Racing is what he does, not who he is
Kyle Petty will attempt to make his 701st start in NASCAR's premier series this weekend in the GFS Marketplace 400 at Michigan International Speedway. The good news for fans of the sport is that it won't be his last start, either.
Sure Petty's more known among newer fans for starting the Victory Junction Gang Camp in honor of his late son Adam, but a racer's heart still beats inside a driver who's won eight Cup races. Granted the last of those wins came in 1995, but his eventual retirement will mark a true changing of the NASCAR guard.
A Petty has been on the track virtually from NASCAR's inception, from grandfather Lee to father Richard. Adam was going to continue the legacy and -- many hoped -- return Petty Enterprises to prominence. His May 2000 death changed all that, though, and Petty Enterprises has yet to recover from a competitive standpoint.
Still, Kyle refuses to throw in the towel. He's said repeatedly that racing is the family business and points out that farmers don't simply give up after poor weather's ruined that year's harvest.
Changes continue to be made to his crew and that of teammate Jeff Green. Both drivers finished in the top 20 at Watkins Glen, a glimmer of hope that things may be slowly turning around. At 44, Petty's best driving days may well be in the past, but he's not about to retire. Until something changes one morning, that will continue to be the case.
"I've always said I'll wake up one day and it won't be fun anymore," Petty says. "I feel very blessed to be able to drive and be around the people. I enjoy the people in racing as much as anything, being in the garage around the PR people and the crew and everybody. They're a good group of people. For us, this is a family business and the business will survive whether a Petty drives the car or whether a Petty doesn't drive the car.
"I'd like to drive for a number of more years to be able to run around and keep the camp out there and keep some cash flowing to the camp and keep that in the forefront so we can keep it up and running and build an endowment for the camp."
The camp, a wonderful racing-themed endeavor near Petty's North Carolina home that allows chronically ill children a chance to cast aside their concerns for a week, was an idea of Adam's. Kyle and wife Pattie have spent the past few years turning that dream into a sparkling reality.
It's taken a great deal of Kyle's focus, but he says racing is still in the forefront.
"We're still trying to win races and trying to build Petty Enterprises back with Jeff Green and those guys and with Dodge so that we can win some races," Petty says. "We'll keep plugging along and driving and one day I'll wake up and say, 'I'm not helping and it's not fun anymore.' That might be the last time you see me. I might not ever come back to a racetrack, but that's a few years off."
The thought of NASCAR without a Petty on the track is one thing; the thought of a day without a Petty at least being at the track is almost unfathomable. The good news is that Richard still attends a number of races and, beyond that, it's hard to see Kyle walking away from the sport cold turkey when his driving days are over.
Even if Petty devotes much of his post-retirement energies to keeping the camp going, he'll still be needed at the track -- in part for the perspective he adds to where the sport's been and where it's headed. He jokes that his family doctor is whomever's manning the infield medical center at Daytona International Speedway -- and he's got a point.
Born on June 20, 1960, baby Petty was in Daytona weeks later for the Fourth of July running of what was then known as the Firecracker 400. Since then, he's been in Daytona on a yearly basis ever since.
The number of career starts is impressive to observers. To Petty? He simply says it's "pretty cool to have run this many races" but the number isn't something he'll dwell on until he retires.
Considered one of the sport's elder statesmen, he's asked what it's like to be an ambassador and says it means you've been around for a long time. Turning serious, he realizes it means the drivers who've been around long enough to earn that title have also gained perspective as they've matured.
"I think we're blessed to be in this sport at a time when you can -- as you mature and as you get a little bit older -- use this vehicle to other means," Petty says. "What I mean by this is like what Dale Jarrett does with some of his charity work [for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation] and the camp and things like that. We're able to use it as a platform to not only do what we love to do, which is drive race cars, but to maybe make a broader impact on other people's lives and maybe on society in some ways.
"For me, the importance, and I think it shifts, but as you get older your family is a lot more important and what goes on away from the racetrack is just as important."
Still, turning around Petty Enterprises is never far from his mind. That's meant letting some good people go of late, but it's part of the business. Green thinks the recent changes, which saw Greg Steadman move from serving as Petty's crew chief to Green's, will help get the operation's famed No. 43 car back on the proper track.
Green, though, doesn't expect the improvement to take place overnight. He said Petty's discussed changes in the engine program for next year that might lead to better things, but there's still a lot that can be accomplished this season.
"I guess about 75 percent of Kyle's team came to my team. I guess the theory was they didn't think they were giving me the things I needed to have good finishes and be successful," Green says. "I know Greg and them can do it, so hopefully this is what we need for the 43. The 45 [Kyle's team] might struggle to get their program back going, but we were struggling anyway.
"It's not [that] the 43 is the house car or it's any better than the 45, but we feel like if the 43 runs better it'll make the 45 better, so it's a switch. I hate switches, but I guess if you're going to do one [it] is better to do it now and make next year better. This year is kinda up in the air anyway. We could win every race and still not be where we need to be. We just need to get prepared and make sure we can be in the top 10 after 26 races next year."
Kyle will never win 200 races or seven championships like his father, or three championships like his grandfather, but that really doesn't matter in the grand scheme. He's helped carry on one of the sport's proudest legacies and has done so through the greatest tragedy a father can endure.
Asked what it's like to be a Petty, he answers in his usual philosophic manner.
"I've never been anything else so I can't tell you," Petty says. "It's like the question, what's it like to have Richard Petty as a father? I don't know. He's the only father I've ever had. I thought I grew up with a normal life. Looking back and traveling around the country to racetracks every weekend, it's pretty abnormal really.
"[But] I feel very blessed to have grown up in a family and to have had my father's guidance and my mother's and my grandparents'. The foundation they gave for us, not only for what we do on the racetrack [is what matters]. ... Like I said before, driving a racecar is what we do. That's not who we are. Who we are is what goes on away from the racetrack, and I think what my father has done through the years with the fans and other areas of the sport has pretty much spoken for itself, and it's more important for me to be that kind of Petty than it is to be the one on the racetrack."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.