Adam Petty, 1980 - 2000
When I was a a boy of 5 or 6 I became part of the Petty family. Not in a legal or formal sense, but as the child of a racer and as a member of a new generation of race fans. Though we were separated by hundreds of miles, an international border and shared no common ancestry, the Petty family, through their actions and generosity toward others, their untiring support of racing, their unparalleled respect for their fellow racers and fans and the countless hours they spend visiting with and helping those less fortunate than themselves have shown again and again that all racers and all race fans are a part of the same family. The Petty family. There is little in this world, outside of my own wife and children, our parents and siblings, of which I am more proud.
For better than 30 years I have been a Petty fan. For as long as I can remember I knew that if I were to meet Richard or Kyle Petty that they would take the time to speak with me, show interest in me and thank me for my support of their careers. When I had the opportunity to meet Richard at Fontana in 1997 he lived up to all of that and more. He truly made me feel welcome and indeed special, I like to think that even he would remember the moment if prompted, such was the reception he gave me. It was and is an inimitable truth, the Petty family has set a standard of celebrity for not only Racers but everyone who achieves fame and fortune.
As is the case with many of us, I knew little of Adam, only that he was a happy, well adjusted teen who was making the best of the opportunities given him and that at 16 he showed that driving talent is definitely genetic . I know this though for a fact; when every parent in the world can look to their children and say the same of them, we will still have too few people of Adam's character and strength. I know too, that Adam's death was a terrible tragedy. A tragedy that has struck a harsh blow to even people like me, who never knew him, never felt his smile, shook his hand or even said 'hello'.
I swear my heart stopped for a moment when I read the horrible truth. I have children of my own, and as real as my pain over Adam's passing is I know that the pain of the Petty family must be enormous.
I had plans to take my son to our local track on that Friday night and immediately began to question why I am a race fan and why I would want to introduce my son to this cruel sport. I was immediately convinced Kyle Petty would never race again and wondered what was left for me in this sport. I did go, and I will tell you what I found.
We found good seats, not far from the start finish line. We weren't in them two minutes before my son knew the names of the boys in the row in front of us. He knew they were Jeff Gordon fans and they certainly knew that he was not. We sat behind one family and had one on each side, the group behind us were old enough to be grandparents and it was immediately obvious that they welcomed the children surrounding them.
As we waited for the races to start my son decided he was hungry. Not wanting to lose our good seats I did something that I have never done, nor would I be likely to repeat it at many other public events. I left my 7 year old with his new friends and went to the concession stand to get his hot dog and pop. On my return the track announcer asked the fans to stand and observe a moment of silence for Adam Petty, to be followed by the playing of the American and Canadian national anthems.
From the vantage point where I stopped, I could see my son, surrounded by strangers, standing quietly, with his head down for the tribute to Adam and then with it held high and his chest out as he sang along to our national anthem. I watched proudly, with tears filling my eyes and running freely down my cheeks. I was proud of my son for sure, but I was proud to be there too. I was proud to be at this little half mile paved oval, just outside of a city which the Pettys had likely never heard of, much less been to, with it's plywood buildings, it's overcooked hotdogs and burned popcorn and the score board that didn't work. I was proud to be part of a sport at which I need not fear to leave my seven year old among strangers. These people were not strangers, they were Pettys. If you are reading this, you are a Petty too, and you know what I found at that track.
I found Adam, and now I know a lot more about him than I thought I did.