ATLANTA -- Even when a Petty dies, the show must go on. But it doesn't mean it has to be the same.
Roughly 30 minutes before the start of Saturday's CVS Pharmacy 200 for the NASCAR Busch Series, drivers at New Hampshire Interna tional Speedway will be reminded that exactly one year earlier, Adam Petty was killed in the third turn.
Then, just as they did a year ago, they will race.
When Dale Earnhardt was killed at Daytona International Speedway in February, stock car racing lost a piece of its treasured past. But when Petty died, the sport lost its future.
Young Petty, a fourth-generation driver with his grandfather's charm and his father's passion, was supposed to pump new life into a racing organization that had become stale. The grandfather, seven-time champion Richard Petty, hadn't won since 1982. The father, Kyle Petty, hadn't won since 1995. And the patriarch of the family empire, Lee Petty, died a couple of months before his great-grandson hit the wall head-on during a practice lap.
Petty Enterprises, whose record includes 52 years of racing on the NASCAR circuit and 273 victories, has suffered both personal and professional problems since the death. The void created by Adam Petty's death is compounded by the three-car operation's struggles to make the starting lineup each week.
''Some days you wake up and don't want to go anywhere,'' Kyle Petty said. ''You just want to sit at the house. Other days, you feel yourself getting kicked in the rear end, and you've got to get up and move.''
Perhaps realizing there now are greater issues than fast cars, there is no panic at Petty Enterprises. Kyle Petty, who runs the operation while his father makes frequent escapes to his secluded ranch in the Rocky Mountains, is trying to rebuild the team. So much of the future was built around Adam, and now he's trying to start from scratch.
The team dumped Pontiac for the new Dodge Intrepids at the beginning of the season. The famed No. 43 traded in the STP sponsorship for Cheerios. Kyle moved from his No. 44 car to No. 45 the car Adam was supposed to drive on the Winston Cup Series this year. Buckshot Jones now drives the No. 44 car, but not before the team swapped sponsorship from Hot Wheels to Georgia Pacific.
''It's easier for me to focus on the (No.) 45,'' Kyle Petty said. ''If we can make the 45 successful, then in my heart I know we have given Adam everything that we could give him to succeed. .
''Adam, personally, had already changed the way I looked at racing. After 20 years of driving a race car, you just get jaded. You get jaded to people wanting autographs or doing this or doing that. For Adam, it was all so new, and it added an element of excitement. To see the excitement he had for that, then it gave you a new excitement for the sport.
''Then with his death, I think again it changed the way I looked at the sport. I've always said this, but I probably believe it now more than ever: It is just a sport. It's not the end of the world.''
Kyle Petty now tries to focus on the race team. It's all he has left.
The Winston Cup Series is taking its second of only three off weekends until Thanksgiving, and it's clear the Pettys needed a break. Kyle Petty has failed to make the starting lineup in four of the first 11 races. Jones has failed to make two races. Neither has had a top-10 finish.
The best car from the Petty stables is John Andretti's No. 43. He's got two top-10 finishes, and he's ranked 29th in the point standings.
Jones is 39th in the rankings, while Petty is 44th.
Kyle Petty knows there won't be another Petty behind the wheel of a race car after he quits. Adam Petty made one Winston Cup Series start a month before he was killed, and that made them the only family to have four generations compete in the top division of NASCAR. His other son, Austin, has shown no interest in moving into the fast lane.
Now, the Pettys are more concerned with laying new groundwork for seasons to come. With Adam Petty no longer part of the team's future, his father said the main goal is to be competitive for the 2003 or 2004 seasons.
The grieving won't end by then, but there will be enough races to make a return to prominence possible.
After all, the show must go on.
REACH Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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