CHARLOTTE, N.C. — “We’ll never get outta here alive.”
That’s what was running through Kyle Petty’s mind one day at a dirt track in Pender County, N.C. As Kyle remembers it, he was 18 at the time and had just started racing — and being the grandson of racing legend, Lee Petty, and the son of all-time winningest Cup Series driver, Richard Petty, Kyle was promised some “show money” in cash ahead of this event he was driving in.
“Grandfather Petty” directed Kyle to not unload the car from the truck until that money arrived, which caused a stir among some fans. The story ends with Lee Petty, smoking on his pipe in his uniquely calm and powerful way, responding to a fan who had gotten in his face: “We’ll unload (the car) when we damn well please.”
Recalled Kyle: “We jumped into the truck and locked the doors and got out of there, not slowing down until we had Pender County safely in the rearview window.”
You could imagine Kyle Petty shiver and laugh and shake his head all at once as he tells this story about NASCAR’s first family, which is one of the many he shares in his new memoir, “Swerve or Die.”
The book, which hit retail on Tuesday, is a love letter to NASCAR as you’d expect, but it’s also an authoritative account of Kyle Petty’s life as a curious son, a fearless driver, a grieving father and all the other monikers that he’s picked up in his 62 years.
The Charlotte Observer’s Alex Zietlow spoke with Petty about writing the book and the toll it took on the former NASCAR driver. Some questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Kyle Petty on being an ‘outsider-insider’
— Zietlow: What was your favorite part about writing the book?
— Petty: You know what? I think my favorite part was actually sitting down and writing some of it, and having somebody look at it and say, “Well hey, that’s not bad.” (Laughs.) But no, I think my favorite part was just walking back down that path, and looking at some of the good times and some of the fun things that happened.
— Zietlow: In the book’s introduction, you write, “I’ve come to be known as an outsider-insider, someone whose knowledge goes all the way back to the ancients and who isn’t afraid to hang his opinions out to dry.” What exactly do you mean by this?
— Petty: By the time I was in the third grade, you know, I began traveling in the summers with my dad. And a lot of times, it was just me and him and the crew. To watch Buddy Baker and Bobby Allison and Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough and Bobby Isaac and David Pearson, and to be around those guys when you’re 8 or 9 years old — it’s like you’re listening and you don’t even know you’re listening.
You’re learning and you don’t even know you’re learning. So I’ve been around so long, that you feel like you’re an insider. And at the same time, you don’t conform to what they want you to conform to sometimes. (Laughs.) You might wear your hair a little bit longer. You may golf and play music and do different things. And it’s like, “He might know all this stuff, but he’s not really paying attention to it.” He’s outside-in, that kind of thing. That’s a way to look at it.
I tell people this, too: If you had an opportunity to interview my granddad and ask him five questions. And then you had an opportunity to sit down with my dad, and ask him the same five questions, and then ask me the same five questions — and then Adam come in after all of us were gone and you ask Adam the same five questions — you would have 20 different answers.
You would scratch your head and you would say, “I don’t even think those four guys know each other.” You know what I mean? It’s not that we tried to be different. It’s just that we were allowed to be different. … It’s funny how we all chose the same profession, but we all took a different path, all had different successes, and we all measured our successes differently. I think you could say we’re a strange lot, for sure, when you look at the Petty crowd.
Petty: ‘It was all family’
— Zietlow: There are a lot of compelling, honest and funny anecdotes from your childhood in the book. You call it “growing up Petty.” Is there a memory you share with your grandfather and your dad, specifically, that you want audiences to remember?
— Petty: Yes and no. I think we come as close to sharing one memory in there with the dirt car, when I went down and my granddad almost got our rear-ends kicked by every race fan at the race track because he didn’t want me to unload the car unless we got paid. … Make no mistake, everything we did in those early years, and we did honestly until I left and went to drive for Felix, it was all family. It was Lee Petty, Richard Petty, Maurice Petty and Kyle Petty. It was all family.
— Zietlow: I meant to include Maurice in that question. Learning about your uncle through your childhood was interesting.
— Petty: People don’t think about him as much because he didn’t drive. He started to drive and then he went away from it. And I think if he had chosen that route, then things may have been different. But make no mistake: He is the first guy to be inducted into the Hall of Fame as an engine-builder, and you can look at my dad going in the first class, and my granddad going in, but my uncle — a lot of people believe the same thing, and I’m biased to it, that he deserved to be in the Hall of Fame for contributing to everything my grandfather did and everything my father did, and how he changed the sport and how he changed the engine-builder’s role.
Opening up about the death of his son, Adam
— Zietlow: This was an opportunity to give an authoritative account of what you thought and how you felt after learning that your son, Adam, had died in May 2000. It was interesting to see what you did and didn’t focus on. For instance, you didn’t dwell a ton on the decision to take up driving the No. 45 car in his absence. What was re-telling that whole experience like over 20 years later?
— Petty: Yeah, that was the hard part. You asked in the beginning, “What was the best part?” And I think the Adam stuff, and the stuff about my Uncle Randy, I think that was the hard part. And that was the worst part. And there were times I’d work on it, and then I’d put it away, and you’d say, “I gotta come back to that in a couple weeks. I can’t deal with it right now.”
I know anyone who has lost a child knows: You think you put it somewhere, and you think you put it away, and you think you’ve dealt with it — until you have to talk about it and it comes up again. And it never gets any easier. It knocks the sharpness off of it. Time knocks the sharp edges off of the hurt, but it’s still there. …
I realized going back, during those years, there were five, six, seven years, when I was in a really dark place. I went to counseling. I tried to get therapy and tried to find help. And help was there, but you were still in a bad place. And all these years later, I felt like I had made peace with it. But to come back and talk about it again and have to dwell on it again, brought back a lot of unpleasantness and darkness for a while.
But then to write it, and to put it down on paper, which I had never ever thought about doing, never dreamed about doing — and then I ended up doing an audio version of this, and to stand in the booth all by yourself with the doors closed and no windows, and to read it out loud — it was incredibly emotional. I would just break down in the booth. It was incredibly emotional to read the words again. …
Writing it down on paper helped a lot. And then reading it aloud helped a lot. I don’t think I’ll ever come to terms with it, and I’ll never be able to fully be healed from it, it’ll always be there. And I hope it is always there. I’ve said it before: As long as I hurt the way I do, I know that Adam’s still with me somewhere.
But at least it feels like I started a journey that I put on hold 20 years ago. … That was the good that came out of that darkness.
Petty on where NASCAR still needs to go
— Zietlow: Toward the end, you start talking about where NASCAR needs to go. You write, “Any issue that shows up in America will eventually find its way to NASCAR.” Do you feel the responsibility to speak out on the future of NASCAR considering you have ties to its origins?
— Petty: I don’t know if I feel a “responsibility” from that perspective. But I do believe the sport that my grandfather is a pioneer of, that my father is the winningest driver of, that I grew up in, that I lost a son to — I do believe that I have at least some type of platform to be able to speak to it. Because I’ve seen so much.
Whether it’s the race issues we have. Whether it’s the green issues. Whether it’s where the sport goes and the future of it, my opinions are based somewhat on my life. You know what I mean? It’s not something I read in a book. It’s something I experienced in some way, shape or form. In some circles, that gives those opinions a little more credibility. In a lot of circles, they have no credibility, and that’s OK too. (Laughs.) They’re all just opinions. But I’m not afraid to voice mine. …
NASCAR has always had the ability to be relevant. To be relevant to the times it’s in, to be constantly changed like a chameleon, and just be what it needed to be for the audience that it needed to be for, and to succeed. And they continued to do that as is evident with the car that we have today — a totally different direction. With racing at the LA Coliseum. With the announcement to go to the streets of Chicago. These are things that the sport would’ve never looked at 15 years ago, 20 years ago. …
We embrace the change now. We are inclusive. We are open as a sport, and that will promote growth. And (the title) “Swerve or Die” encompasses that at the same time.