The following story is part of Race Chaser Online’s special ‘Month of May’ series both building up to Memorial Day weekend’s runnings of the Monaco Grand Prix, Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 and paying tribute to several special dates during the month along the way.
LOUDON, N.H. — Story by Race Chaser Online Managing Editor Jacob Seelman — David Taylor/Getty Images North America photo —
The date was May 12, 2000.
The place was New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
And the emotions were many: shock, pain, grief, and disbelief.
This was the scene in what was then the NASCAR Busch Series garage area at the one-mile Loudon, New Hampshire oval, just hours after the racing world received what would be one of its most crushing blows at that time — 19-year-old Adam Petty; son of Kyle, grandson of King Richard and the first fourth-generation athlete in any major professional sport; was dead — killed in a practice crash after his throttle hung going into turn three and sent him into the outside wall at roughly 120 miles per hour.
Fifteen years later, it still seems that way — though the emotions have dulled over time, the march of the racing world has gone on — and it is seemingly unfathomable that already, so much time has passed, despite there being days where the wound feels as fresh as the moment it happened.
Adam’s death was a moment where all those who knew and loved the sport of auto racing stood still. He was the next iconic member of the most legendary family in the sport’s history and seemingly destined for great things — before in one sudden instant, everything changed.
“I’ll never forget the day,” recalled Race Chaser Online Senior Editor Tom Baker of his thoughts on the young superstar taken too soon. “I was working at the Fulton and Brewerton Speedways that year and I was in the Brewerton office when Jim Ferlito came in and told us what had happened. It was…almost surreal for a moment, and then when everything started to sink in, I don’t think anyone really knew what to think at that point.”
Adam’s sudden departure was made more painful by how much success he was on the verge of at such a young age, and how much he meant — even in his short time in the NASCAR garage area — to every driver, crew member and official who he came into contact with; not just because of his family’s legacy, but just because that’s who Adam Petty was — a talented driver who always carried a megawatt smile and had a moment for everyone.
“It was like he never had a chance to be good,” Baker added. “We were just waiting for it to happen and then, boom. He was gone. His personality, though, was what I think so many people remember. People always thought he talked like his dad and raced like his grandfather — but his joy in life was a combination of both of them put together.”
Adam’s grandfather, the “King” and seven-time Cup champion Richard Petty, has agreed with that sentiment shared by so many throughout the NASCAR community ever since Adam’s passing.
“It wasn’t that he didn’t have a chance to be good. He [just] never stayed long enough to really see how good he was going to be,” Petty said in a 2010 interview with the Virginian-Pilot. “He was pretty good for the experience he had. The Good Lord didn’t see fit for it [though].”
The teenager’s raw talent was evident from his first moments behind the wheel of a stock car. Like his father Kyle, Adam won in his ARCA Racing Series debut, though his breakthrough victory came at the Lowe’s Motor Speedway (now Charlotte Motor Speedway) in September of 1998 as opposed to Kyle, who won at Daytona in 1979.
From that moment, many expected young Adam to immediately ascend to the ranks of racing stardom, but the upstart didn’t have it easy. He was involved in a crash in his second and final ARCA start at Talladega in October of 1998, and followed that up with what critics called a “sub-par” rookie season in the then-Busch Series (now XFINITY Series) in 1999 — only posting three top five and four top ten finishes all season (with a best result of fourth in Fontana, California) en route to a 20th place finish in the points standings.
But despite the struggles of his rookie season, virtually all of the motorsports community was in agreement that if Adam could shake off his rookie growing pains, that the 2000 season was when he would start to shine.
Petty Enterprises felt the same way — planning for Adam to run seven Cup races in addition to a second full season in the Busch Series as a preparatory slate for the fourth-generation Petty to go full-time Cup racing in 2001. While his Busch starts were hampered by a myriad of issues, many beyond the driver’s control, Adam did show the promise that many expected of him in his Cup debut at Texas Motor Speedway, not lighting the world on fire but staying out of trouble and running solidly mid-pack before the engine expired on his No. 45 and relegated him to a 40th place result.
The race on April 2, 2000 was special for many reasons — though Adam never got to race alongside his father, who failed to qualify for the race; his great-grandfather, three-time Cup champion Lee Petty (who was ill and in the hospital at the time of Adam’s debut start) did live long enough to witness Adam’s first Cup race; though Lee passed away just three days following the DIRECTV 500.
Little did anyone know that was the one and only time that Adam Petty would take to the track in a NASCAR Winston Cup race.
Petty only raced in four more Busch events before his passing, with a best finish of 12th at Talladega (coincidentally his best finish of the 2000 season). The race at Loudon he was practicing for that afternoon would have been his 12th of the season.
Instead, he was never able to take the green flag.
Tim Fedewa, now Kevin Harvick’s spotter in the Cup Series and driver for my grandfather’s NASCAR team in the early and mid-1990s, won that race at New Hampshire the day after Adam passed, and dedicated the win to his memory in Victory Lane. He remembered the young gun not as a family name, but as his own unique driver who was capable of leaving a mark.
“He wasn’t riding off of his grandpa’s coattails or his daddy’s coattails or [even his] great-granddaddy’s coattails,” Fedewa said of Adam. “He was really and truly going to make a name [for himself]. The sad part was he was well on his way to doing that. He had the talent to do it.”
However, despite the fact that his career was never truly able to blossom, Adam Petty wasn’t and hasn’t been defined by the so-called lackluster statistics in a record book.
Instead — the young man, that fateful day in Loudon and the days that followed — ultimately set off a chain of circumstance that has left a lasting footprint on NASCAR racing and the motorsports community in general.
Adam’s death was the first of three in less than a year, caused by a stuck throttle in practice that sent him head on into the wall in practice at Loudon. It was the start of the last truly black stretch in NASCAR history to date in the modern era. Kenny Irwin Jr. was killed in nearly the exact same spot in July when the Cup Series returned to Loudon, and Dale Earnhardt fell victim to a crash in turn four on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. All three were lost to the racing world by basilar skull fractures, the type of head and neck injury that ultimately lead to the mandate of the HANS (Head and Neck Support) device — meant to prevent the rapid deceleration and whiplash of the neck that causes the spinal injuries and which has likely saved countless others from severe injury or death over the last decade and a half.
But in addition to the countless safety improvements that have come out of the aftermath of Adam’s passing and those of his colleagues, Adam’s legacy shines through one building.
The address is 4500 Adam’s Way, in Randleman, N.C. The site? The Victory Junction Gang Camp, a non-profit organization that seeks to “enrich the lives of children with serious illnesses by providing life-changing camping experiences that are exciting, fun and empowering, at no cost to children or their families.”
The camp was inspired by Adam’s tireless mission to help others outside of the cockpit, visiting pediatric hospitals and children battling chronic illnesses before his untimely passing. In response, the Petty family gathered together and made Adam’s mission a lifelong legacy, opening the facility on Father’s Day in 2004 and using it not only as a healing process for the children taken in to have their own time to smile, but as healing for themselves as well.
“He loved people and he loved kids,” Richard said of Adam’s work before his passing. “He’s the one that pointed us toward Victory Junction. You remember Adam just a grinning. He was always smiling.”
It was those smiles that Adam made it a personal goal to pass on to those who needed them, even for just a moment. Victory Junction has provided the place for that goal to be forever realized.
It’s a place that I think everyone in the motorsports community agrees, Adam would be smiling about if he could see it today.
Safety, strength and smiles — three S’s that at the end of the road, truly sum up the person Adam Petty was to his family, friends, the NASCAR community and all those he touched over his 19 years on Earth. He lived a big life in a short amount of time, and he left us with those three words — words we all can take some kind of solace in despite the fact that sometimes, we still on this day ask why he was called home so soon.
But, when you ask why — I would ask you think about one thing as well. Eleven simple words from King Richard; his final and most impactful thought on the day his grandson left us.
“You don’t put a question mark where God put a period.”
The crash on this day 15 years ago may have been a period, but it only marked the end of the first paragraph when it comes to Adam Petty.
The rest of the story has been written by how we’ve honored young Adam in the 5,475 days since.
At least in my eyes, I like to think he’s smiling down on how we’re doing.
We love and miss you Adam.
The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Race Chaser Online, Speed77 Radio, the Performance Motorsports Network, their sponsors or other contributors.