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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Adam Petty died young, but he left a legacy

The years 2000 and 2001 were brutal for NASCAR fans.
In the span of less than a year, four drivers (Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr., Tony Roper and Dale Earnhardt Sr.) lost their lives on the track.

I can still remember clear as day the feeling of shock I had nine years ago today, when I first saw the news that Petty had died in a practice crash at New Hampshire. I barely knew of the fourth-generation driver … he was one month shy of his 20th birthday and had made just one career Cup start. I had seen him race in Nationwide, but hadn’t really followed his career much.

But for whatever reason, perhaps just because he was so young, it hit me hard. I couldn’t believe what I had heard, and stood there stunned. My thoughts turned to Kyle at Pattie Petty, who were now in a lifetime of pain after losing their son at such a young age. Perhaps more than any other sport’s fans, NASCAR fans really consider the drivers as a sort of extended family, and the loss of one has a deep impact.

I then phoned a friend to break him the news, and his silence echoed my sentiments. A couple months later, I received a similar call from that same friend, telling me of Irwin’s death, eerily at the same track.

It shouldn’t have happened, and Adam should have had a chance to carry on the Petty legacy in NASCAR. I don’t know how successful he would have been, but his death was a big loss for the sport.

Despite being only a teenager when he died, Adam’s legacy lives on and helps thousands of kids each year through the Victory Junction Gang Camp, an idea he had to start a camp for terminally ill and other sick children. If he had that kind of vision to help people at such a young age, who knows how much good he could have done if he was still around?

His death also had implications that couldn’t have been predicted. The Allison and Petty families, longtime bitter rivals since their days battling each other on the track decades earlier, buried the hatchet when the Allisons showed up at Adam’s funeral. They had experienced a double dose of tragedy with the deaths of their sons Davey and Clifford in the 1990s, and Adam’s death gave them a common bond.

Thankfully, safety innovations have kept the sport free of driver deaths since Earnhardt’s death in 2001. It’s just too bad those innovations weren’t around in 2000, as NASCAR would’ve been a better place with Adam and his bright smile around.


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