Many of today's fans - those who took to the sport early in the last decade during the network TV boom - know Kyle Petty simply as "that big-mouth on television who couldn't get out of his own way on the race track." And there is some truth to that.
The later years of his career were plagued by less-than-stellar performances, due to the uncompetitive nature of his Petty Enterprises race cars (not due to a lack of driving talent), and he always - for better or worse - speaks his mind when there is a microphone near him. You know that censor in our brains that says "I dunno, maybe you shouldn't let this thought slip out of your mouth?" Kyle - like many of us - lost that little fella a long, long time ago.
It is unfortunate that those folks who only saw Kyle towards the unceremonious end of his driving career and now as a commentator for Speed and TNT didn't see him in the early 1990s, when he was one of the sport's top drivers and reigned as NASCAR's quintessential bad-to-the-bone personality. His long, curly hair and thick mustache made him appear as though Yanni had just rolled out of bed and decided to strap into a race car. Not only did he strap into that car - his most famous of which was a Felix Sabates-owned Pontiac that carried an awesome black and neon green Mello Yello paint scheme - he drove the heck out of it.
Some of those fans he ticks off like to dismiss Kyle's record. "He only won eight races," they say, "who is he to be mouthing off?" They're right, he won eight top-level stock car races. That is nothing to sneeze at. Sure, it does pale in comparison to the numbers put up by his father Richard (200 wins and seven championships) or his grandfather Lee (54 wins, three championships), but in the big scheme of things, it takes a pretty darn good race car driver to win eight times at the highest level.
Those eight wins were no "Gimmes" either, with the possible exception of his first victory at Richmond in 1986 when Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip tangled, causing the top-four cars to crash with two laps to go. He obliterated the field at one of the toughest track our sport has known in Rockingham on three occasions, leading 433, 380, and finally an astronomical 484 of the 492 laps in his wins there. He also won the Coca-Cola 600 in 1987, back when the race was run under the grueling Carolina sun instead of the dusk-to-dark setting used since 1993.
For all intents and purposes, Kyle probably should have won many more races and perhaps a championship or two at least. The problem was equipment.
The Sabates team never reached the level of perennial contenders like Richard Childress Racing, Roush Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, and later Joe Gibbs Racing. The Wood Brothers - with whom he claimed his first two wins - were well past their glory days when he drove their Fords from 1985-88. The same can be said for Petty Enterprises, where he began his career in 1979 and ended it from 1997 through the 2008 season.
It seems that Kyle Petty's calling wasn't to be a racing icon like his father and grandfather. Rather, his calling has been to be a bit of a renaissance man, doing many things and doing them all rather well.
He dabbled in music, cutting tracks and doing live performances. The music video for his song "Oh King Richard," a tribute of course to his father, was wildly popular among race fans. The track appeared on 1995's "NASCAR: Runnin' Wide Open" alongside songs by country superstars of the period like Billy Ray Cyrus, Ricky Van Shelton, and Joe Diffie. (Give that song a listen, and check out another tune he recorded for an album of songs sung - I use the term loosely for some of them - by fellow NASCAR contemporaries.)
Kyle has also spearheaded two of NASCAR's best-known charitable causes. In 1995, he parlayed his love of riding motorcycles into "Kyle Petty's Charity Ride Across America." The annual parade of what Steppenwolf famously referred to as "heavy metal thunder" in their song "Born to Be Wild has drawn support throughout not only stock car racing, but the sporting and entertainment world as a whole. More than $15 million has been raised for a variety of charities, including the endeavor for which Kyle and his wife Pattie are perhaps most famous.
Adam Petty lived up to all aspects of his last name. He was a heck of a race car driver, he sported an ever-present and incredibly infectious smile, and he had an unending love for his fellow man, especially the less fortunate and children. It was Adam's ambition to create a camp in the fashion of Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall Gang camps so that chronically and seriously ill kids could, well, be kids.
The Good Lord called Adam home before he could realize that dream, but his parents carried on their son's legacy by making his dream a reality. The Victory Junction Gang Camp opened the Pettys' hometown of Randleman, N.C. in 2004 and has hosted more than 7,000 children in the eight years since. A second camp in the Kansas City era is under construction to serve children located outside the southeast.
Of course, Kyle is now most visible as the TV commentator who simultaneously endears himself to and riles up legions of NASCAR fans on a weekly basis as he gives his unfiltered opinion on the current topics. He also does analysis on a number of race telecasts for TNT and qualifying and practice sessions for SPEED, which he handles less like a broadcasting gig and more like a conversation with the folks sitting at home. That is a trait he has maintained since the 1990s, when he worked ESPN's coverage of Busch (now Nationwide) and ARCA races as a pit reporter and later a booth announcer.
Whether as a racer, singer, announcer, or philanthropist, Kyle has excelled in each particular field in which he has tackled. It might be a scary thought for the fans who have had the pleasure to witness his antics over the course of his colorful career, but he is a true role model.
The world could use a few more Kyle Pettys.