While it’s been 15 years since Kyle Petty last raced a NASCAR Cup Series car, the 62-year-old is still making waves in the sport on a weekly basis.
Whether it be through his routine appearances on NBC’s NASCAR coverage, his recently published book, “Swerve or Die,” or his animated opinions on social media, Petty continues to put a stamp on the sport he’s called home for decades.
The third-generation racer has been taking in the sights and sounds of motorsports since the moment he was born, dating back to his first race as a month-old baby at Daytona (Fla.) Int’l Speedway.
Naturally, his outlook spans far and wide, as someone who’s seen the sport of NASCAR grow exponentially.
In an interview with SPEED SPORT, Petty discussed the difficulties and the feeling of not “belonging” after stepping out of the driver’s seat, along with why he continues to speak his opinion amid an unrelenting audience.
Q: Since your last Cup race in 2008, you’ve been sort of a jack-of-all-trades type of guy, from TV to being a musician, author, the list goes on. At the end of your driving career, if someone would’ve said all the things you’d be doing now, what would have been your reaction?
PETTY: I would have said, ‘Yeah, I’m in. I’m in.’ Let me explain that to you. Because I’ve always said, and you can go back, if you can find these. When I first started, they didn’t take notes, they just carved them in stone with a hammer and a chisel. That’s kind of a wave of last century.
But I always said, I didn’t want to get to the end of my career, or the end of my life, and look back and say, ‘You know, I had a chance to do that, and I didn’t do it,’ and look at it that way.
So pretty much anything that’s come along, I’ve always looked at and said, ‘Yeah, man, I want to do it.’ While I was driving for Felix (Sabates), we set an American Powerboat Association record, down around the tip of Florida and through it with Caterpillar.
Flew around the world in a Concorde, and set a record flying around the world in a Concorde, when I drove for Felix. I rode a bull for Eddie Gossage down in Texas about 10 years ago.
It’s fascinating. I’m not gonna say that I’ve been successful at everything. But I’ve been willing to at least put myself out there and try. That’s been the one thing. I’ll always look at my life that way and say, ‘Man, there wasn’t a moment that went by that I didn’t to live it.’
It might have hurt a little bit, might have been painful laying on the ground at some point in time, but I took advantage of it.
Q: Some drivers have a difficult time staying out of the driver’s seat. How was it for you?
PETTY: Incredibly hard. I think if you’re a driver, and you don’t have a hard time, you shouldn’t have been a driver in the first place. I say that this way, and I don’t care if you race motorcycles, if you’re racing school buses out of Charlotte Motor Speedway for a living, if you drive Formula One, whatever you drive, I don’t care, whatever you ride, whatever you race.
When you’re little and you’re a little boy, and you’re four or five years old, that’s what you want to do. I wanted to be Richard Petty, I wanted to be David Pearson and Bobby Allison, and I wanted to be those guys. They were my heroes.
I knew who Mario (Andretti) was, I knew who A.J. (Foyt) was, I knew who those guys were. But I wanted to be these guys. When I would lay down and dream at night, I dreamed about racing those guys. I didn’t dream about doing commercials, I didn’t dream about being on TV. I didn’t dream about having to go sign autographs or do an appearance at any place. I didn’t dream about that.
I dreamed about driving a race car. So when you get to the end of your career, the sad part is, you know what, you can still stand up and give speeches, you can be on TV, you can do commercials. The part they won’t let you do is the part you dreamed of your whole life.
So it’s really hard to let that dream go. We are very fortunate that a lot of guys start young, really young now. But man, you get to do it until you’re 40 or 50.
That’s a working man’s life. That’s your whole life. So to have to figure out what you’re going to do at 48, 49, 50, early 50s and say, ‘I got to start all over,’ that’s tough.
Even for me doing TV and stuff. Those first few years, man, I hated to go in the garage area, because I didn’t feel like I belonged anymore. You belong when you race. You don’t belong when you don’t race anymore. So it took a long time to get over that hurdle.
Q: Specifically, why do you feel you had that feeling like you didn’t belong?
PETTY: So for me, here’s the way it’s always been. It took me awhile, even doing TV. I was a fan in my own way, but not in the way that fans are fans, I don’t believe. I don’t know how to explain that.
But the point was, inside every race track, there’s that area where all the cars are, and all the mechanics are. That’s where everything happens, in that area. Call it the garage area, call it the pits, call it the paddock. Put a moniker on it, put a name on it, whatever you want to call it. It all starts right there.
That’s it. Nobody comes to the race track if that group doesn’t come to the race track. If those riders, drivers, those mechanics, those bikes, those cars don’t come, nobody comes.
So that is the center of the universe. That’s where I grew up. That’s where I felt like I would always be. That’s where I felt like I belonged. All of a sudden, I was a satellite. I wasn’t in the center of the universe anymore. I was out here.
I didn’t really think that mattered. It took me a long time to understand that TV, the media, and what you guys do, what SPEED SPORT does. You are the connector, you are the conduit, you are the piece that helps that fan, and grows that fan, educates that fan and gives that fan an opinion, or allows that fan to have an opinion.
They may not always agree with me, I don’t care. But I like that they have an opinion, I love that they have an opinion. Their opinion is formed over time. Once I got comfortable with that piece, and understanding that my new place in the sport was not behind the wheel or in a car in the garage area.
But now I was a connector. Listen, you can unplug me at anytime you want to. All you gotta do is hit that switch baby. Cut it off. Once I came to terms with that, it was a lot easier, a lot softer, going to the race track for me.
Q: You’ve been known to be a straight shooter when it comes to giving your opinion. Despite the flack, why do you continue to let loose knowing there’s a good chance someone reacts negatively?
PETTY: I do care what people say. I do. But I think when, especially Twitter, I laugh at Twitter. Because if your only argument with me, when I say something that you don’t like, is that you say, ‘Get a haircut dude. What’d you ever do?’
If it’s personal, that’s not an argument man. But there are really people on Twitter and in social media that have valid opinions. I can be swayed. I can be swayed by a valid opinion, by a solid opinion. Once you start down that personal road or just attack me for no reason, listen, you get scanned over. Thanks for playing, see you later.
But here’s my thing. I’ll tell you a story. I was born in June of 1960. Went to my first race in July of 1960, went to Daytona. My mom brought me to Daytona as a newborn baby. I’ve been going to races my whole life, I’m 62.
I have an opinion about things, just because I’ve been around it so long, so long man. I don’t know everything. I never claim to know everything. Some things I know, somebody will start talking about something and I’m like, ‘Man, I remember.’
I saw (Dan) Gurney run at Riverside in 1967-’68 and run three numbers on the car. I remember it because it was number 121, and I’d never seen three numbers on a stock car. So I saw Dan Gurney race a stock car, which is amazing to me.
So my point of view is spread out over decades. Not since 1980, 1990, 2010. It goes back to the late 60s, when I started really going to the race track during the summer with my dad, and being around Bobby Isaac and (David) Pearson and hanging out with those guys. Even as a kid, you just pick up things.
In the end, when it’s all said and done, it’s just my opinion. I’m not the story man, it shouldn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter.
Some people like it, and some people don’t like it. I’ll say this: the one thing, TV, SiriusXM Radio, SPEED SPORT, you guys do, is you educate. Once you give someone knowledge, and once you educate that fan, you can’t BS them anymore.
The BS is over. It went out the window, man. If you actually think you can stand in front of a camera, and BS a guy who’s subscribed to your paper since (Chris) Economaki owned it. If you think that you can BS a guy who has been a serious subscriber or watched every race since 1981, then you’re sadly mistaken, man.
You’re playing in a different league. So the best thing to do is throw it out there, take your lumps and believe what you say. That’s the deal. If I say it, I believe it. That’s just my opinion.Follow @DHoffmanMedia22