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Remembering Adam Petty, 10 years later

Editor’s note: Adam Petty was only 19 years old and America’s first fourth-generation professional athlete when he died during practice for a NASCAR Nationwide Series race at new Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on May 12, 2000. the throttle apparently stuck on his no. 45 Chevrolet and he slammed into the turn-three wall at the 1-mile track. he was pronounced dead on arrival at a nearby hospital. Petty was the great grandson of NASCAR pioneer Lee Petty, the grandson of racing legend Richard Petty, and the eldest son of Cup driver Kyle Petty. the year 2000 marked Adam Petty’s second full season in Nationwide after a handful of ARCA Series and NASCAR Truck Series starts, and a bittersweet ASA career. he made his first and only Cup start, at Texas Motor Speedway, six weeks before he died. in the bigger picture, he was clearly the future of the Petty’s NASCAR organization, which has struggled in the years since his death. Al Pearce, AutoWeek’s long-serving NASCAR correspondent who also spent many years as a newspaper sports reporter, wrote this column in the days after Adam Petty’s death. it is reprinted here by permission of the Daily Press in Newport-News, Va.

I don’t recall the exact moment I first met Adam Petty. it probably was seven or eight years ago, and he probably was underfoot in a NASCAR garage. you know, the way awkward pre-teens are apt to be. There have been so many sons and daughters in so many garages since I started covering NASCAR in 1969 that it’s hard to sort them out.

But I vividly recall when we became buddies.

It was May 1996, on the third day of his father Kyle’s second annual Charity Ride Across America. after spending the first two days riding with his father on a Harley-Davidson, he brazenly asked if he could ride on the back of my borrowed Honda Gold Wing.

Playfully–for we hadn’t been formally introduced–I asked what was in it for me. Without hesitation, he handed over his black, lightweight Harley windbreaker. I put it on, zipped it up and motioned for him to climb aboard.

At the end of that day’s ride, I tried to return the jacket. after all, the last thing I needed in my closet was another racing jacket. but Adam wouldn’t hear of it.

“A deal’s a deal,” he said. “It’s yours.” then after a pause: “Besides, I have another one.”

With that, he broke into that famous Petty grin, turned and sauntered off, all arms and legs and personality. Good kid, I thought. just like his father and grandfather, “King” Richard.

Adam Petty was just 19 when he died Friday at new Hampshire Motor Speedway. Despite his famous last name and some minor brushes with NASCAR success, I don’t think he ever thought of himself as anyone special.

He was a Petty and simply put, the Pettys raced. they also willingly signed autographs, patiently posed for pictures and made their fans feel special. mostly, they rolled with the punches and kept racing.

So it was with his great grandfather, Lee, his grandfather and his father. Good racers, all, but better people.

It’s hard to say what kind of career America’s first fourth-generation professional athlete would have had. he had a bittersweet 1998 in the American Speed Association and an inconsistent 1999 in the Busch Series. he crashed often, a troubling although somewhat-understandable trend for a teen-age driver at any level.

But of this I have no doubt: Adam Petty was going to be a good person because he came from good stock. he was born into a Christian home and was reared by loving parents and no-nonsense grandparents. as Southerners are wont to say, he never got above his raisings.

I saw that firsthand during our years together on his father’s ride for charity.

As often as not, he’d man the gas pumps for everyone else before refueling his bike. If someone broke down and coasted off, he’d pull over to help. During lunch breaks, he’d more likely serve others before being served himself.

He was among the happiest people I’ve ever known. he had a dazzling smile and knew that as a Petty, the whole world was watching. I don’t know that he ever disappointed.

The last time I saw Adam was Sunday, tooling along Interstate 85 near Burlington, N.C., at maybe 75 mph. his father’s sixth annual charity ride was headed for the family farm near Trinity, and Adam was saying goodbye to folks he wouldn’t see again for a year.

He was on a black Victory, riding alone in the right lane. he was going slower than the pace, intentionally backsliding so he’d run beside everyone for a few precious seconds. he was cocked half-sideways to the left, waving and smiling at every passing bike.

He pointed to my borrowed Gold Wing and flashed the “V” sign, perhaps remembering that first time we’d ridden together and become pals. Moments later, he disappeared over my right shoulder and out of my right-side mirror…

… smiling as if he expected to live forever.

Remembering Adam Petty, 10 years later