Just as his father had done with him, Richard Petty did his best to keep Kyle out of the driver's seat. The only time Kyle drove a race car as a kid was when he was fourteen. Richard and Kyle were in Georgia, selling Chrysler Kit Cars -- basically, a Petty Enterprises race car in a box. Richard let Kyle take a finished car out onto a half-mile track, with strict orders to keep it in low gear and with the understanding that if he wrecked it, it would be the last race car he ever crashed.
Kyle just didn't see the use in going to college, not when he knew that he was going to end up doing what his father and grandfather had done. He'd always hung around the race shop, at first sweeping the floor or helping clean up, and as he got older he became friendly with some of the younger crew members, including Hmiel, a twenty-five year-old sharp-tongued Yankee from upstate New York, and Barsz, who was thirty-six but didn't always act it.
Kyle was a typical teen -- "pretty wild in the street," says Barsz -- and he had a tendency to wander off in search of something more exciting than welding. Barsz joked that they should weld a piece of pipe around his ankle and attach a cylinder head on a chain to it. "That way," says Barsz, "when Kyle would run off, you could at least see his tracks."
In the summer of '78, right around the time he graduated from high school, Kyle did an interview with Squier in which he declared his intention to drive. It aired when the family was in Daytona for the Fourth of July Firecracker 400. Richard saw it on TV at the hotel and was more than a little surprised. He found his son at a Coke machine out by the pool. The King took Kyle to an umbrella-covered table and sat him down. He pulled out a pouch of Red Man.
"Want a chew?"
"You know I don't chew."
"Well, I thought maybe you'd changed your mind about that, too."
Over the course of their talk, during which Richard smoked a cigar on top of his chew, Kyle explained that he didn't want to take a football scholarship away from another kid when racing was what he really wanted to do.
Swayed by his son's argument, Richard tapped his ashes into his spit cup, got up, and said, "Oh, boy."
"It's not that bad, is it, Daddy? I mean, being a race car driver?"
"It's not the drivin' part. I gotta go tell your mother. That's the hard part."
Later in the year, after Lynda had reluctantly been sold on the idea, the King came up with a plan for Kyle. He gave him one of the old Dodge Magnums he had ditched, the one he had driven to a fourth-place finish at the Firecracker 400 in Daytona, and made Hmiel Kyle's crew chief. Newspapermen would have a field day writing that Kyle had been born with a "silver steering wheel to grasp," which stood out in a sport in which most competitors wore their past hardships like an oil- and sweat-stained badge. (You had to steal an engine for your first car? Hell, my first car didn't even have an engine. That's how poor I was!) But Richard made it clear that there would be no handouts; Kyle was going to have to make a go of it on his own. Everyone's first priority -- including Kyle's -- would still be the King's car.
Kyle's first race would be a 200-miler in the ARCA Series -- a series for late-model cars that was similar to the Grand National circuit, but with a lot less prestige and a lot less prize money. It was a curious choice for a debut.
The race was in Daytona a week before the 1979 500. Daytona is radically different from most other tracks -- two and a half miles with incredibly steep banking, which meant that you could just about run an entire race without taking the gas off the floor. It's not the kind of place where a novice can ease his way into things.
"Here's the way I'm looking at it," Richard explained. "If a man's got twenty years of experience on short tracks, makes no difference. When he gets to Daytona, he's a rookie. He's got to learn about running 180 to190 miles per hour. He's got to learn about drafting. He's got to learn about crosswinds. What he has learned on a half-mile dirt or a quarter-mile asphalt [track] is good for nothing. And the future of Grand National racing is the superspeedways. That's where the money is. That's where the television's going to be. That's where the sponsors want to be. And that's where you want to be."
The first time Kyle got behind the wheel on a track -- for real, not some low-speed excursion around a short track in Atlanta -- was at a test session in Daytona on January 24. Before he took his car out, Kyle rode around the track in a van with his father, who drove and pointed out the preferred line and the tricky parts - most notably the fourth turn, which, because of the D shape of the tri-oval track, wasn't as sharp as the others. The finish line was just past it, and more than one race at Daytona had been decided by a driver making a bold move, or a stupid mistake, coming off of Turn 4.
After the tour was over, Richard took Kyle's car out for a few laps to make sure it was running okay. Then he turned it over to the kid and went to watch with Hmiel from on top of a truck. Kyle turned a few cautious laps at 155 miles per hour, then pulled into the pits. Feeling a little more confident, he went back out and hit 165. Then, feeling a lot more confident, he dropped the hammer.
Richard looked at his stopwatch: Kyle had run a lap at 179 miles per hour. He hightailed it off the truck, yelling, "Get that kid off the racetrack! He's running too fast for his experience!"
The next afternoon, with one day of experience under his belt, Kyle ran ten consistent laps between 185 and 186 miles per hour. His top speed for the day was 187 -- faster than his dad had ever driven the same Dodge at Daytona. (In the King's defense, the track had been repaved over the winter, which made it a little faster.) Then Richard took his Oldsmobile out so the two could run a few laps together and Kyle could see what it was like to drive in traffic. "I noticed he didn't get too close behind me," Richard said later. It was a hell of a crash course -- sticking a newbie behind the wheel of a ridiculously fast car on a track where nine drivers had been killed in the twenty years since it had opened.
"It's more bizarre to me thirty years later than it was at the time," recalls Kyle. "At the time I just assumed it was normal. Looking back on it, I'm thinking, My God, that was wrong." Coming through things unscathed would have been impressive enough, but his times had everyone excited. Just about everyone. "I had to break the news gently to Lynda," Richard told a writer. "I told her by phone that Kyle had run 154. She said that wasn't too bad, not too fast. Then I told her he had run 160 . . . and 179 . . . and 184 . . . and 187. She had a fit and reminded me that I'd promised not to allow him off the apron of the track."
Lest his son think that a couple of hot laps in a test session made him a big-time driver, Richard had Kyle tow the Dodge back to Level Cross by himself, a menial task that ate up most of Thursday night. When he got up Friday morning, his hometown paper, the High Point Enterprise, had a story about his test session under the headline "Kyle's runs at Daytona amazing." He couldn't help but be optimistic about his first race. But before he hit the track again, he had another big event to prepare for.
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