Growing up as the son of legendary NASCAR driver Richard “The King” Petty, it was expected that Kyle Petty would learn some tricks of his old man’s trade. While he put those tricks to good use during his own racing career, another passion he picked up at the track — music — is one he’s still touring with now.
Kyle’s music career started to pick up in the mid-’80s, when he opened for acts like Randy Travis and Hank Williams Jr., but then the production of his debut album hit some obstacles just as his racing career was picking up. He put the music on hold to focus on racing. In 1995, he recorded “Oh King Richard,” an homage to his father that appeared on the NASCAR-themed country album Runnin’ Wide Open, but wouldn’t get back fully back into the swing of things musically until he was done with racing.
In recent years, however, Petty has moved to Charlotte and been playing regular shows with renowned area singer/songwriter David Childers. On Feb. 26, he’ll open for Asleep at the Wheel String Band at McGlohon Theater.
In the lead-up to the concert, we talked to Petty about playing local gigs, his fateful childhood meeting with a racetrack preacher and how the tragic death of his son Adam inspired much of the charity work he still does today.
Queen City Nerve: You first got introduced to music by a preacher at a race track?
Kyle Petty: There used to be a preacher who came to the race track, his name was Bill Frazier. He and Marty Robbins, the country legend, were the first two guys I ever saw play a guitar. I had seen people on TV, but in person, and I was mesmerized. I was 11 or 12 years old, and I borrowed the guitar from Bill Frazier, and I started taking lessons from a guy and he taught me all the major chords and all the minor chords and then said, “If you really want to play, you’ll just keep playing.” I’ve just been playing ever since. I played the guitar, I played the saxophone in high school band, I was a band geek. So I’ve been doing music forever, but all I ever really wanted to do was drive a race car.
Well it’s safe to say the racing career worked out for you, but how did you come back to music? I’ve heard a story about you writing songs while riding your motorcycle across country.
You ride a motorcycle, and you ride from California to North Carolina, you spend a lot of time inside that helmet by yourself, there’s nobody to talk to. I would just come up with an idea there, or have a line or something, and I’d write it on the gas tank with a Sharpie, then when I got to a gas station I would write it down in a little book I carry in my pocket all the time, and I would take a paper towel and put a little gas on it and wipe off the gas tank and, boom, you’re ready to go again. So I would ride the rest of the way and write more on it, so I’ve written a bunch of songs that way.
And now you’re touring around playing gigs all over. How did you get to this point from there?
I just kept writing, I constantly was writing. I’m not the best guitar player in the world but I love to write and I just kept writing songs and writing songs and I would play them for [Petty’s wife] Morgan here in the house but that was about it. Every now and then I’d go to an open mic and do something just for fun, and then it was kind of like, “Hey man, you don’t drive a race car anymore, you don’t do this other stuff, you’ve got time.” And Morgan has been incredibly supportive. So I just said, “Let’s do it, let’s go give it a shot.” I got up with Dolph Ramseur, [manager of] the Avett Brothers, and he was a big David Pearson fan, who was obviously the arch nemesis of my dad, but we just hit it off and started talking.
So one day I said, “Can I come play some of my songs for you? And if you think they’re decent, then good, and maybe I can do something. If you think they’re not decent, then you know what, I’ll just go back in my little house and I’ll play for my wife and my kids and that will be it.” So I played him a couple songs, and he said, “You know what, you’ve got something.”
First he sent me to Jim Avett, and I spent an afternoon with Jim and Jim gave me a lot of great insight, and Jim sent me to David Childers, and I’ve been with David, just tagging along, following David through the Charlotte area. We’ve played probably 10 or 15 places together, and he is phenomenal. He has helped me to kinda point me in this direction or that direction.
How are you taking to the shows here in Charlotte, specifically?
You know what, and I laugh about this, but I’d rather play in front of six strangers than play in front of 1,500 people that I knew. It’s just different.
We played The Evening Muse last year, David and I did, and a lot of the people in there — Dale Jarrett, just people I knew, the guys I worked with at NBC, the guys who used to work with me when I drove for Felix Sabates — and that’s been 20 or 30 years ago — so just people you know and that is pretty cool, it really is. It’s really special when you play somewhere and those guys come out because they knew I played the guitar but they’re like, “My gosh, he’s going to get up on a stage and play!”
Who are your inspirations when it comes to music?
I grew up traveling all the time and riding in a car with my dad and my mom and my sisters, and we listened to Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn and Conway [Twitty], and it was just country, that was it, and that’s old-school country. And then when I started playing, the people that had an impact on me were Jim Croce, Harry Chapin, John Prine, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Carole King, that group of singer/songwriters that came around in the early ’70s, because that was just something totally different. I kind of gravitated to that. When everybody else was going down the road with Aerosmith and KISS and all of that stuff, I kind of gravitated that other way. So looking back, that was my portal into the direction that I went.
Tell me about Victory Junction and how it became a passion of yours to get that off the ground.
When Adam was killed in 2000, I think as a family, my dad and everyone, we all looked around and said, “Let’s give something back.” That comes from growing up in the rural South; people help each other, people give back to each other, that’s just the way it is. I had been fortunate, I had driven some sports car races with Paul Newman, and we had visited one of Paul’s camps, which was called the Hole in the Wall Gang camps in Florida, and we just decided we’d build a camp.
This is the 15th anniversary of camp. Adam’s accident happened in 2000, but by the time we got the camp up and running, this is the 15th year of camp. We’ve seen almost 30,000 kids and their families at camps, and we have a Reach Program that goes to Levine [Children’s Hospital] and Presbyterian [Medical Center] here and brings camps to kids in the hospital, so that’s a pretty special program, too. We see a lot of kids in the Charlotte area that are in hospitals, we just bring camp to them.
Camp is for children with chronic and life-threatening illnesses, and basically it allows a child who is doing dialysis, a child who has Crohn’s or gastrointestinal issues, a child who has spina bifida, hemophilia or blood disorders, whatever, to come to camp in a medically safe environment and do the things that other kids get to do at Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts or a YMCA camp. They ride horses, they swim, they do arts and crafts, they do archery, it’s just a camp.
It’s a medically safe environment. When the kids are there, we have two or three doctors always at camp, 10 to 15 nurses always on staff, the ratio is one counselor for every child. Because these kids do have medical issues, so when we see 120 kids there will be 200 to 250 volunteers and counselors on staff, so it’s a pretty happening place in the summertime.
You’re also coming up on the 25th year of the Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America, which now funds Victory Junction. How did that get started?
We started it in ‘95, I guess, and it was just fun. We just wanted to ride motorcycles from California to North Carolina in that first year. We stopped at some children’s hospitals, then after 4-5 years, when Adam’s accident happened, we started funneling all the money that we raised there to the Victory Junction camp, because camp is totally free of charge to all kids that come. Kids and parents don’t pay, so we have to raise funds to be able to keep the doors at camp open, and this is our 25th year, and in the previous 24 years we’ve raised about $18.5 million for charity through this charity ride, just from riding a motorcycle.
You planning anything new for the 25th anniversary?
This year we’re going from Seattle, Washington, to Key Largo, [Florida]. This will be our longest ride ever — it’s going to be nine days, almost 3,700 miles. It is a long, long ride and we’ve got so many new rides. I think we’ve got 15 to 25 new riders that want to ride this year, so this is going to be an exciting year for us.