May 12 marks the 19th anniversary of perhaps the most horrific day in NASCAR history — the day we lost Adam Petty.
The fourth-generation driver, already deemed the future of NASCAR, crashed in a practice session at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2000 after his throttle hung wide open, and he went head on into the wall, killed instantly with a basilar skull fracture. The injury was the same that claimed the life of Dale Earnhardt less than one year later.
The difference was that Earnhardt was 49 years old when he passed. He was able to experience life, have a family and win championships. Petty was only 19 when he died — he had his entire life ahead of him. And if there’s one thing that the grandson of Richard Petty was going to be, it was successful, whether it was on or off the racetrack.
To the racing community, the loss was tremendous, but those wounds have healed with time. However, the Petty family has never seemed to fully recover from the tragedy, which is completely understandable.
Let’s not forget that Petty Enterprises was the first team to win 10 championships and Richard Petty was the first to seven championships and the only driver with 200 wins. Even after Petty’s retirement, his son Kyle Petty would win the occasional race in SABCO Racing’s No. 42, and the Petty Enterprises No. 43 won races with Bobby Hamilton and John Andretti.
Kyle Petty rejoined his family team in 1999, as PE added the No. 44 as a second car and seemed to be on an incline. Andretti won at Martinsville Speedway that year, and he and Petty combined for 19 top 10s, the most by the team since Richard Petty posted 21 in 1983.
Meanwhile, Adam Petty raced for his father in the NASCAR Xfinity Series just one year after winning in his ARCA Series debut at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Petty was thrown to the wolves way before he was ready at the age of 18, and he struggled mightily in his rookie NXS season, failing to qualify for three races. Part of the struggles may have also been due to the Pettys having rarely fielded Xfinity teams before. Despite the lack of experience of driver and team, Petty showed promise, posting three top fives in a season that featured an up-and-coming Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth and saw Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regulars win 12 of 32 races.
The team took a step back performance-wise in 2000, but that was the team’s final year with Pontiac. In 2001, the Pettys got a sweet deal by reuniting with Dodge in the manufacturer’s return to the sport. Unfortunately, what could have been a defining moment for the team was overshadowed by the loss of its future driver.
Adam Petty was slated to run a second full NXS slate and seven Cup races in 2000 before potentially moving up to Cup full time the following year. Imagine the positive momentum and attention PE would have gotten with the fourth-generation driver rolling out in the team’s newly formed No. 45 Dodge.
Back then, sponsors in NASCAR were a dime a dozen. Adam Petty already had a sponsor in Sprint, and with his famous last name and the same charm his father and grandfather have, he only would’ve gained more. The Pettys would have had more money coming into the team, and money buys speed. And if Adam had had any sort of success in the car, then it’s easy to imagine his fanbase would have rivaled JR Nation.
I’m not saying it was a lock for Adam Petty to win races and championships and be a NASCAR Hall of Famer like his great-grandfather Lee Petty and grandfather Richard before him. But even at his worst, Adam could’ve been NASCAR’s version of Marco Andretti, who has hasn’t lived up to the legendary careers of his grandfather Mario Andretti and father Michael Andretti, but has still made a career in Indycar. Marco has only won two races, yet he still gets a lot of coverage and sponsorships and manages to get invited to the celebrity parties.
But Adam Petty would only get to run one Cup race before he lost his life in a practice for the 12th NXS race of the 2000 season. Not only did Petty Enterprises lose its future with the wreck, but it lost its present as well.
Kyle Petty was never the same driver after the incident, understandably so. He drove in the Cup Series for eight more seasons after and only finished in the top five once and the top 10 six times during that span.
Also, Kyle was the CEO at Petty Enterprises at the time, meaning he was responsible for overseeing the team’s switch to Dodge during a time he was mourning his son. The Petty cars could barely qualify for races in 2001, while other Dodge teams showed speed. If Adam Petty’s crash never happened, then everyone at PE would’ve been much more focussed and the team could’ve come out the gate much stronger in 2001.
Instead, the Pettys started on a downward trajectory that year. Sure, there were bright spots, such as when Jerry Nadeau almost won Sonoma Raceway in the No. 44 in 2002 or some of the good runs Bobby Labonte had in the No. 43. But eventually, as money got tighter, Petty Enterprises had to sell to George Gillett Jr. and was rebranded as Richard Petty Motorsports. As a result, Kyle Petty was essentially booted from his family’s team. The team has since been sold to Andrew Murstein, and Richard Petty acts as more of a figurehead than the actual owner. It’s a far cry from the team Lee Petty started back in 1949.
RPM had its bright spots at first, with Kasey Kahne winning two races and making the playoffs in 2009, Marcos Ambrose giving the team a solid road racing reputation with two Watkins Glen International wins and Aric Almirola bringing the No. 43 back to victory lane and into the playoffs in 2014.
But now, things have gotten ugly for the team again. It’s shrunken from fielding four cars in 2010 to only one car now: the No. 43 Bubba Wallace, who has had plenty of struggles this season.
I love that Richard Petty is still involved with NASCAR and a fixture at the racetrack still, but it’s sad to see a Petty-blue No. 43 as a mid-pack car. When I see the team struggling, I can’t help but wonder what could have been.
If that wreck hadn’t of happened, then Adam Petty would be 38 years old, the age where a driver enters their prime, statistically-speaking. He would be the same age as Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. I think Adam would’ve attracted so much sponsor money that Petty Enterprises would’ve never been sold.
Kyle Petty might’ve had more success, a second wind in his career — he was only 39 years old when the wreck happened. And Kyle definitely would’ve gotten a better send off when he did finally retire instead of the hurt feelings that occurred when the team got rid of him. John Andretti probably also would’ve had more success with the team and might not have been fired and made the scapegoat for slow race cars.
Even if I’m wrong about all that, I know I’m right when I say Adam Petty would still be driving in the Cup Series right now. He might’ve done like Earnhardt Jr. and gone to a bigger team where he could have more success, but he’d definitely be a featured driver. Had he remained loyal to the family, he’d likely be a teammate to Wallace right now — still driving the No. 45, in the same way his father drove the No. 44, his grandfather the No. 43 and his great grandfather the No. 42.
It brings a tear to my eye when I think about the loss of Adam Petty and all that he could have been. At least his death wasn’t in vain, as it brought about Victory Junction, which has made life better for children with serious medical conditions.
The Petty name has been special to NASCAR since its early days. I hope the name will not be forgotten. Thankfully, we’ve still got Richard and Kyle Petty at the track for a lot of races. Appreciate them and all they’ve accomplished while we’ve still got them.