THE TRIP, THEY THOUGHT, WOULD DO them both good. In June 2000 Kyle and Pattie Petty got on their motorcycles and rode north from their home in Trinity, N.C., to Dover International Speedway. It was a journey they had made many times before, a little piece of the long NASCAR season that they'd carved out for themselves over the years. They would follow the Atlantic coastline north and roll into Delaware by way of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. It was a beautiful ride in the full bloom of late spring, and the couple had made the trip together so many times before that the places where they stopped along the way were as familiar and comforting as a visit to family.
But this time was different. This was their first trip back to the races since May 12, the day their 19-year-old son, Adam, had been killed in an accident during a Busch Series practice session at New Hampshire International Speedway. Possessing the name and the ear-to-ear grin of a future superstar, Adam had been one of the brightest young lights in racing, and his death was a blow not only to the Petty family but to all of NASCAR, as well. When Kyle and Pattie stopped at their favorite seafood restaurant, a shack on the water near Annapolis, Md., they found they were unable to eat. And when they arrived at Dover, where Kyle had planned to take over Adam's seat in the Petty Enterprises' number 45 Chevy in that weekend's Busch Series race, they couldn't even bring themselves to ride their bikes across the track. "We'd ridden all that way and didn't have the strength left for that last little piece," says Pattie. "I couldn't even hold my bike. And then I turned and looked at Kyle, and he was crying."
Kyle Petty's career up to that point had been one of almost nonstop action. From the moment in February 1979 when, as an 18-year-old rookie, he won an ARCA event at Daytona in his very first race, his career had hurtled forward at a furious pace. By the spring of 2000 the only son of NASCAR legend Richard Petty, the third generation of stock car racing's first family, had competed for seven teams, dabbled with a career in country music and started a major philanthropic enterprise—the Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America, a cross-country motorcycle rally that had raised millions of dollars for children's causes. "Kyle was never a one-faceted person," says his father, who's now 70. "It might not have been the best thing for his racing career, but he's always wanted to do his own thing, to carry his own torch."
He's carrying two torches now—one for himself and one for Adam. Though his pain had stopped him short for a moment that day at Dover, it did not prevent him from racing that weekend or from finishing out the season in the car. He'd run the race in tribute, but to his surprise he also found that it was therapy. As he completed the year in Adam's car, he slowly returned to life with each passing mile. And by season's end he was ready for a new challenge, one that he would carry on in Adam's name. Now, seven years later, with Kyle's retirement from racing official, it seems a fitting time to take stock of the unique legacy of one of NASCAR's most popular drivers, a legacy built not on victories and championships (he won only eight races in 814 career starts, the fifth most of all time), but instead on values, on things like integrity and compassion and love. If it isn't as glamorous as the one left by his father—the winningest driver in the history of Cup racing—it has changed the face of NASCAR all the same. "My husband's not one of the greats," says Pattie, "but he's one of the great individuals."
THE VICTORY JUNCTION GANG CAMP sits on 72 rocky, wooded acres in Randleman, N.C., taking up a sizable chunk of Richard Petty's backyard, which is fitting since the King donated the land. Built in 2004 by Kyle and Pattie with private donations—and under the direction of Paul Newman's Association of Hole in the Wall Camps—Victory Junction is a year-round retreat for children with chronic conditions or serious illnesses. The goal of the place is simple: to let kids be kids, to let them forget about being patients for a few days and let them play and try things they never thought they could do. Facilities include a fishing pond, a climbing tower, a swimming pool, a bowling alley and a riding stable, and there are almost no restrictions on what a camper can try.
It is a miraculous place, and it was all Adam's idea. In October 1998, two years before his death, he had visited Camp Boggy Creek, a Hole in the Wall retreat in Eustis, Fla., and come away inspired. He'd begun participating in Kyle's charity ride a few years before and had been intensely curious about how the operation worked. Why, he asked his parents, can't I start something like Boggy Creek?
Such an audacious suggestion wasn't out of character for Adam, a big dreamer with relentless drive. All he had thought about to that point had been racing cars, showing the sort of single-mindedness that had everyone at Petty Enterprises banking on him as the future of the company. "He wanted to be Richard Petty," says his grandfather. "When Kyle started racing, he got into the music deal. And Kyle was the first in NASCAR to step forward for charity on a large scale. But Adam, from the beginning, was dead set on racing."
In the months before his death, Adam was shopping for land upon which he planned to build his camp. "He went from being a 19-year-old kid to being a 47-year-old man," says Kyle. "When you lose somebody, a lot of times you'll look back and say, They knew. You don't think about that at the time. Adam planted the seed for Victory Junction. And I think once that was there, maybe his job here was done."
The camp exists today solely on the support of donors whose contributions are used for the cost of running the facility—about $6 million annually—which includes paying the way of each camper, about $2,500 per child per week. The roster of Victory Junction's supporters reads like a who's who of the Nextel Cup garage. There's a gymnasium donated by Michael Waltrip; Tony Stewart's Maze; and, coming soon, Kurt Busch's Superdome, an enclosed sports facility. "The NASCAR community was very charitable before Victory Junction," says Petty, who has been recruiting drivers for more than a decade for his Charity Ride, "but it was always somebody else's charity. These guys all knew Adam. It was personal. And once it became personal to Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick, then it became personal to their fans, and it became personal to sponsors like UPS and Home Depot and Lowe's."
As a result of its association with NASCAR, Victory Junction has grown much bigger (and wealthier) than most of the camps in the Hole in the Wall association. Those facilities can usually handle anywhere up to 12 disease groups, whereas Victory Junction can now accommodate 26, making it, according to Pattie, the world's largest camp of its kind. Indeed, it's gotten so big so fast that it is no longer just a regional camp for children in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia (the area it was originally intended to serve). Kyle and Pattie, who serves as the unsalaried CEO and chairman of Victory Junction's board of directors, are working on plans to build a second camp in the Kansas City area for children who live west of the Mississippi.