Photo credit: Kevin Kane Photography
In the beginning, they called it the Hey Buddy Tour.
It was about as informal as it sounded -- just a bunch of friends in the NASCAR industry looking for an excuse to ride their motorcycles, usually from one event weekend to the next. Kyle Petty and a few others biked from Dover to a test in New Hampshire, stopping in New York City and Maine along the way. They rode to Pocono, where Petty won the race. By that fall, their numbers had swelled to include driver Harry Gant, crew chiefs Waddell Wilson and Robin Pemberton, track promoter Eddie Gossage and others trekking from Rockingham to Phoenix for the penultimate event of the year.
Soon they were planning another ride for the next season, that one from California to North Carolina. Maybe they'd try to raise some money for charity in the process. "We decided we'd do it like a Bike-A-Thon, get people to give us a penny a mile or a nickel a mile or something like that," Petty remembered. "We raised about $35,000, but that's all we wanted to do. We wanted to do it that one time, just to say that you had ridden cross-country."
But it was only beginning. Two decades later, Petty and his band of motorcyclists are still riding across America every year, and still doing it for charity. The 20th annual Kyle Petty Charity Ride begins Saturday in Carlsbad, California, kicking off a week-long trek that concludes seven days later in Daytona Beach, Florida. What started as an informal ride among friends quickly grew into one of the signature charitable events of the NASCAR season, one that since its official inception in 1995 has raised over $14 million and primarily benefits the Victory Junction Gang Camp for chronically ill children in Petty's hometown of Randleman, North Carolina.
"It's crazy," Petty said. "I never thought it would go this far. Never."
When the ride first started, it would benefit children's hospitals -- the caravan would stop at hospitals along the route and leave donations to help families with bills or other expenses. But the mission of the ride changed after Petty's son Adam was killed in a crash while practicing for a NASCAR Nationwide Series race at New Hampshire in 2000. Three years later, the Victory Junction Gang Camp -- a respite for chronically ill children founded by the Petty family in Adam's memory -- became the event's primary beneficiary, and has been ever since.
The Charity Ride, which raises money through rider's fees and sponsorships, is the biggest fundraiser the camp has. The relationships Petty built with children's hospitals during the early years of the ride helped bring kids to the camp once the facility opened. Over the past decade, more than 7,700 children with health issues have attended Victory Junction at no cost to their families, thanks to the Kyle Petty Charity Ride.
"It's funny how that laid the groundwork, because after Adam's accident and we started camp, we already had connections with hospitals," Petty said. "They already knew who we were and knew what was going on, so when we called them up and said, 'Hey, will you send some kids to camp?' they were more than willing to do that. So it's funny how life works out. But it helped build camp, it helps maintain camp, the waterpark is from the Kyle Petty Charity Ride, it maintains that. Every year, we send a week's worth, or a couple of week's worth, of kids to camp through the ride, and the rest of the money goes to improve camp and continue to grow camp. I don't think any of us ever envisioned that this would become such a huge part of camp and what it means to camp at this time."
For those who take part, though, the ride is about much more than charity -- it's a rolling community of automotive dealers and banking executives and industrialists and NASCAR industry members, among others, many of them decked out in bandanas and leather chaps. Due to the anniversary, Petty said this year's event will attract more than 120 riders, the highest number in years. But many are mainstays -- former football star Herschel Walker and retired drivers Gant and Geoffrey Bodine are among the regulars, and Petty said there is a core group of about 10 people who have been on every ride.
Among the originals are Dave and Renee Bartels, who own a moving company and helped Petty transport the motorcycles to the starting point in Santa Clara, California, for the inaugural ride in 1995. They decided to tag along for the first leg to Newport Beach, California, with no intention of going beyond that. But then they ended up making the second leg to Las Vegas. Then the third leg to Phoenix. They went all the way to North Carolina, and have been on the ride ever since.
"It's a real good group of people, a really caring group of people, a really giving group of people," Petty said. "Through 20 years, obviously, we have families that are a part of it that have had kids graduate, that have had family members get married. And we've had deaths. We've had people who were riders pass away.
"That's what the ride is. It brings in family -- you have fathers and sons and wives and daughters and uncles and brothers who all ride together. But in the end, they meet the people and it becomes that type of community. It's so funny, because a conversation will go on all week, and it will stop on that Saturday. And people pick it up a year later in the same place the conversation died, and they go from there. It's like it never missed a beat. It has become a huge family, but it's really become a part of my family."
The ride has not been without challenges. Petty said he was "just going through the motions" after Adam's accident, and thought the event would simply fade away, but it didn't. It was also originally built around off-weekends, which allowed more drivers to take part. But as the off-weekends in the NASCAR schedule dwindled, so did many of the drivers -- even Petty himself had to skip days when he was still competing behind the wheel. Matt Kenseth is scheduled to be among those taking part in this year's event, but the 2003 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion will be able to ride only a few days in the middle of the week because of races at Talladega and Kansas on either end.
Over time, though, it became evident that the riders weren't turning out just to mingle with NASCAR personalities -- they were there to ride with one another. As the friendships among those taking part strengthened, the event became more and more entrenched. "Everybody just kept saying, 'We're going to do it again.' We got to 10 years, we got to 15, and here we are," Petty said. "Even with the economy, the way the economy dipped, people kept coming back."
And they're still coming back. Two decades later, what started as the Hey Buddy Tour is still going strong.
"Twenty freaking years," Petty said. "I can't believe that. I swear, I can't."
NASCAR.com will have daily updates during the journey from Carlsbad, California to Daytona Beach, Florida.
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