Kyle Petty compares racing one driver to wrestling a bear, talks about his lack of embarrassment and why fans tell him, 'You're my biggest fan.'
Our series of weekly NASCAR driver interview continues with a former driver: Kyle Petty, who is now an analyst for SPEED and TNT. Petty, who won eight races in a career that spanned parts of 30 NASCAR seasons, retired in 2008.
SBN: What percent of your career races can you remember?
KP: Wow. Maybe 5 percent.
SBN: Really? That few of them?
KP: You know what? It is so funny, because it all runs together for me. I started going to the racetrack working on the King's car, carrying tires when I was 14 or 15 years old in the mid-70s, to then driving a car in that ARCA race in Daytona, and then I ran four or five (Cup) races that year. But I just don't remember some races. You just put them out of your mind because they're just another race.
SBN: What was the first win you ever got in any form of racing?
KP: Daytona, in that ARCA race in '79. I had never run anything before that – never run a short track, raced motorcycles, nothing. And I went to Daytona and won that ARCA race in a Dodge Magnum – (imitates deep announcer voice) one of the fanciest, nicest luxury cars ever built to find its way to the superspeedway.
Rutledge Wood (sitting nearby): Soooo ugly.
KP: It was ugly! But yeah, Daytona. First race.
SBN: Who was a clean driver you enjoyed racing with over the years?
KP: Mark. Mark Martin. Probably one of the fairest guys you will ever, ever, ever race against.
Many years ago, there used to be bears at the fair, and you could go in and wrestle the bear. And if you'd just sit there, the bear would just sit there. But the harder you wrestled the bear, the harder the bear wrestled you – and that's the way Mark was. If you raced him clean, he'd race you clean. And if you wanted to race him dirty, Mark could come back and he could put a bumper to you and give you exactly what you gave him. But he expected you to be fair to him.
You watch him race, and he's still probably the fairest. Somebody runs him down from the straightaway behind him, he pulls over and lets them go. He gives them plenty of room. Mark's probably the cleanest driver I ever knew.
SBN: On the opposite side, what driver always seemed to race you extra hard?
KP: Depends on how you phrase that question, because the point is we all get paid to race hard.
SBN: I'm talking about a guy who would race you like an ass or hold you up unnecessarily.
KP: Golllllly, man. I think if you go back, Dave Marcis was the hardest person in the world to pass. You'd run up on him and he'd motion you to go to the outside of him, and he'd still race you for six laps. You know what I mean? But he was just running his race, too. He gave you room, he just wasn't going to let you go around him. I don't think Dave was dirty or anything like that, he was just the hardest guy in the world to get around.
SBN: What was your personal code of conduct on the track?
KP: You know, I don't know. That's a hard question. Some days, you just don't have a car that will do anything. Some days, you have a 20th-place car and that's just what you've got. If you can get a 15th out of it, you go home and look in the mirror and say, "By God, I had a great day."
And some days, you've got a car that's a top-five car, and you feel like you should have won, but you put yourself in a bad position or you did something wrong or you put your nose in the wrong place. I think that's the biggest thing, is you have to know what kind of car you have and then drive that thing accordingly.
Let's go back to Indy a few weeks ago. Tony (Stewart) had a 25th-place car. I don't know how in God's name he ended up as good as he did (with a top-10 finish). That's a tribute to Tony. He knew he didn't have much of a car, he just had to run and get the most he could – and at the end, fight for everything he's got. So there's no set rule for that; you've just kind of got to know when to go.
SBN: When you were racing, did you ever keep a mental list for on-track payback?
KP: No. I never looked at it that way. You knew how Mark raced, you knew how Rusty (Wallace) raced, you knew how (Dale) Earnhardt raced. Remember, I grew up racing Cale (Yarborough) and Bobby (Allison) and the King and those guys, too – and you knew how they all raced. So I don't think you ever looked at it and thought, "I owe that guy." Probably a lot of people owed me one, I will say that. (Laughs)
You don't forget if you get up under somebody and they cut you off or somebody spun you or something like that, you just remember it the next time you're racing with them. But during the time I was learning to drive and coming up, you remembered it, but you didn't retaliate.
Even today, I watch these guys and they're a lot more mouth than they are action. You know what I mean? (Imitates angry voice) "Yeah, I'm going to this! I'm never gonna forget that! I'm gonna remember that!" And the next thing you see, they're sitting on pit wall talking to each other, they're racing side-by-side, they're pushing each other to the win at Daytona. So where's your grudge?
It's a lot more PR and a lot more talk than anything.
SBN: If you could turn back time and be on the same team as someone you never got to race with, who would you pick as your teammate?
KP: For me, I would say my grandfather (Lee Petty). I was fortunate to be able to race with my father – at the same time and as a teammate. I was fortunate to be able to come along with Adam (his late son) and to be able to race with him and be a part of his owner group and own his team and be a part of his career. But I was never a part of my grandfather's career. So if I could go back and be with him, that's a personal thing more than anything else.
If I could have any one teammate to pick through time, I'd pick (David) Pearson or Matt Kenseth – because I just like those guys. I like the way they drove, I like their style. I love Matt Kenseth to death. It'd just be cool to hang out with them and watch what they do and understand what they do.
SBN: When is the last time you got nervous about anything?
KP: The last time I got nervous about anything was in Texas last year, when I rode a bull in the garage area. I was not nervous until I was sitting on the bull, and I had my hand strapped to the bull. The guy said, "You know you don't have to do this." I said, "There's only one way out now. Open that gate."
I realized when I sat down on that bull, I hadn't really thought it through. I told (Texas Motor Speedway president) Eddie Gossage and those guys that I'd do it, but I hadn't really thought it through. I realized no good was going to come from this. It's the only thing I've ever done in my life where I knew I was going to end up on the ground with something broken or something bad could really happen.
It was the most violent thing I've ever done in my life. I promise. The most violent thing ever. So I was a little nervous when they opened the gate.
SBN: So what happened? I missed it.
KP: I was on for about 1.6 seconds, went up in the air about 15 or 20 feet and landed on my back.
RW: He got up, and the bull was right in his face. Kyle stands up, and he's like, "Holy shit, there's a bull in my face," and goes to step back – and he just fell down.
KP: No, I thought, "There are 20 bulls in my face," because my bell was rung so hard. It was like a cartoon – the bulls were everywhere.
RW: They had told him, "If you hit, get out of the way." And when he went down, I thought he had a heart attack. I thought he survived, saw the bull up close and had a heart attack. Peace out. And I think what scared him more was when they pulled him out, he saw the look of panic on the faces of all our friends standing there.
KP: They were so white. It scared them. And then I felt bad because I had scared them. But that was probably the last time I was nervous. I don't really get nervous. Here's the thing: If you're not afraid to be embarrassed and you can't be embarrassed, then you don't get nervous about stuff. I just don't care. I'd rather try it and fail than not try something. That's just the way I've always been.
SBN: Obviously, you come across a lot of fans, and sometimes they can ask weird or uncomfortable questions. Do you have a story of an awkward fan moment?
KP: First of all, fans have always said, "You're my biggest fan." They're getting things mixed up in their mind and instead of saying, "I'm your biggest fan," they say, "You're my biggest fan." Every driver in the world has heard that. I'm fairly sure every person who has been asked for an autograph has heard that at some point in time.
But the King told me this once: Most fans will only talk to you for 15 seconds, 30 seconds. That's when you get to meet somebody. And that's really cool, because I've been very blessed to be able to meet a lot of people who I thought were really cool. And just to be able to say, "Hey, how are you doing? How's it going?" for a couple minutes, that's really cool. You remember it. I'm a fan of a lot of things and you remember that stuff.
So it's funny, because you always take the time to listen to what they say – and fans will tell you their life history in that 45 seconds when all they want is an autograph. They'll tell you how they just drove down from Syracuse but their car broke down and they had to spend a day in a Wal-Mart parking lot because their car broke down, and then they had to get somebody to ship in some valve covers that they put on but they didn't have the right bolts so they didn't fit, and then they had to change the carburetor and got the car running, but they only got part way down the road and then they ran out of gas, so they had to get somebody to take them to a gas station.
And they'll tell you all this stuff, and then they'll say: "Will you sign this?" That's the point you get to!
But here's what happened one time: I was doing an appearance for a company one time, and it was at a bowling alley. My job was to bowl one frame in every lane. We just kept working our way down the lanes. This place was packed – there had to be 1,500 people standing in the back of this bowling alley. I mean, it looked like the Professional Bowlers Association.
So I got about halfway down, and this lady comes running out of the crowd. She says, "I am so excited to meet you! I marked this day on my calendar, I won these tickets to bowl with you from a radio show!" She went through this whole thing about how she had to answer a question and she called in and got the answer right and they put her in a drawing and she won the drawing.
And then she says, "And wouldn't you know it? I woke up this morning and it's that time of the month, and I can't bowl. So I'm going to let my daughter-in-law bowl for me."
SBN: Wow! What did you say?
KP: I just shut down. Shut. Down. (Laughs) I'm thinking, "I didn't need to know that! Didn't. Need. To Know That." I just stood there said, "Well, it's nice meeting you and I'm looking forward to bowling with your daughter-in-law." I didn't know what to say!
RW: He's selling himself short. The connection people feel with Kyle, it's like people feel so comfortable telling him every detail of their past and their lives. He'll just be like, "So how's it going?" And the stuff he has heard would blow your mind. It's fascinating how they'll see us in Waffle House, how comfortable people get with Kyle right away. It just opens the floodgates.
KP: Well, I will say this: Part of that comes from since my grandfather raced and my father raced, there are so many Richard Petty fans and NASCAR fans who remember when I was born and when I came along and when I started driving. So it's like they watched their son grow up, and then I had a son who raced – and I didn't really realize until Adam's accident how fans looked at our family.
It was amazing. I got letters and cards from people, and I felt bad for them – because I felt like they had lost a family member. It was an eye-opening experience to see how fans truly perceive a driver sometimes, how they perceive that guy as part of their family.
I can't tell you how many times and people will come up, and they'll have a photo and they'll say, "That's your father and that's my father and that's me when I was 8 years old; can I have a picture with you and myself and my son?" It's another generation. That's part of their family history. And that continued on with Adam. It's funny how generational fans can be.
SBN: I've been asking the drivers to pick between being a NASCAR broadcaster or high-ranking NASCAR official after they retired. You're already a broadcaster, so could you ever see yourself as a NASCAR official?
KP (imitates evil voice): Yes I couuuuuld. (Gives a sinister laugh)
RW: The only reason they'd ever hire you is to shut you up over here!
KP: Right! The only reason NASCAR would be able to hire somebody like me is to be able to put a gag order on me, to keep me quiet. You know what, though? I don't believe I could ever see myself in that position. This is not a politically correct answer, but it's going to sound PC – as much heat as they take, I think they try really hard. I would hate to think in certain situations that I would have to make the calls they make.
Having said that, the reason they get in certain situations is because of the stupid rules and the stupid calls they make in the first place! If they could back up time, they wouldn't be in that situation.
I'm not saying I have a crystal ball or any of that, but sometimes you don't understand the ripple effect of how it affects the total sport when a rule is changed. I think Bill (France) Jr. did a really good job of understanding that, and obviously his father did. I think Mike (Helton) and Robin (Pemberton) and all those guys do a good job of being reactionary more than proactive. I would like to see the sport be more proactive in a lot of areas. But I don't think I'm the guy for the job.
SBN: What's a question you get asked a lot that you're tired of answering?
KP: How's my father? Michael Waltrip and I used to sign autographs together a lot, and it would never fail. A guy would come up and say, "How's your dad?" "Oh, he's good." Then he'd move down to Michael. "How's your brother?" "Oh, he's good."
I get that question all the time. So the two questions I'm most tired of answering are, "How's your father?" and "When are you going to get a haircut?"
SBN: I've been asking each driver to give me a question for the next guy. Jeff Gordon was the last interview, and he wanted to know: What were you and your team doing to be so fast at Rockingham back in the day when you were really good there?
KP: That's a really good question, because here's the thing: We won Rockingham with four or five different race cars and two different crew chiefs. Here's what I always tell people about Rockingham: It's a lazy man's racetrack. What I mean by that is the harder you run Rockingham, the slower you go. You can ask Rusty or any of those guys I ever raced against, and they'd always tell you: "You know, if Kyle is letting off early and running good, then by God, you'd better be letting off early."
Now, that only happened two or three times in my life – don't get me wrong – but for whatever reason at Rockingham, we just hit a combination. They didn't change the tire every friggin' week like they do now, and they used to run the same body style for three or four years in a row, too. I think it was just a combination we hit the right stuff at the right time, and it didn't make any difference what we took to Rockingham. We won three or four races there. One race, we dropped a cylinder and still led one-third of the race, because you could run there on seven cylinders and still be fast.
It was just the right combination. I wish we could have had something we used to cheat, because I have cheated in my lifetime – I will admit that. But at Rockingham, we never had anything. Because if we had something at Rockingham, we would have used it at Dover and Charlotte to make it work there, too.
SBN: And can you help me with a question for the next guy?
KP: How about this: Do you think our sport has been elevated to the level of stick-and-ball sports now that we have positive drug tests and baby daddies out there? (Laughs)
KP: No, no, no, I won't make you ask that. OK, here's the honest question for the next driver: At a time when the sport has TV ratings struggles, sponsorship struggles, butts-in-the-seats struggles and there seems to be questions of whether we've plateaued or fallen off and there's so many questions, how do you see today's driver's role in bringing the sport forward in those areas?
Because I don't feel like they have any responsibility at all in that. I think they feel like they just show up and drive cars. You know what I'm saying? I don't believe older drivers felt that way.