Life Cycles: Former NASCAR driver Kyle Petty has transitioned from four wheels to two, but he’s always relied on the comfort of six strings.
By Chris Gill | Photo by Jimmy Williams
Considering that Kyle Petty raced cars for three decades, one would assume that he owns an impressive collection of American muscle cars, exotic European sports cars, and pretty much anything else with four wheels. Shockingly, Petty didn’t even own a car while he was racing, and for a few years after he retired in 2008, he drove—the horror—a Toyota Prius.
“When I was racing, the manufacturers of the cars I raced all gave me cars,” Petty explains. “They wanted me to be seen in public driving their cars, so if I raced a Dodge, I was given a Dodge to drive. After I retired, I hit the real world and needed to buy my own can, so I bought a Prius. A few years later, I started to get into cars again, so I went out and bought a lime-green 1948 Packard. That’s my daily driver now, and it’s so much fun to drive.”
Petty does own one other car, and it’s equally surprising for a man formerly associated with the NASCAR circuit. “After I got the Packard, I bought a 1951 Chevy five-window pickup from a guy who lives near me,” Petty says.
“He used it on his farm and parked it in his barn for a while, where it got all rusty. One day, he saw some rat rods in a magazine and figured he could make the pickup look even more dilapidated so he could sell it. He decided to make it look like a bootlegging truck, so he stenciled ‘Carolina Bootleeger, Level Cross, NC,’ on the doors, with bootlegger accidentally misspelled. When people see that, I can tell that they want to point it out to me, but they don’t want to correct me. It’s a lot of fun.”
While those two cars have tons of classic appeal, Petty admits that he prefers vehicles with two wheels to those with four. “I’m a motorcycle guy,” he says. “When I was 10, Chrysler came out with the Plymouth Superbird, which was bad to the bone. It had this huge rear wing and a 426 Hemi V-8 in it that produced about 600 horsepower. There was nothing like it on the highway. From that time on, no car was ever cooler to me, so I got into motorcycles instead.”
Petty owns a variety of recent Harley-Davidson and Victory cruisers as well as a 1956 Harley panhead and 1966 BMW. His passion for motorcycles inspired him to organize the Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America, which will be celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and taking place May 3 through 10. The event started when Petty’s friends talked him into cross-country journey.
“Don Tilley, who owns a Harley dealership in Statesville, North Carolina, talked me and [NASCAR driver] Harry Gant into riding motorcycles from North Carolina to Phoenix,” he says. “Along the way, we picked up other riders that we knew. By the time we got to Phoenix, there were about 50 riders. We talked about doing a ride from California to North Carolina the next year, and I thought it would be cool to do a bike-a-thon and get people to sponsor us. By the time we finished, we raised about $35,000. It’s become bigger each year and now averages about 125 riders. We’ve raised more than $12 million for charity, most of which goes to Victory Junction, a camp for seriously ill children.”
As part of the world-famous Petty clan, which includes his grandfather Lee, father Richard, and son Adam (the first fourth-generation NASCAR driver in history, who tragically died in a racing accident in 2000), Kyle was pretty much predestined to become a race car driver himself. However, for a brief period it seemed that he would follow an entirely different path.
“I was a musician during the mid Eighties,” he explains. “I’d play gigs during the week and race on weekends. I ended up getting a record deal with RCA and started opening shows for artists like Randy Travis and Hank Williams Jr. I was flying all over the place, but suddenly it became a job and I had to choose between music or racing. I chose racing because I was marginally better at that.”
Petty took piano lessons as a child, but he developed a true love of music at age 11 when he started playing guitar. “I’d go to the races with my family every weekend,” he says. “I had seen guitar players before. Marty Robbins used to race, and he’d sit by the pool and play. When we’d go to Nashville to race, Marty would take us to the Grand Ole Opry to see country stars perform. But I thought you had to be someone special like Marty to play guitar. This revival preacher named Bill Frazier, who used to do chapel services for the guys in the garage area, played guitar. Bill showed me a couple of chords and loaned me his 1962 Gibson J-45 so I could learn to play.”
Petty returned the J-45 to Frazier during the Eighties, but about 25 years later Frazier sold it to him, and it currently hangs on a wall in his home. Other guitars in Petty’s collection include a 1932 Gibson L-4, a 1973 Martin D-35, a 1987 Gibson J-45 (nicknamed Black Betty), and a 2009 PRS acoustic.
“Most of my guitars are the rattiest, most beat-up guitars you’ve ever seen,” he admits. “I’m less concerned about aesthetics and more concerned about how they sound. I take Black Betty everywhere I go. I bought a Hoffee case, which is indestructible, to protect it. I write music on it all the time. The ’62 J-45 sounds like your grandmother talking to you, like you’ve known it your whole life. It taught me how to play. When I go into a guitar store and pick up a guitar, I’ll play it and talk to it. Sometimes they talk back and sometimes they don’t. If they talk back, I’ll buy them.
“When I get up in the morning,” he concludes, “the first thing I do is play guitar. I’ll be watching TV and suddenly I might hit a chord progression that I like. I’d do the same thing whenever I finished a race. It just relaxes you and takes you someplace else. That’s been my routine forever.”
This profile is from the March/April 2014 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For more profiles from our BORN TO RUN series about movers and shakers who find their passion at the intersection of cars and guitars, head to the Guitar Aficionado Online Store!