He hasn't raced in the front of the pack all season. Heck, he hasn't even finished in the top five since George W. Bush took office and hasn't taken a checkered flag in over a decade. For that matter, he's never been a serious contender for the NASCAR championship in his 27 years on the Cup circuit. So why in heavens is Kyle Petty my pick for SI's Sportsman of the Year? Put simply, he's got the biggest heart in American sports today.
To understand Petty, the son of the legendary Richard Petty, and what makes him tick, you must go back to the worst day of his life: May 12, 2000. On that day, he was in London on a vacation with his daughter, Montgomery Lee. They were attending the Royal Windsor Horse Show when he got a call that his 19-year-old son, Adam, was dead. Adam had been running practice laps at New Hampshire International Speedway when the throttle got stuck in his Busch Series car. He slammed into the wall on Turn 3 head-on, and was pronounced dead shortly thereafter.
So how did Petty react to this tragedy? Did he walk away from the sport that's in his blood? Did he allow the weight of his grief to smother his life? Absolutely not. Instead, he channeled all of his sorrow into honoring the memory of his son. Last summer, Petty opened The Victory Junction Gang in Randleman, N.C., a camp for children living with chronic or life-threatening illnesses.
Why a camp for sick children? Adam, you see, loved kids. At the 72-acre facility nestled in the foothills of the Piedmont Triad, Petty makes dreams come true. Kids and families can go boating, fishing, horseback riding, swimming, and take part in arts and crafts. There's also a wood shop, a digital photography studio and a computer lab with 15 IBM workstations. Most important, there's a team of doctors on hand at all times. The campers stay in lodges equipped with state-of-the-art medical equipment.
But here's the best thing about the camp: No child or family is charged a nickel. The camp is supported solely by contributions and donations from corporations, individuals and foundations. It's truly a remarkable place, and every time Petty walks around the grounds, he can see his son.
"If the kids have a little bit of Adam's smile on their faces when they leave, then I think it's been a good camp," says Petty. "And that's what I see when I go to the cafeteria. I see 60 little Adams running around smiling."
Kyle Petty as Sportsman of the Year? Take a look at those beaming kids and tell me he's not.
To make a donation to Victory Junction Gang Camp, visit victoryjunction.org.
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Sports Illustrated will announce the 2005 Sportsman of the Year winner on Friday, Dec. 9 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. Check back every weekday until then to read more Sportsman picks from SI writers.