame. That was our way of life.
"So when you look at the Hall of Fame for the Earnhardts and Pettys and even Junior Johnson, it's a culmination of a lifetime of work. The body of work they did will continue to grow here without them, so it does bring the family back together. The whole family participated in this." Now you know why Kyle laughed when asked to introduce his father in three to five minutes and 475 words. That's like running a 500-mile race at Pocono in under three hours. It can't be done.
"I'll say this," Kyle said. "It'll be cool. I think it'll be a lot bigger for King than he's letting on, too. Junior [Johnson] is a little more honest about it when he says it's the biggest thing to ever happen to him. King is still in the PR spin mode, you know what I mean?"
Yes, we do.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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