Driving a fast and furious 3,400-pound NASCAR at full throttle with an engine roaring at 9,000 RPMs in heavy traffic on a banked, asphalt oval requires skill, nerves and no fear.
Hopping on a Harley-Davidson for a long drive down a peaceful, endless highway? Well, that’s a drastically different ride for Kyle Petty.
It seems motorcycles have mellowed the once fierce competitor in stock car racing.
“Enjoyment, pleasure, calmness, serenity. It’s just slow and nice and easy,” Petty said of managing a motorcycle. “I tell people all the time, “When you drive a racecar you’ve got to be extremely aggressive. You’re out there trying to beat everybody’s brains in.’ On a motorcycle? Man, you’re just enjoying the scenery. It’s about being a spectator. The motorcycle is a lot easier.”
The son of stock car legend “King” Richard Petty, a seven-time NASCAR champion, raced in the sport’s premier league for 31 years, coming away with eight wins on some of the most difficult tracks before retiring from the full-time seat 11 years ago.
Today, he spends time following a different groove, sharing the road and fun with family and friends, driving for charitable causes.
Petty was in Kent on Friday, joining a horde of Harley-powered men and woman of all walks to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the annual Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America. Petty, who combined his passion for helping others with his love of motorcycles, created the Ride to raise funds and awareness for Victory Junction – a camp dedicated to providing life-changing camping experiences for children with chronic or life-threatening illnesses.
Since 1995, more than 8,400 riders have logged more than 12 million cumulative motorcycle miles and raised $18.5 million for Victory Junction and other children’s charities.
As one of the most successful and popular charity motorcycle adventures in the country, the Ride will travel a true corner-to-corner route across the United States. For the first time in the Ride’s history, 250 riders will travel nearly 3,700 miles.
Petty and the field left the Manheim Seattle Auto Auction in Kent – one of the Ride’s primary sponsors – around 8:30 a.m. Friday. The Ride will span 11 states in nine days, ending in Key Largo, Fla., on May 11.
“This year’s Ride will be the best ever … and the longest,” Petty said. “We’ve gone north to south and west to east, but never corner to corner. Seattle to the Keys is a bucket list ride, and I can’t wait to knock it off my list and help our Riders do the same.”
After a catered breakfast and cooperate sendoff party at Manheim, riders buckled up for the long road.
“It’s actually wonderful,” said a smiling Stacey Wills, a second-grade teacher from Dundee, N.Y., on her third Ride with husband Douglas. “On a bike you experience so many sensations … the smells, the sights. You feel like you’re one with the environment … and just being with the group is wonderful. … Everyone takes care of each other. It’s a very loving feeling being with this group on a bike travelling across the country.”
Among those who accompanied Petty and the pack out of Kent were NASCAR legends Harry Gant and Hershel McGriff and former NFL standouts and Heisman Trophy winners Herschel Walker and George Rogers.
Making an impact
At 58, Petty is at peace with himself. While he admits he misses racing on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons, he embraces his role in helping others. His peers describe him as a “champion of philanthropy” and one of the most popular personalities in NASCAR.
For Petty, a painful loss precipitated foundation work.
Petty’s 19-year-old son, Adam, was killed in a crash during a Busch Series practice in 2000.
Five months later, the Petty family began the Victory Junction Gang Camp in Randleman, N.C., as a memorial to Adam. The camp has received support from many NASCAR drivers, teams and sponsors.
The camp, an official charity of NASCAR, officially began operating in 2004. It has grown ever since.
Family taught Petty compassion.
“We grew up in a small rural (North Carolina) community where everybody gave back, everybody helped each other … everybody did whatever it took to make the next family better,” Petty said. “I look at is as the world is a community, and you choose to help other people.”
Sense of adventure
Petty seldom has come to the Pacific Northwest. During his racing career, the Cup Series never came to this corner of the country for one good reason.
“No Cup track here,” Petty said.
“But I’ve ridden up here with friends a couple of times,” he added. “It’s gorgeous … to be here is pretty special.”
Traveling from Washington to Florida, this year’s trek offers scenic views – from the beauty of the Pacific Northwest and the red rock terrain in Utah, to the Colorado hot springs and Rocky Mountains, to the North Central Plains of Texas and the Louisiana bayou, and onto the Everglades and sunny Florida beaches.
“This year’s route is special because we’re bringing back a few of our favorite Ride stops from past years … but we’re also adding in a bunch of new places that our riders will love,” Petty said.
The Ride includes more than 30 new riders. Don Foertsch, 68 and a retiree from Indiana, was encouraged to join his friend for the trip.
“I’m apprehensive,” he said before climbing on his Harley for his first Ride. “There’s a lot of bikes, the weather, the roads … but I’m doing it for a worthy cause.”
Spectators along the route are encouraged to attend one of the Ride’s nine overnight stops or daily fuel stops to greet Petty and the riders, purchase memorabilia and make donations.
Follow the journey at kylepettycharityride.com.
25th Anniversary Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America schedule:
Day 1, Friday, May 3 – Kent to Ontario, Ore.
Day 2, Saturday, May 4 – Ontario, Ore. to Orem-Provo, Utah
Day 3, Sunday, May 5 – Orem-Provo to Glenwood Springs, Colo.
Day 4, Monday, May 6 – Glenwood Springs to Santa Fe, New Mexico
Day 5, Tuesday, May 7 – Santa Fe to Childress, Texas
Day 6, Wednesday, May 8 – Childress to Shreveport-Bossier City, La.
Day 7, Thursday, May 9 – Shreveport-Bossier City to Pensacola Beach, Fla.
Day 8, Friday, May 10 – Pensacola Beach to Tampa, Fla.