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KYLE PETTY

Winning personality

Kyle Petty has only eight victories in his long career, but he is among the most respected drivers on and off the track.

August 30, 2007|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

Kyle Petty has won only eight times in more than 800 races during his three decades in NASCAR's top series, yet he remains among the sport's most popular drivers.

Petty, 47, typically draws some of the loudest cheers in pre-race driver introductions, is a favorite of autograph seekers and enjoys widespread respect among crew members in the Nextel Cup garage.

Why?

When he joined the Cup series in 1981, he inherited residual goodwill -- not to mention his beaming smile -- from his legendary father, Richard Petty, known as "the King" for his record 200 victories and from his grandfather, Lee Petty, who won three NASCAR championships.

But as the years went by, Kyle carved out his own popularity, first as a driver who maintained close ties to fans and then -- after losing a son to racing -- for his extensive work with children's charities.

"I hope when a lot of people meet me they think, 'He wouldn't be a bad neighbor to have,' " Petty said. "I've always said that I may not be your favorite driver, but I'm probably your second-favorite driver."

And although it's unlikely Petty will visit Victory Lane again, his determination hasn't ebbed. At Watkins Glen, N.Y., this month, his car was knocked out early and a frustrated Petty broke his right hand after slamming it on a hauler door.

"That's just adrenaline, the passion of being in the moment and wanting to win a race," he said after the incident. "Then all of a sudden it's all over for you."

He's expected to be back in the car for Sunday's Sharp Aquos 500 at California Speedway.

Now as his driving days are winding down, Petty is probably better known for being a goodwill ambassador for his sport than being in contention each week.

At the Coca-Cola 600 in May, for instance, he finished third for his first top-five finish in a decade, thanks mostly to a fuel-saving strategy that paid off. But when Petty arrived for the post-race news conference, he began by extensively praising winner Casey Mears, who had just earned his first Cup victory.

"A lot of [Petty's popularity] is his personality, how he comes across to fans," said Bobby Labonte, his teammate at Petty Enterprises and the 2000 Cup champion. "I don't know if charisma is the right word, but he's just one of those drivers people like."

Petty gave up his seat in the No. 45 Dodge this summer to be a TV analyst for several Cup races, and drew favorable reviews for his candor and plain-spoken commentary.

But Petty said TV won't be his next career.

"Not on a full-time basis," he said. "Golly, it was a lot more work than I thought it would be. But it was very gratifying and gave me a different view of the sport."

Asked about his rapport with fans, Petty replied, "I got that from my father." And like Richard, he also talks quickly and often ends sentences with "you know what I mean?"

Otherwise, Kyle keeps a separate identity from Richard, even in appearance. While his dad is known for his trademark cowboy hat and wrap-around sunglasses, Kyle sticks with a goatee and long hair that he keeps tied in a ponytail at the track.

"It's just that the way I was brought up is you are who you are and he is the way he is," Kyle said. "You don't come in and try to copy your father, with the cowboy hat or cowboy boots."

But he does credit Richard with teaching him that drivers benefit from treating fans well in a sport where Kyle has earned $28 million in race winnings during his long career.

"It's a circle," he said. "I want to drive a race car. I have to have money from somebody and I get the money from, say, Coca-Cola. How does Coca-Cola get their money? By selling it to the guy on the street. I want that guy to watch racing, so I sign his autograph. So he buys the Coca-Cola, and they give the money to me. It's just a circle."

Most of Kyle Petty's victories came in the 1990s, when he drove for the team owned by Felix Sabates.

"When I drove for Felix I loved Felix to death," Petty said. "The only reason I left Felix was to start a team for [son] Adam" in 1997.

Adam, then 19, was the fourth-generation Petty to become a race car driver. But he was killed in May 2000, during a practice run at New Hampshire International Speedway. From that point on, Kyle Petty drove with Adam's number, 45.

These days, the No. 45 Dodge is seldom near the front in most races -- "If I go out and run in the top 10 or top five, it's been a great day," Petty said -- but even a poor finish has its benefits.

"If I go out there and I touch somebody or we reach enough people, and use that as a platform [for his charity work] then I think it's been a great day," he said.

Petty and his wife, Pattie , work with several charities. They include his motorcycle Charity Ride Across America and the Victory Junction Gang Camp for terminally and chronically ill children, a camp they started in memory of Adam.

Petty, whose charities have raised several million dollars, was inducted into the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame in June, its first inductee from NASCAR.

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