Kyle Petty says his love of riding motorcycles started at an early age — 5 or 5 1/2 years old, by his estimate. He’s turned that passion into a beneficial cause, one that has allowed him to reach countless amounts of people and to see sights that only naturally occur in the U.S. of A.
So, along last year’s route in the Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America, a scouting mission led him to Darwin, Minnesota, a sleepy town with a population tally of 350 at the last census. There was something there, Petty said, and he was intent to find out what it was.
That attraction, as it turns out, was the World’s Largest Twine Ball Museum, with the claim of possessing the largest ball of twine made by one person. And that must-see roadside sighting wasn’t too far from another stop for Petty, the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota — another tourist draw billed as the “World’s Only.”
“It’s just stuff that you only see in America,” Petty says. “I’m sure there’s not the largest ball of twine in Europe somewhere, or the Corn Palace of Europe or Asia. You know what I mean? Only do Americans do things like this.”
Petty and a hardy band of fans and personalities from NASCAR and other sports plan to take in many more sights in this year’s Charity Ride, which starts Saturday from a northerly starting point in Portland, Maine. The seven-day journey is scheduled to end May 11 at the Victory Junction camp, the Randleman, North Carolina retreat for children with medical needs that opened in 2004 to honor the memory and mission of his son Adam, who lost his life in a racing accident in 2000.
Billed by Petty as “The Americana Tour,” the event returns to the East Coast for this year’s trek, a roughly 1,200-mile trip to raise awareness and funds for Victory Junction. The ride enters its 24th year as a labor of love that’s kept Petty coming back each spring.
“I think for us, it’s a little bit of everything,” Petty says. “It’s spreading the NASCAR gospel, it’s spreading camp gospel and getting to ride motorcycles and talk about motorcycles and hang out with people that you really love and you really like hanging out with and just meeting people.”
Petty stands to encounter new faces along the way, but plenty of familiar names have already lent their support to this year’s ride. His father, Richard, plans to participate, as do racing legends Harry Gant, Donnie Allison, Ricky Craven and Herschel McGriff. Current Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver David Ragan has signed on, as have Heisman Trophy winners Herschel Walker and George Rogers, plus NBC Sports personalities Krista Voda, Rutledge Wood and Rick Allen.
A pair of NASCAR tracks — New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Pocono Raceway — will be opening their doors as checkpoints for the ride. And while more snapshots alongside a massive ball of twine aren’t on the agenda, the tour plans to visit the grounds of the original Woodstock music festival in New York, the Martin Guitar Factory, the Harley-Davison Factory, Manheim Auto Auctions and the Amish country in Pennsylvania, and a winding trip through Shenandoah National Park before arriving in North Carolina with stops at the Petty Museum and a homecoming at Victory Junction.
Petty has been recognized for his philanthropic efforts on multiple occasions, winning the Myers Brothers Award for outstanding contributions to the sport of stock-car racing in 2000 and 2004. But even with his track record of charitable endeavors, Petty insisted that the eponymous ride was not all about him.
“It’s the group, it’s the community, it’s the family — it’s all of us,” Petty said. “I’ve said it before about camp: When Adam’s accident happened, we raised our hand and said hey, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to build a camp, and Bobby Labonte and Dale Jarrett and Rick Hendrick and Felix Sabates and so many team owners and teams, and then in conjunction with that, so many NASCAR fans built camp. The Pettys didn’t build camp. We just raised our hand and said that’s what we would like to do, but it’s all the fans and all the drivers and all the community that built camp.
“When we do this motorcycle ride, I kind of raised my hand and said this is what I want to do, I want to ride motorcycles across country, anybody want to ride with me? … So it is incredibly gratifying to see that other people want to be a part of it and see the vision, and they’re the ones that really drive it.”
With this year’s edition marking 24 continuous years of good deeds, next spring’s charity ride will mark a silver anniversary. Petty said, without skipping too far ahead, that plans were already underway to commemorate the milestone and that his dream sequence for that year’s ride would be an extraordinarily epic itinerary across the USA’s extreme boundaries: Fairbanks, Alaska to Key West, Florida.
“Having said that, I don’t think that’s going to be our route next year,” Petty said with some heavy sarcasm. “But yes, we have thought about it for two years and we’ve planned some big stuff next year. Really do. Honestly, I never thought there would be the second anniversary ride, much less the 25th anniversary ride that we would get this far.”