News & Media

Caraviello: Started for charity, Petty's ride spawns community

May 15, 2011, David Caraviello,

MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. -- It begins with a flurry of police activity, cars and motorcycles with blue lights flashing, troopers and deputies securing intersections and blocking off oncoming traffic. You hear it coming before you see it, a whoop-whoop of sirens heralding a gasoline-powered buzz that grows gradually into a roar. And then there it is, the long train of motorcycles of every brand, style and color, riders revving their engines and waving to onlookers as they snake through corners toward that day's stop.

This is how the Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America rolls into town, with a flourish. And soon the parking lot of a local restaurant is filled with Triumphs and Harley-Davidsons, and riders shaking off the dust of that day's trip. They're middle-aged folks, mostly, with a few younger and older sprinkled in, wearing blue jeans or leather chaps and bandanas tied around their necks. The ride is all about charity, and in its 17 years it's raised more than $14 million for children's hospitals and the Victory Junction Gang Camp. But for the people who take part in it, who come from business backgrounds or automotive dealerships or the NASCAR industry or elsewhere, it's also about community.

"It generates a lot of income for a week. You look at our bank account, we start the year with nothing and end the year with nothing, and somewhere in the middle it goes way up. We give everything away."


"It's become like a family," said former football great Herschel Walker, a NASCAR fan who got to know Petty and wife, Pattie, years ago at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and is now taking part in his seventh ride. "We don't have everyone here with us. We have some people who because of graduation had to bow out. But everyone who comes back on the ride, we have a lot of fun. We've become like a family. When we're not riding, we're talking with each other on the phone getting ready for the ride. It's great to come back. It's like a reunion every year."

This year's ride, which began May 7 in Lake Placid, N.Y., and ends Saturday in Amelia Island, Fla., consists of about 90 motorcycles and a total traveling party of about 200.

Petty said there are about 15 people -- he calls this original group "the band" -- who have been on every ride dating back to its inception in 1995. Back then, it raised money for children's hospitals. Now the primary beneficiary is the Victory Junction Gang Camp, a camp for chronically ill children in Randleman, N.C., that was founded by Kyle and Pattie after their son Adam was killed in a crash at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2000.

"We all ride a lot and go in different directions, but to have something like the charity that Kyle and Pattie are the genesis of, it makes it a lot easier," said first-time ride participant Brad Daugherty, a NASCAR television commentator and co-owner of the JTG/Daugherty race team of driver Bobby Labonte. "It's just a good excuse for all of us to get on motorcycles, but we're doing it for the right reasons."

It all started in a Waffle House. That's where Kyle Petty, Eddie Gossage, and a friend in the television business were holed up during the blizzard that postponed the 1993 Cup event at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and where they hatched the plan of going on long motorcycle rides centered around race weekends. They rode to Dover, to New Hampshire, to Pocono. "On the last morning before Pocono, we were talking about how we'll never get to do this again, because our wives are always on us anyway," said Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway. "Me and Kyle looked at each other and said -- charity! If we do it for charity, they can't say we can't do this. That's the genesis of the whole ride."

And a community, bound by a cause and a common passion for the open road, was born. Gossage, who's been on the ride every year but one -- he missed 1998, when the Texas track was being constructed -- looks around the crowded bar area of Red's Ice House, where riders are enjoying a Lowcountry lunch of shrimp, potatoes, and corn on the cob, and listening to a set by local rocker Eddie Bush. That guy over there runs an electrical contracting company. That guy is a retired banking executive. That guy works in the music industry. That guy is a multi-millionaire. There's someone who owns a car dealership in the Midwest. There's former Daytona 500 champion Geoffrey Bodine.

"When I was sick, nobody knew except five of these guys. They called every day," said Gossage, who successfully battled cancer in 2009. "I've got great friends, but there are five guys on this ride -- Kyle being one of them, people don't realize Kyle and I have been brothers for 25 years -- and I care so much about them. But the rest of the people, when you come back, you just pick up the sentence in the middle from last year. We're 17, 18 years older now, so it's harder to do this, and we're trying to get some younger folks involved so they'll keep carrying on."

The initial interest in participation, Kyle Petty said, is always sparked by motorcycles. Some people take part once to get it off their bucket list, some people get hooked. "This is something that always intrigues people, riding long distance for six or seven days," he said. "A lot of people do rides, they just ride out and ride back. They're local toy rides and stuff, a day ride. But when you start putting together seven-day rides, nine-day rides, people are like, let's see what that's all about."

Eventually, though, it becomes about something much bigger. "We've been doing this 17 years. We stopped in Wilmington [N.C.], there's a boy -- well, he's not a boy, he's 6-6, 250 -- graduating from UNC Wilmington," Petty said. "When we first did the ride, he was 5 years old. He's been on the ride almost every year, so we had a graduation party. He's always been a part of it. We've lost a couple of people, and you go to the funeral in California or Michigan or Charlotte, and everybody's there. It's like belonging to a special club. They've all done [the ride] together several times. They've shared the same experiences and have loved the same stuff. It's just cool."

"We stop in these little towns we go through, we pull into gas stations, and there's 100, 150 people waiting for us."


This year's ride began in Lake Placid amid 37-degree cold, and included a slow trip around a rain-slickened Watkins Glen International. It meandered down the coast to this suburb of Charleston, where riders were greeted by temperatures in the high 80s and dolphins frolicking in Shem Creek. Riders average about 400 miles every day, Walker said. The event is a huge logistical undertaking, requiring the organization of support vehicles, police escorts and medical personnel. Executive director Diane Hough and lieutenant Morgan Castano arrange it all, working months in advance to line up lodging, meals, and support from local authorities. It raises money through rider fees and sponsorships.

"It generates a lot of income for a week," Petty said. "You look at our bank account, we start the year with nothing and end the year with nothing, and somewhere in the middle it goes way up. We give everything away."

But clearly, the riders get something out of it. Walker said he loves motorcycles, and keeps a few at his parents' home in Wrightsville, Ga. But the former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL star rarely rides them, except for Petty's event. That's why he was so gung-ho to get involved. "That first ride, it was exciting," he remembered. "You had state troopers keeping you in line, and when you get out on the open road you can do a few things they won't let you do if you don't have them with you. So I really enjoy doing it."

Daugherty said Petty had been pestering him to take part for years, and he finally found a few free days this week. He had joined the ride two days earlier in Irvington, Va. "We stop in these little towns we go through, we pull into gas stations, and there's 100, 150 people waiting for us," Daugherty said. "We get off, gas up, spend a few minutes signing autographs. It is unbelievable, the impact, just as long as I've ridden with them. And obviously, the charity, everybody connects with it. But we've been having a blast. I'm looking forward to next year. I'm going to make sure I get it on my schedule."

This stop attracts its share of onlookers and autograph seekers as well. Petty closes the afternoon's activities by taking to the stage with Bush and singing three songs of his own, all originals, including one with the refrain "the circus ain't the same as it used to be." Soon enough, it's time to mount up and move on. A siren whoop from an escort vehicle serves as the five-minute warning. Helmets are strapped on, engines are fired, and the whole train of motorcycles is rolling again, a community of riders bound for its next stop.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.