Sometimes, it’s not about the racing.
In fact, at Victory Junction it wasn’t even allowed to be on Saturday – the ground rules for the press conference, according to host Kyle Petty, included, “No stupid racing questions.” And everyone complied, because despite the principals being all about NASCAR, driving fast and turning left wasn’t on anybody’s mind.
To some, the day represented a gift – one given from the heart. To others, it was an opportunity to meet their hero, who was glad to oblige. To more, it was about escaping reality for a short time, and enjoying a fleeting childhood for a little while longer.
On Saturday, not far from Martinsville Speedway where the Truck Series was all about the racing, people gathered on a hillside, sitting on bales of hay under a spectacular spring sky. It was a family weekend at Victory Junction Gang Camp, and campers, their parents, and siblings sang along and taught other guests camp cheers, while a group of drummers set rhythms for clapping.
Every face had a smile on it. That’s one thing about Victory Junction – you can’t be there and not smile.
The other guests were members of Junior Nation, Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s huge fan club, winners of a contest who gathered at camp for a glimpse of their hero. Some came from as far as Nebraska and Iowa for the day. Once inside the gates, everyone was given a wristband and escorted to the Kurt Busch Superdome, the site of some of the day’s festivities. Richard Petty smiled and posed with fans, gracious as always. You know… the Petty smile that is almost as much a family legacy as the racing itself. Adam Petty had that smile, too.
But after exchanging pleasantries, everyone was herded outside to sit on the sun-painted hillside with the campers for the day’s main event – the groundbreaking for an amphitheater that Earnhardt Jr. is donating to the camp. Excitement was on the air as Earnhardt’s helicopter descended from the sky, fresh from Cup practice at Martinsville. Kyle and Pattie Petty were already on hand, along with the camp “sheriff,” a ridiculously cute Shetland pony wearing a cowboy hat and holsters.
Their Victory Junction Gang Camp opened in 2004. The dream of Adam Petty – professional sports’ first fourth-generation athlete – the camp was built in his honor after Petty was killed in a practice crash for a then-Busch Series race in New Hampshire. Petty was just 19 years old then, but already he had formed a dream beyond racing, a place for children with chronic illnesses or physical disabilities to go and have fun for a week and still receive medical care. It’s a place where they could just be kids, be like everyone else – not the only one with an illness or disability.
Racing took Adam Petty and gave the opportunity for Victory Junction – a sadly ironic juxtaposition. Petty’s memory is everywhere, but it’s impossible to be sad. From the darkness of his loss came a glimmer of hope that grew stronger as more and more of the NASCAR community came on board. While many campers don’t follow NASCAR, the sport’s influence is all over camp. There are racecars everywhere – Kurt Busch’s car is on the patio roof of the building he donated. Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon’s cars look to be fighting for position on the roof of the dining hall, called the “Fuel Stop,” and inside is the race truck of Ricky Hendrick, another young racer lost too soon. An orange Home Depot car overlooks the Tony Stewart Maze. Johnson’s also sits atop the bowling alley his foundation paid for.
And Adam Petty’s car dwarfs them all — one building is a giant stock car made of cement, painted in Adam’s rainbow paint scheme.
But racing isn’t on the campers’ minds most days – there is too much to do and see to spend much time looking over the cars! Campers ride horses, practice archery, put on a talent show, play in the water park and engage with counselors in messy food warfare on the central lawn. Sometimes, they dress up in the giant likeness of Michael Waltrip outside the gym in things like hula skirts, but they don’t discuss his races while they do it.
And despite the illnesses that the campers have, there is hardly a moment that passes without smiles on every face. Reaching the top of the climbing tower, catching a fish in the pond (it’s strictly “catch, kiss and release,” of course!), or beating the volunteers at a game of HORSE in the gym all bring grins. Marshmallow fights at bedtime and water gun wars on Cabin Row bring peals of laughter and screams of delight.
Most of the tears are reserved for the end of the week, when it’s time to leave, though there are sometimes other times for tears – when a former camper loses a battle with his or her illness, everyone wishes a little harder on the stars overhead. But camp, despite the losses that have come, is about life and celebrating every moment to the fullest. It’s a lesson we could all stand to remember from time to time.
Which brings us to Saturday and Earnhardt. Earnhardt Jr. is a music fan, so his gift will be a place for campers to gather to see performers and sing songs of their own. Earnhardt donated a million dollars for the project. Not the Dale Jr. Foundation, which has already contributed countless dollars to charities – but Earnhardt himself.
The arrival of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver was greeted with cheers from campers and fans alike. Kyle Petty gave a brief introduction, and Earnhardt spoke to the crowd for a few minutes. When the speech was over, the campers presented him with a special gift – a tiny baby goat, also named Junior, who lost its mother and had to be raised by hand with round-the-clock bottle feedings. Now thriving, the four-legged Junior was presented to his namesake who was instantly and obviously enamored.
After the formal groundbreaking, the campers went back to their camp activities – the day was not over, and there was clearly more fun to be had. The fans who had won the contest moved back inside for a brief press conference, where everyone was reminded: “No stupid racing questions.”
For the fans, it was a chance to meet their hero up close, and Earnhardt didn’t disappoint. He spent time signing autographs and chatting with fans – something not one is likely to forget soon. Gone was the pressure of the racetrack – this was Junior in his element, doing something for others at a place built for nothing but fun.
That made this press conference one of the better ones in recent memory – maybe because there were no stupid racing questions. But what resonated the most was the words that Pattie Petty said to Earnhardt Jr. – words that summed up exactly what Victory Junction Camp is about. She reminded him that the racing doesn’t matter – that if he never won another race, his Daddy would be proud, and Adam would always look up to him. And she was right.
Because sometimes, it isn’t about the racing at all.