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A year later, Pettys still grieving over loss of son in racing accident

Posted: Thursday, May 10, 2001

It's the little reminders -- the smell of broccoli or a pile of clothes in the middle of a room -- that trigger tears in Kyle Petty.

Almost a year after the death of his son, Adam, those things have the power to knock Kyle Petty to his knees, bringing on a fresh wave of grief.

The pain can be so strong that it has driven him from bed and sent him jogging through the fields on his farm, seeking relief in the dark of night.

Saturday marks the first anniversary of 19-year-old Adam's death, and the ache in Kyle's heart is just as deep as it was the day he learned his oldest son was killed while practicing for a Busch Series race at New Hampshire International Speedway.

''You want it to hurt because you feel like if it hurts, he is still close by,'' Kyle said. ''In some ways, you feel like if it doesn't hurt, then you are forgetting him, and that's not what I want to do.''

There's been no time to heal for Kyle or Pattie Petty this past year.

Both fought back tears in their only interview about the anniversary, with Kyle often stopping to compose himself while talking about everything from Adam's favorite meal of broccoli and burned chicken to his habit of breaking curfew and his passion for racing.

Pattie, his wife of 22 years, gently squeezed his knee when Kyle broke down, and gazed into his eyes as he tearfully remembered the son who had followed him into racing. Kyle had followed Richard, who came after Lee. The Pettys were NASCAR's only fourth-generation family.

''It doesn't heal, it just gets worse the more time that's gone by,'' Pattie said. ''It's gotten worse for me to see how much harder each week gets, to see Kyle suffering each week without him. I think everybody thinks time heals things but that's not always the case.''

What's made it even harder for the Pettys is that three drivers were killed in on-track accidents after Adam. Each one devastated the family as if it had been Adam all over again.

''It's been like a continuation of a bad dream,'' Kyle said. ''We have not had an opportunity to get away from it and just let things calm down.''

Kenny Irwin was killed two months after Adam, at the same place on the same track in the same manner. Tony Roper was killed in October, in a truck race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Then Dale Earnhardt, who avoided Kyle for months after Adam's accident only to bond with him when Kyle needed it most, was killed in the season-opening Daytona 500.

''I think it was hard for Dale to come to speak to me after Adam's accident in any way, shape or form,'' Kyle said. ''He and Dale Jr. would be at the race track and do stuff, and it was way too close to home.''

But during some down time in Daytona, the two finally talked. And as Kyle walked along pit road in the hours before the race and it hit him that Adam wasn't there to run in his first 500, Earnhardt comforted him.

''We were standing there and we talked about a couple of things, and he hugged me and we talked a little bit, and that was it,'' Kyle said. ''I think he understood and he had come to terms with that part of it.''

Earnhardt was killed in an accident on the final turn of the race, and Petty now wonders how Dale Jr. will be able to return to that track later this season.

Petty was unable to return to New Hampshire last year, and isn't sure if he'll go this season when the Winston Cup cars race there. Until recently, Pattie thought she'd never go back to the track and didn't want Kyle to go, either.

But track owner Bob Bahre recently made a $1 million donation in Adam's name to a children's camp the Pettys are founding. Pattie is now afraid to stay away from New Hampshire.

''I told Kyle now I feel I want to go because I want to tell him, 'It's OK. It's not his fault.' It just happened at his track.'' she said.

A return to New Hampshire is just one of the many issues the Pettys are left dealing with this year.

For Pattie, it ranks up there with why Kyle keeps racing when each week is such a struggle for Petty Enterprises. It's been years since a Petty car has been consistently successful, and it devastates Pattie to see her family work so hard only to come up empty at the end of each week.

But she won't ask Kyle to quit and Kyle isn't sure when he'll get out of the car and focus only on running the three Petty teams. For now, as a form of therapy, he drives the car Adam would have raced in this season.

''One day I'll just decide it's not time to drive, it's time to watch,'' he said. ''But not yet.''

The only thing the Pettys are sure of is their decision to allow Adam to race. Not once -- not in their anger in the hours after the accident or their grief during the year of mourning -- have they wondered if they did the right thing.

''The passion he approached the sport with, with that attitude and that hunger -- he was like a sponge. He just wanted to soak up everything,'' Kyle said. ''I don't think you would get anybody to say, 'No, this is not the place for this kid.' I think this was the place for him.''



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