NASCAR's Kyle Petty Shares Loss of His Son—'Like a 2x4…Against My Head'

The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) is an American institution. While NASCAR has struggled in recent years over issues such as lack of diversity among drivers and owners, its historic affinity for the Confederate flag and its weighty carbon footprint, it is still a wildly popular spectator sport, bringing in over $500 million in annual revenue. After a two-year dip in viewership, in 2022, NASCAR's marquee event, the Daytona 500, saw its audience nearly double to close to 8.9 million—though still down from its historic highs in the early 2000s like 2006's almost 19.4 million viewers. And among NASCAR drivers, Kyle Petty is known as "royalty." A third-generation driver, son of NASCAR's winning-est driver ever, Kyle won his first stock-car race at the record-breaking age of 18, only to be bested by his own son Adam 19 years later. Less than two years later, Adam died in a tragic training accident. In his memoir, Swerve or Die (St. Martin's Press, August), Kyle shares his experiences on and off the track—as a driver, CEO of successful Petty Enterprises, sports announcer and as a father—and talks about the past and future of NASCAR. The following excerpt lays bare when Kyle first heard about Adam's accident.

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Kyle Petty checking in with Adam before the green flag falls at the Talladega Superspeedway in April 2000 before a Busch Series race. Kevin Kane Photography

I was in England with my daughter Montgomery Lee, looking at Welsh horses.

My son Adam was at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway with his red-and-black No. 45 Sprint PCS Chevrolet. His regular guys were at the track with him. A rising young racer and his crew, all good friends, doing exactly what they wanted to be doing with their lives. The Busch 200 was set for Saturday. Friday was for practice and qualifying. All of which just gave me another reason to smile.

The Cup teams had the weekend off. For us, it was a two-week breather between the Pontiac Excitement 400 in Richmond, which Dale Earnhardt, Jr., had won, becoming the first repeat winner of the season, and the Winston, the all-star race on May 20 in Charlotte. A perfect time for a father-daughter getaway!

The NASCAR world had been buzzing about Adam ever since he'd won an ARCA race (part of the NASCAR feeder series named for the Automobile Racing Club of America), his first ever, at 18 years and three months old, the youngest driver to ever do that. You know whose record he broke? Mine. I was 18 years and eight months old. There we were, Adam and I, already making our own family traditions! He was now in his second season as a Busch Series regular, itching to move up to Cup Series racing, NASCAR's main event. No one could say for sure how far Adam might go in racing. It was much too early to speculate. But when people asked me how I felt about my son's career choice, I always had the same answer: "Like any dad feels when his teenager leaves the driveway for the first time. I sure hope he makes it back safe."

I thought the line was funny. It almost always got a laugh.

It had been quite a spring for the Pettys. On April 5, my grandfather, Lee Petty, the patriarch of the Petty racing family, had died at 86. What my grandfather started, my father, Richard Petty, and my uncle, Maurice Petty, carried on—it always felt more to me like a family business or a family farm than anything as grand as most people made it out to be. Stock car racing had supported our family for more than half a century, brought amazing joy into our lives, and gotten Adam labeled the first fourth-generation professional athlete in America. That sounded nice. But when you thought about it, it was also an awfully weighty legacy for a 19-year-old to haul around. Adam was just a kid, as anyone who knew him at all could plainly see.

And let's be honest, I wasn't exactly tearin' 'em up in my No. 44 Hot Wheels Pontiac. Just one top 10 finish so far that season, my 20th as a Cup regular. But I wasn't sweating it. The season was just getting rolling, and I felt like I was starting to fall into a good rhythm. Plus, I had decided in my mind to step back from driving and move out of my son's way as my father, for personal and financial reasons, had been unable to move out of mine. My dad won his seventh NASCAR championship the year I started. He loved racing too much to quit. I didn't want to do that to Adam. I wanted him to have every chance to thrive. Once he was really up and running, he should be the Petty driver, I believed.

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From left: Len Wood, Glen Wood, Kyle Petty, Preston Miller (holding trophy, Ford’s Motorsports representative), Leonard Wood, Eddie Wood. Taken on May 24, 1987. Kyle won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Kyle drove for the Wood Brothers. Wood Brothers Collection

Montgomery Lee was 14 and loved horses at least as much as her brother Adam loved race cars, which is to say she really, really loved them. She rode Western and seemed to have a knack for it. She had a beautiful bay mare named Dawn, and they'd been doing well together at some serious horse shows. Montgomery Lee wanted to see what showing horses was like in England. So, we were going to a show at a castle outside London. For me, it was that one week a year where it was just the two of us.

I didn't know much about horses, and what I did know was entirely from the dad's perspective. I knew it didn't make any difference whether your daughter had a $2 million horse or a $2 horse. It still ate the same amount of food. And I knew that, however much you thought your daughter's love of horses was going to cost you, you had no earthly idea. As I told my friend Jeff Burton when his daughter started riding: "Figure up how much that horse is gonna cost and multiply it by 10. Get the money in five-dollar bills, and go to the Bank of America building in Charlotte. Then, throw all that money off the roof. It'll be much cheaper that way." Jeff didn't believe me—until one day he did. "If only I had known," he said with a laugh. He wasn't complaining any more than I was. My daughter loved horses, and her daddy was along for the ride.

We had a magical Saturday at the horse show. The beautiful castle. The impressive animals. The talented riders. The look on Montgomery Lee's face as she took it all in. There was a message waiting for me in the lobby when we got back to the hotel.

"Call Mike Helton."

'Like the Air Coming Out of a Balloon'

I had known Mike Helton since he was sports director of a small AM radio station in Bristol, Tennessee, and worked public relations part-time at the Bristol Motor Speedway. After working at racetracks in Atlanta; Daytona Beach, Florida; and Talladega, Alabama; Mike took a job with NASCAR, where he became the first person without the name France to run day-to-day operations. He would soon be appointed NASCAR's third president, replacing Bill France, Jr. I can and will say this about Mike: He was a racing guy through and through.

He skipped all the pleasantries and got right to the reason for his call. "Adam's been in a bad wreck," he said to me. "He's been transported to the hospital."

You know that feeling you get when someone punches you in the stomach? This didn't feel like that at all. This was more like the air coming out of a balloon. I didn't feel pain. I just felt suddenly deflated.

Mike didn't seem to know much yet, but he promised: "I'll call the minute I know any more."

Montgomery Lee was up in the room. I stayed down in the lobby. Since I didn't know what to tell her yet, I didn't tell her anything. Mike was back on the phone maybe 20 minutes later.

Calling back so quickly, I knew it couldn't be good.

"Man," he said, reaching for the right words and realizing there weren't any, "I'm so sorry. He didn't make it."

Short and to the point.

I didn't ask Mike a lot of questions. I didn't really want to know every last detail. There'd be time for that later. All Mike said was that it was a single-car collision during a practice round. Nobody else was hurt. What else did I really need to know?

"Thank you for calling," I said to Mike before I headed upstairs to talk to my daughter and try to make sense of the two-by-four that had just been slammed against the side of my head.

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Book jacket St. Martin's Press

Adapted from Swerve or Die: Life at My Speed in the First Family of NASCAR Racing by Kyle Petty and Ellis Henican, published by St. Martin's Press.