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Jim Murray

The Sons Are Shining in Auto Racing

November 05, 1987|Jim Murray

It is not uncommon in some parts of the world, in, say, the diamond-cutting business, for a skill to remain in one family for a century and to be handed down from one generation to another. Lazard, Pere et Fils , is a sign you might see on any European jewelry shop.

It is less common in this country, where sons frequently reject the family business with a scorn bred of years of exposure to it. A minister's child often becomes a libertine. A garment maker's child cannot stand the rag trade and distances himself as far as he can from Seventh Avenue. Coal magnates' sons have been known to turn up on picket lines.

The world of sport ordinarily follows the American tradition. Just as there were no Abraham Lincoln offspring in the White House, there were no Ty Cobb Jrs. on the basepaths, no Joe Louis IIs in the prize ring. Gene Tunney's son became a U.S. senator. There were no young Granges or sons of the Four Horsemen in college backfields.

It's an old story. Familiarity breeds contempt. The younger generation rejects the blood, sweat and tears of the fathers' professions. The whims of the fathers are not visited upon the sons.

Until you come to auto racing.

If ever there were a sport that would seem to be anathematical to the younger generation, this would seem to be it. It's dangerous, dirty, cruel, exhausting, demanding. You get visions of a stern parent in other professions saying threateningly, "I'm going down in the mines, son, so you won't have to. Now hit those books and become President!"

You would think if any sport combined the disadvantages of iron mining with the risks of putting out oil well fires, race driving would be it. There was a time, before the advent of beefed-up safety control and breakaway cars, when one out of three drivers who got in a race car perished in a race car.

The odds have gotten considerably better, but no one ever mixed up auto racing with bird watching, or even mountain climbing, as a soft touch.

Yet, the race tracks of America are awash with the sons of the famous, sometimes competing with their fathers on the same grid. Richard Petty followed daddy Lee into the business, and everybody knew Buddy Baker was Buck's boy. Tony Bettenhausen's son, Gary, and Billy Vukovich's, scions of men who had been killed in race cars, nevertheless opted for life on the edge.

Of late, the baby boom has exploded all over the map in all kinds of racing.

There is Al Unser Jr., Mario Andretti's son, Michael, and Bobby Allison's son, Davey, to name a few. You'd think the race track was the family bank. You'd think the drivers were Rothschilds.

Kyle Petty, 27, is the son of Richard Petty. That's like a ballplayer being the son of Babe Ruth, a fighter the son of Jack Dempsey.

Richard Petty, pere , has won so many races, he's lost count. He once won 27 races in a single year, 11 in a row. That compares with Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, Ruth hitting 20% of the homers hit in the league.

But if auto racing is cruel, exhausting, demanding, it's also exciting, romantic, charismatic, glamorous--and addictive.

It's also accessible.

"I think," says Kyle Petty, third generation stock car driver, "that when a driver of my father's stature says, 'Hey, how about giving my son a shot?' a lot of people are going to say, 'Why not?' You figure in horse racing that a son of Secretariat has a chance to be a good runner, so why not take a chance on the son of a guy who was a Secretariat in his field?"

Young Kyle got in on the glamour early on.

"From the age of 8 on, I used to travel with my father," he says. "I was with people who would live, eat and drink racing. It was all I heard."

So, why didn't he get cloyed with it? A minister's son has his fill of psalm singing. Wouldn't he be sick of spark plugs by the time he reached 16?

Kyle Petty shakes his head. "The other thing is, in any other sport, even if your Dad is a big star, you still have to go through apprenticeship. Mickey Mantle's son has to go through the Pony League, the minor leagues and work his way up.

"In our sport, it's, 'Have car, will travel.' You don't have to come up through the bus leagues."

Were Mom and Dad supportive? Kyle laughs.

"Dad was. Mom wasn't. She wanted me to go to college. Be a doctor, lawyer, pharmacist. Dad tried to discourage me only because she wanted him to. His heart wasn't in it."

Actually, Kyle Petty, a pretty fair high school quarterback--he made All-State--had scholarship offers from a half-dozen colleges.

"I liked Georgia Tech," he says. "But when I went out there and I looked at all these guys in neck braces and knee braces and casts on their arms, I thought, 'Wait a minute! There's more injuries here in one game than there are in a season of racing.'

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