Work in Sports
A big smile, a hearty laugh; he's only 19, remember
Posted: Saturday May 13, 2000 02:07 PM
By Joseph H. Oberkrieser, Special to CNNSI.com
LOUDON, N.H. -- Around 11:00 Friday morning, Adam Petty was chatting with a group of reporters. Nothing too serious. The 19-year-old Busch Series driver was talking about gaining confidence on the racetrack, maybe making the Winston Cup full-time someday.
His mouth was halfway between a smile and a laugh the whole time. What could be better? At an age when most people are getting ready for the prom or starting college, here Petty was at New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon, N.H. And this wasn't some junior go-kart race, either.
Not that the celebrity was going to his head, mind you.
"It's hard to work on your confidence level and not turn cocky," he said. "When you have good success, I think your confidence picks up."
After the interview ends, Petty gets up to leave. Someone pulls him aside and says something softly to him. Petty greets him with his usual youthful, spirited reaction - a big smile and a hearty laugh. He's only 19, remember.
Just a couple of hours later, Adam Petty was gone.
At about 12:30, during the Busch Series practice run, something went drastically wrong. Speculation is that Petty's throttle got stuck, but nothing's known for certain now.
What is known, though, is the horrible consequences. Petty was flying around the track at about 120 mph when the passenger side of his No. 45 Sprint Chevrolet smacked into the wall at Turn 3.
The driver side emerged virtually unscathed, but the other side of the car was destroyed. Emergency personnel quickly surrounded the Chevrolet.
Petty couldn't get out of the car, and with the damage, the only way to extricate him was to cut off the roof and pull him out. After Petty was carefully removed from the vehicle, he was placed in an ambulance and later airlifted to Concord Hospital.
About an hour later - 1:43 p.m. - Petty was pronounced dead of a head trauma.
The scene at NHIS turned surreal. The 100 or so fans turned silent; so did other drivers and crews. Media members nodded their heads in disbelief when the tragic news arrived.
A month after Adam's great-grandfather Lee passed away, the Pettys have a whole other challenge to face.
"I'm just thinking about (the Pettys) right now, knowing that Adam was about as kind a young man there is," Busch Series driver Tim Fedewa said.
Adam Petty was the heir to the Petty throne. Despite being just a teen, he was planning to race in five Winston Cup events this year. His goal, and seemingly his destiny, was to walk in the racing shoes of great-grandfather Lee, grandfather Richard and father Kyle.
He knew that no matter how well he did in the Busch Series, though, even the famous Petty name didn't guarantee success. He said an hour before the accident that he wanted to just finish a modest 10th to 15th in the Busch Series points standings this year. He's only 19, remember.
"Winston Cup and the Busch Series are two totally different leagues," Petty said Friday morning. "You get put in different situations."
When the news of Petty's death hit NHIS, no one needed ears anymore. There was nothing to hear.
A reporter came back to the media center and said she talked to 30 drivers and crew members - and only three spoke. No one held a press conference to discuss the tragedy. Only a couple released statements.
Once the grief subsides, many will try to assess blame. Petty was too young to be racing, some will say.
But none of that matters. That talented young driver, that half-smile/half-laugh, that ability to cheerfully answer the same old questions is gone. And he was only 19, remember.
"We know when we leave pit row, we may not come back," fellow Busch Series driver Randy Lajoie said. "I thank God every night I'm alive.
"Tonight, I'll thank him twice."