It’s been 11 months since we last saw Kyle Petty step behind the wheel of a Sprint Cup car, finishing 39th at Phoenix in his 829th (and possibly final) Sprint Cup start. Three months later, he was out of any management role at Petty Enterprises, a merger with Gillett Evernham all but ending his attachment to any particular team… for now.
But one of the sport’s most popular personalities isn’t taking racing retirement lying down. Besides his work on NASCAR.com and as an analyst for TNT’s six-race Cup schedule, Petty’s heart and soul has turned full-time to helping those less fortunate. With the construction of a second Victory Junction camp in Kansas City, he remains at the helm of one of the fastest-growing charities in the country. Going from the four-hour high of speed to the lifetime high of helping children in need, last weekend’s 7th annual Ride to Victory was the latest in a long list of fundraisers that have kept him busier out of the sport than when he was in it.
On the eve of last weekend’s motorcycle ride, Kyle sat down and talked with Tom Bowles about the five-year anniversary of Victory Junction, his love of driving on two wheels instead of four, and whether we’ll see him back behind the wheel of a Sprint Cup car anytime soon.
Tom Bowles, Frontstretch: As somebody that’s been a fan of the sport for years before I covered it, when I think Kyle Petty and motorcycles, I always think about your first ride… the Charity Ride Across America. Can you explain the differences between that and the Ride to Victory?
Kyle Petty: Really, most people when they think of us and they think of the charity rides and the stuff that we do, they think cross country rides. You think of west coast to east coast, leaving Fontana or leaving Sonoma (Infineon now). That’s what we’ve done for 15 years, leaving those racetracks, coming back to North Carolina and more recently, coming back to the Victory Junction camp.
But we started the Ride to Victory about seven years ago. It was really the brainchild of Mark Dyer. On the Sundays after the Charlotte race, we just did a local ride. What we would do, we would hang around the race track on Sunday morning and get as many motorcycles together as we could. Race fans in the area would come out… and what we tried to do is we would ride to different race shops. We’ve been to Gibbs Racing, we’ve been to JR Motorsports, and we’d have lunch and do some stuff. And it evolved into what it is now, which is a memorial ride for a friend of ours, Click Baldwin, who was killed last year.
So last year was our first memorial ride for Click Baldwin. He was part of the original charity ride, part of the original Ride To Victory, part of everything. He’s such a huge part of what the charity ride is and what the charity ride continues to be.
What we’re doing this year is pretty cool, ‘cause we’re leaving Gastonia and Statesville Harley-Davidson, Charlotte Harley-Davidson, and a couple of places. We’re going to leave about 9:30 or 10:30 from those locations, and we’re all going to meet up at the Hall of Fame. So we’re going to be some of the first tourists to go through the Hall of Fame. Then, we’re coming over to the Victory Junction camp.
Bowles: Did any celebrities sign on board for this one?
Petty: Well, it’s funny because this ride is a totally different ride than what we try and do otherwise. Our Charity Ride across the country, Herschel Walker rides with us, Davis Love, Nikki Taylor’s gone with us in the past, Steve Park rides with us, Harry Gant rides with us almost every year. And in the past, Tony Stewart’s ridden with us in a day, and I can go back to Geoff Bodine and Michael Waltrip and all those guys that have ridden. Matt Yocum rides with us… you can go back to all the people that people know.
But this ride is a little bit different. This is a day ride, it’s about 100 miles, 120 miles, and this ride is for the friends of Click Baldwin and really to raise funds and awareness for the camp. So we really don’t try to overstress our celebrities on this ride. This is more of what your local ride would be. What anybody’s local ride would be to raise funds for a good cause and for something they feel is important to their community. And these people who come out for this are people that feel like they knew Click. Click was a part of their life, and at the same time they want to help the camp.
Bowles: You’ve always been a motorcycle guy, but I never really knew the story of how you got into motorcycles. Was it the type of thing where you found one hanging around your father’s shop one day and just fell in love with them?
Petty: Well, I grew up around motorcycles. That’s the funny part. I got my first motorcycle right before I started in the first grade. I ended up with a motorcycle instead of a minibike. Everybody had minibikes with the little Briggs and Stratton engines, then I ended up with a motorcycle. So I just rode the motorcycle there, and rode it all through high school. Rode road bikes, rode street bikes, just rode a little bit of everything. And then after I started racing, I just continued to ride.
I tell people all the time I’m not a car guy, I’m a motorcycle guy. Because I don’t think you could have a cooler car growing up than a race car in the shop next to you. Everybody wants to talk about Ferraris and Porsches and all these cool cars that they make, and I’m like, “Man, there’s nothing cooler than a NASCAR.” So I didn’t grow up a car guy, I grew up a motorcycle guy. I think my love of motorcycles started when I was about five years old.
Bowles: What do you look for in a good motorcycle and in the new brands out there right now?
Petty: Well, I’m past [a certain] stage now. It’s funny because we were just talking about the first rides we did cross country 25 years ago. And it was all about the look. You had to look like you were Captain America or Billy or just come off Easy Rider. You just had to look the part until you got out to Oklahoma and it was 15 degrees, and then you didn’t care how you looked. It was all about comfort.
That’s where I’m at in life now. I’ll ride a big bike, I’ll ride the big Harley, but when I look at bikes and stuff I can walk in a bike show and I’ll go straight to the old bikes. The new stuff… I’m impressed with the new stuff and the builders and the technology and some of that. But man, when you go look at a ’48 or ’49 Panhead or look at a ’65, the first year they pit an electric start on a Harley… or you go look at the old BMWs and BSAs…
I’m just an old bike guy. Maybe it’s just because I’ve gotten a little older, but I’m kind of drawn back to the bikes from when I started riding in the mid-‘60s. That type.
Bowles: Do you have a favorite right now that you’re riding?
Petty: I’ve got two favorites right now. I got like a ’54 Panhead engine and I rebuilt it, and I’ve got a ’65 Panhead that’s a stock bike. But I’m working on a project bike right now – it’s going to be my favorite bike until I get another project going.
Bowles: With the country still recovering from an economic downturn, charities easily become the hardest hit from families struggling to donate. How difficult has it been to keep the fundraising momentum going when so many are struggling to put food on the table?
Petty: Well, I think it affects it, obviously. I think it does affect the fundraising process that we go through.
At the same time, this is a strange country. And this country has always been known to help people and to help each other. I don’t care whether you’re in the Southeast or the Northeast or the Midwest or out West – it doesn’t make any difference. I think a lot of times people sit at home and think, “Man, things are tightening up a little bit. They gotta be tightening up for people less fortunate than I am.” People continue to give. And we’ve been very, very blessed because the camp gets the exposure that NASCAR gives it.
There’s also the drivers like Tony Stewart and Michael Waltrip, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch and guys like that who continue to speak about the camp. The companies that they associate with – the Coca-Colas of the world, the Home Depots of the world, the Office Depots of the world, people like that, they continue to help us. And at the same time, their fans… Harvick’s fans are the greatest fans in the world. Every time Kevin does something [to help], his fans do something.
So, it’s been strange. We kinda decided with Kansas City, in opening that camp out there that we would kind of drag our feet a little bit and slow down because we didn’t want to get into an economic bind. But at the same time, donations have been pretty good. I won’t say they’ve been as good as what we expected, but I think the people and the race fans up there continue to see that there’s less fortunate people than they are in a lot of ways, and they continue to give.
Bowles: If someone’s interested in helping with Victory Junction but doesn’t have the money right now, what are the different ways you can get involved besides just donating?
Petty: Tons of ways. Here’s what I always tell people: first and foremost, say a prayer. That’s the first thing, because that helps and that multiplies millions of times. But it doesn’t have to be financial help. During any given year, we use 150-200 volunteers a week during the 12-14 weeks in the summer. And then the other times, we use 30-40 volunteers. So anybody who has a week or has some time can volunteer.
We also give teddy bears to all the kids that come. We give quilts to all the kids that come. And if you go to the website victoryjunction.org, there’s a pattern on how to make the teddy bears and how to do things.
So, we have a lot of people who just sit at home and will sew one bear a month and send it in. That’s 12 bears a year, and that’s huge for us. So I think when you look at it, there’s so many ways and so many things that you can do. It’s not just about reaching in your pocket and writing a check. There’s a lot of other ways.
Bowles: It’s now been over five years since Victory Junction opened. Has it become everything you’ve dreamed it would be?
Petty: More. Patti and I were just talking about this last night. She’s getting ready to give a presentation to a company that we did some stuff with and did a promotion with last year. And we were looking at the numbers from just the first year that we started….
We saw 650 or 660 kids that first year. This year, we’re going to see something like 3,800 kids. So, I mean just in a short 4 or 5 years, the companies like Coca-Cola, the companies like Krispy Kreme that have gotten involved, the kids that have come from all 50 states and five or six foreign countries… when you start looking at that, you think, “My goodness, that’s five years. That’s like building Disneyland and having people show up from all over the world to be there.”
I think that’s the way we look at it. Really, it was a regional camp that turned into a national camp that turned into a national charity.
Bowles: It’s now been almost a full year since we’ve seen you out there in a stock car. With the work you do now, do you feel fulfilled or do you still have the itch every now and then to get back behind the wheel?
Petty: I think you’re always going to have the itch to drive. I tell people all the time, I still think of myself as a driver. I don’t think of myself as not driving. Even though I haven’t driven in a year, if the opportunity came along I’d jump back in a car in a heartbeat. I still think of driving all the time, and I still look at it that way.
At the same time, just as we talked about the economy and other areas – the economy is not great for the sport right now. I think we’re going to see some more contraction this year, with fewer teams coming back next year. I don’t see any new sponsors and anything new on the horizon, which hurts our sport a little bit. We’ve got to go through this growing pain, and we’ve got to go through this downtime. But when you watch racing, and you watch some of these guys, and you watch what goes on out there, you still have that itch. I think everybody… I talked to David Pearson about three years ago doing some stuff. David Pearson’s 71 years old, and he thinks if he got a car, he could still go out there and do it. So I think as a driver, you always believe that.
Bowles: Well it’s interesting you mention contraction, too, as your dad’s involved in a second merger right now with the Petty Enterprises label in less than a year. Do you worry about what’s going on over there, or do you feel like the Petty name is secure in NASCAR for years to come?
Petty: I think the name part is secure. The name recognition, the name Petty: my grandfather was here, my father was here, I was here, Adam came along. I don’t worry about stuff like that.
And I think Richard Petty… if you look at Petty Enterprises, it’s a sign of the times. There’s a company that was on top for so many years that fell almost to the bottom of the heap. Has been bought, has been sold, has been bought, has been sold, has merged… and as you look at it, I think it’s just like Yates and just like some of these other companies and Junior Johnson. If you go back and look at those guys and Bud Moore, the monster teams of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s are no longer here or are here and just a shadow of what they used to be. So, I think that’s just a sign of where the sport is, where the sport’s come from. I don’t think that tells us anything about where it’s going, but I do believe that’s a sign of the ghosts of the sport, I guess.
For more information on Kyle’s Ride To Victory this past weekend, as well as the Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America, please visit http://www.kylepettycharityride.com. And if you’re interested in volunteering with Victory Junction, donating, or making those teddy bears, check out the many ways you can help at victoryjunction.org.