LEVEL CROSS, N.C. – Two of the most beloved names in NASCAR -- Earnhardt and Petty -- have joined forces for the "Keeping the Dream Alive" campaign at the Victory Junction Camp.
The initial "dream" of Adam Petty, who died during a practice accident at New Hampshire Motor Speedway 10 years ago next month, was to provide a camp where chronically ill children could enjoy an escape from their daily routine.
With a $1 million gift from Dale Earnhardt Jr., Victory Junction Camp is moving on with the next phase -- the Dale Jr. Corral and Amphitheatre. According to Junior, the interactive venue will host a variety of activities including movies, plays and musical events that "will have our personality stamped on it in some way."
"There are many reasons why we wanted to get involved with Victory Junction and build this amphitheatre, and it starts with the tremendous impact the camp has on these kids. It's incredible how one week changes lives," said Earnhardt Jr. "Just as important to me is my friendship with Kyle and Pattie Petty, and the memory of my buddy, Adam Petty.
"Adam and I met each other at an early age, and from that point on our lives and careers were virtually parallel. He was as genuine as they get and a great friend. If I can play a small part in helping Kyle and Pattie keep his dream alive, it doesn't require a second thought."
A typical camp atmosphere was in full force for Junior's arrival. Cowbells, drums and constant clapping from the crowd of campers and 88 fan club members of the JR Nation Crew welcomed the extended Earnhardt clan and hosts Kyle and Pattie Petty last Saturday for the groundbreaking ceremony. Earnhardt admits he hadn't been to the camp for a while but said "it keeps getting grander every time we visit."
"I told Kyle it's probably as much fun being a volunteer as it is being a camper here because of how great the facilities are," Earnhardt said. "But we wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Kyle and Pattie's vision -- and the whole Petty family. The way they've always carried themselves in the sport, they've always been very giving of their selves and their time. They have quite a reputation. We're very proud of the Earnhardt heritage and being able to come together with this opportunity is out of respect for Kyle and Adam and Richard and everything they've done for the sport. I was in awe of the King and read books about Lee, so it's just great to have the opportunity to help them with their vision.
"It's such a monumental task to construct something of this size and the quality you see around you. As an individual of this sport, it's my concern that we support it. It's an obligation for the drivers and the sport to get behind something like this because it's definitely worthy and effective. You see how excited the kids are and you see the number of kids that get the opportunity to come through here. They really get the job done."
Richard Petty donated the original land for the camp in his grandson's honor. As he looked over the grounds, he noted the project is "twice as big as anyone expected it to be." The King says having Earnhardt increase his involvement bring instant "recognition" to the mission.
"People have a tendency to forget," Petty said. "Then you bring Junior in. It was big when Kurt Busch came, then Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart, but when Junior comes back it brings them all back too."
Kyle Petty notes that "it's been a group effort" throughout the garage. Bobby Labonte and Dale Jarrett initially charted a path for drivers that attracted Stewart, Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Michael Waltrip and now Junior to participate.
"Not everyone comes at the same time," Petty said. "You want everybody in the pool but if every one jumps in at the same time then you loose momentum. You constantly gain momentum each year. Last year it was Jimmie Johnson, this year it's Dale Jr. as you keeping picking up momentum, that's the big statement to me."
Maintaining the camp takes a full-time effort -- one that Pattie Petty tirelessly undertakes with the established VJC in North Carolina and the camp that's under construction in Kansas City. Pattie appreciates the generosity of the Earnhardts -- both Junior and Kelley. She knows there is just as much to admire about Earnhardt outside of the race car and admits there's a unique bond that's formed between her husband Kyle and Junior following their losses nearly a decade ago.
"Junior did this with his own money -- not foundation money -- and that proves how committed he was to Adam and his vision," Pattie Petty said. "He appreciates the history of the sport. And I see two great individuals in Junior and his sister Kelley. I don't think he's had an easy road but both he, Kelley and Kyle show the quality of the character in what they've done for the camp."
Earnhardt admits that his inspiration for the camp came from his experiences with the Make-A-Wish foundation. He quickly realized the need that existed among children with ongoing medical challenges.
"I worked with Make-A-Wish since I started driving," Earnhardt said, "I had no idea why anyone would want to waste a wish on me -- for the lack of a better way of explaining it. Go to Disney World or Victory Junction, but they come to the racetrack on Sunday. Make-A-Wish made me understand how important the camp is because there's a lot of similarities between the kids that would be at both places.
"Obviously, when you're around your nieces and nephews it brings it home. But it was the kids I met when I was much younger through Make-A-Wish before the camp was here that made me realize how difficult the path is and how challenging it is physically and financially. The camp is a saving grace for them. It's a place where they can be around people like them and they feel at home here. They feel comfortable."