Racing 500 miles in his Hot Wheels Pontiac Winston Cup car Sunday will only be a warmup for Kyle Petty and some of his NASCAR friends. After the race, along with father Richard, son Adam and fellow drivers Kenny Schrader, Steve Grissom, Tim Fedewa, Joe Nemechek and Steve Park, he will hop on his Harley and ride to Prescott, Ariz., about a six-to-seven hour jaunt on a motorcycle.
"It'll be relaxing after driving around in circles all day to be able to go in a straight line," said Petty, founder and organizer of the Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America.
The sixth annual ride will start with 125 motorcycles taking a parade lap around California Speedway before Sunday's NAPA Auto Parts 500. The survivors will finish a week later at Petty's farm in Trinity, N.C.
"When the last of them heads out the infield tunnel Sunday morning, they'll leave those of us who have to make a living," Petty said with a smile. "But as soon as the race is over, we'll chase after them all the way to Prescott."
Petty, who has grown from "Richard's boy" to running day-to-day operations as CEO of Petty Enterprises, started his charity ride in 1995 on a whim.
"I always tell people it was a fad, sort of like Pet Rock, when we started," he said. "Harry Gant, Robin Pemberton, myself and a couple of Harley dealers in North Carolina used to ride to Phoenix every November to have some fun in the off-season. We'd pick up guys along the way and one year we got to Globe, Ariz., and I thought, 'Man, wouldn't it be cool if we did this like kids do with their bikeathons where they get so much money for every mile they ride.' I figured we could get sponsors the same way for a ride across the country. The first year we raised more than $50,000 for charity."
This year's ride will benefit Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall Gang camps, including the newest in Malibu.
"Dad, Adam and I visited one of them in Florida and it was an amazing place for very sick kids to spend time with their families and just be kids," Petty said. "I'd really like to bring one to North Carolina. Our corporate sponsors have been great with us. We're up over a million dollars in five years that we've mostly given to children's hospitals."
Petty and Grissom will not complete the entire trip as they will be testing the new Dodge Intrepid on Tuesday and Wednesday at Homestead, Fla., under the watchful eye of Ray Evernham, the man responsible for returning Dodge to Winston Cup racing in 2001.
"All the Dodge people from our team, Evernham's team and Bill Davis' team will be there, but only Steve and I will do the testing," Petty said. "Then we'll rejoin the tour for a day before we leave it again to race next Saturday night at Richmond [Va.]. All the guys who aren't involved in Winston Cup will ride into the track before the race and then we'll all ride together Sunday to our place in North Carolina for a big barbecue and concert."
Diane Hough, director of the Winston Cup Racing Wives Auxiliary, does all the advance work, finding gas stations, restaurants and hotels in 12 states for 125 or so motorcyclists at overnight stops in Durango, Colo.; Amarillo, Texas; Tulsa, Okla.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Charleston, W.Va., as well as Prescott and Richmond.
"If you think 125 guys is a lot to see riding around the track Sunday, you ought to see them when we all ride into a gas station with only two pumps," Petty said. "Diane does a fantastic job for us, getting restaurant chains to feed us and hotels to put us up. Every place we stop we do something in the community, like playing softball, visiting hospitals, signing autographs. You can't believe what a reception we get when folks hear there's going to be some NASCAR folks in town."
If Hough is the ride's engineer, Don Tilley is the navigator. He leads the way.
"It can be a chore leading the show because you have to make sure you know exactly where you're going," Tilley said. "If I get off at the wrong exit or make a wrong turn, I have three miles of riders to deal with."
Oh, yes, Petty will also qualify his Pontiac today for Sunday's 500-mile race, and Adam will drive the team's Sprint Chevrolet in Saturday's Busch Grand National series event. Richard will be overseeing the legendary No. 43 STP Pontiac driven by John Andretti.
The closest finish in NASCAR Featherlite Southwest Tour history occurred last year at Irwindale Speedway when Greg Pursley of Newhall nosed out Keith Spangler of Chatsworth by .019 of a second. Both will be back at Irwindale on Saturday night for the Foods 4 Less 100, another Southwest Tour event.
Missing will be Larry Krieger of Thousand Oaks, the Irwindale Grand American modified champion who started the season as a tour rookie. Krieger ended his partnership with CBA Motorsports and plans to return to the Grand American modified series.