Kyle Petty sits on a TV stage the day before Sprint Cup races as a celebrity participant in a new NASCAR game show on the Speed channel.
“NASCAR Smarts” is a trivia contest between a pair of race fans. Petty jokes and laughs with the contestants, and his flashy smile never leaves his face.
It’s the only fun he’s had at Cup weekends this year.
The show tapes on Saturdays of Cup weekends and airs on race days. Petty said he was able to return home to North Carolina after the first two tapings — in Daytona, Fla., and Fontana, Calif., last week — in time to watch the races but chose not to. He couldn’t stand to.
He shouldn’t have to feel that way.
Petty doesn’t drive a stock car anymore — and it isn’t by choice.
Today, when qualifying takes place for Sunday’s Shelby 427 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Petty won’t be tucking his ponytail into his driving suit, as in years past. Instead, he’ll be working on his TV career.
The popular, long-haired humanitarian deserved a better way to “retire” from driving stock cars than to be cast aside like a set of worn tires.
Petty became expendable after his family’s Petty Enterprises sold majority ownership of the organization to Boston Ventures, an investment banking firm, in June. The Pettys’ role further diminished last month when the organization merged with Gillett Evernham Motorsports in what was a takeover by principal owner George Gillett.
The merger of the two struggling organizations was intended to create teams better equipped to challenge for victories. Perhaps even a points championship.
In truth, the newly named Richard Petty Motorsports is a facade. “King Richard” fronts the organization that carries his name, and one of its cars is branded with his famous No. 43.
Gillett, though, is the new boss — How can a “King” have a boss? — and he decided there was no room for Kyle Petty in his garages.
The Petty legacy that began with the late Lee Petty no longer is a family business. It’s been taken over by Gillett, an international sports entrepreneur who owns the Montreal Canadiens and is co-owner of England’s fabled Liverpool Football Club.
Gillett’s new organization fields Dodges for Kasey Kahne, Elliott Sadler, Reed Sorenson and AJ Allmendinger. Sadler, 33, is the only driver older than 30.
Kyle Petty is 48, and his teammate the past two years, Bobby Labonte, is 44. Labonte jumped the Petty ship late last year and since has joined Hall of Fame Racing.
Gillett’s new foursome has done well through two races: Sadler is 11th in points, Allmendinger 13th, Sorenson 14th and Kahne 23rd.
The latest developments that angered Petty were how his No. 44 was handed to Allmendinger and that the paint scheme used on the car at Daytona replicated the look of the car Petty drove to victory in the Daytona 500 support race when he was 18.
“He was really crushed that we didn’t include him in that part of it, and I can understand that,” Richard Petty said in a recent interview with SpeedTV.com. “We were so busy trying to get our end of the deal done and make it work with a new team that it fell through the crack, and I’m sorry that it did.”
Kyle Petty would concede he is nearing the end of his career. The last of his eight Cup victories came in 1995 when he drove for owner Felix Sabates. He never won for his family’s team and finished the past eight years ranked 22nd or worse.
He’ll at least be at Cup races in the summer as an analyst when TNT broadcasts five races.
Petty and his wife, Pattie, have given more to NASCAR than any other couple. That includes their son, Adam, who was 19 when he died in 2000 from a crash during a NASCAR practice session in Loudon, N.H.
Their loss led to the creation of Victory Junction Gang Camp, which has given thousands of chronically ill children opportunities to enjoy summer vacations at an awesome facility in North Carolina.
Petty arrived in Las Vegas early enough this week to participate in tonight’s annual drivers’ auction at Sam’s Town Live to benefit Speedway Children’s Charities.
Before the start of Sunday’s Shelby 427, think of Petty and everything he has done for racing and humanity.
If any driver deserves to be introduced to the crowd that day, it’s Kyle Petty.
The NASCAR community never will be the same without his heart — or his ponytail.
Jeff Wolf’s motor sports column is published Friday. He can be reached at 702-383-0247 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit Wolf’s motor sports blog at lvrj.com/motorsports throughout the week.