If any peer might have understood Kyle Petty’s feeling of loss in the latter half of 2000, surely it should have been Dale Earnhardt. Both NASCAR Cup Series veterans came from multi-generational racing families. Both worked in a dangerous business long enough to know the risks.
It struck home more so than ever for Petty in May of that year when his son, 19-year-old Adam, died in a crash during practice at New Hampshire International Speedway.
Adam Petty was a fourth-generation driver in one of the most storied racing families ever. Lee Petty started a NASCAR powerhouse, son Richard won 200 Cup Series races, and Kyle, still an active driver, owned eight victories. The assumption throughout the industry was that Adam would reach the top series in a few years as part of his grandfather’s racing team and carry the family’s name in the sport for another quarter of a century or more.
In that respect, he was similar to Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose grandfather and father had long been part of the sport. Dale Jr. reached the Cup Series in 1999, but he had raced against the youngest Petty at lower levels along the way. Coincidentally, Petty made his only Cup Series appearance at Texas Motor Speedway in April 2000 on the day Earnhardt Jr. posted his first victory.
Instead, Adam Petty became the first to die in a terrible string of tragedies involving drivers in NASCAR’s top three series. Kenny Irwin crashed during a July 2000 practice incident, also at New Hampshire. In October, Tony Roper died during a truck series race at Texas Motor Speedway. And, of course, Dale Earnhardt would die at the end of the Daytona 500 at the start of the 2001 Cup Series season.
Long after that final tragedy, Kyle Petty recalled an episode between himself and Earnhardt two weeks before the NASCAR star died.
The pair competed for different teams at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona endurance race, and both finished stints in their respective cars shortly after 2 a.m. They were both heading for RVs to get some sleep when Petty spotted Earnhardt.
“I ran up to him and just gave him nowhere to go,” Petty told ESPN. “Before he could say anything or avoid me, I jumped right in, ‘How’s it going, man? How you like driving these things?'”
Petty didn’t really care about Earnhardt’s Corvette or his own Porsche. His objective was just to break the ice with Earnhardt. In almost nine months since Adam’s death, Earnhardt had consciously avoided talking to Kyle since during driver meetings and at garages on the various tracks.
Earnhardt, rough and gruff on the track, was largely kind and thoughtful when not behind the wheel, as demonstrated by bringing Michael Waltrip onto his team despite his being winless in 16 previous seasons. It would be Waltrip who took the checkered flag in the Daytona 500 as Earnhardt wrecked behind the leaders.
As described by ESPN, though, Earnhardt was “notorious for not handling hospital visits well, let alone funerals,” hence his behavior in avoiding Petty.
“For him, it just hit too close to home with Dale Jr.,” Petty said. “He couldn’t wrap his head around Adam being gone because Adam and Junior had run together at Myrtle Beach Speedway, and they had raced together and done stuff together, and he just didn’t know what to say.”
Now, at 2:30 in the morning at Daytona, the two racing veterans were finally breaking the ice.
“He said, ‘I am so sorry. I just don’t know what to say to you,’” Petty recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, let’s just talk about it. Let’s just talk, man.’ So, we went over to his bus, and we sat there outside for probably an hour and a half.”
The conversation was cathartic for both, laughter mixed with tears. They promised to get back to normal conversations around the track as the NASCAR season kicked into gear.
Tragically, it would not come to be. Earnhardt crashed at the end of the Daytona 500. There had been the string of deaths beforehand, beginning with Adam Petty, but the Earnhardt accident was the one that led NASCAR to re-examine all aspects of safety and introduce substantial new measures to protect drivers.