Integrity Instilled By A Founding Father

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AUGUSTA, Ga. –- Integrity is a trait reporters and fans repeatedly try to discover in professional athletes.

Wednesday night, at the National Golf Writer's Association dinner before the start of The Masters, various journalists and athletes used the word integrity to describe many of the athletes and fellow scribes they were honoring throughout the program.

Award recipients included Tiger Woods, Nancy Lopez, Lee Elder, Jim McKay, Julie Inkster, Jose Marie Olazabal and the late Payne Stewart. Each presenter thoroughly illustrated the qualities that elevated these individuals above their competitors and how their contributions further promoted the game of golf.

I remembered hearing the word integrity earlier that same day. Ned Jarrett, who was gracious enough to return my call, shared his memories of the late Lee Petty, and used the word integrity to describe the patriarch of NASCAR's first family.

Integrity -- a firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values.

Integrity could easily describe Jarrett himself, but he was eulogizing a man who not only put this sport into motion, but also established the first stock car racing dynasty in America. Jarrett offered two excellent examples of what made Lee Petty a legend.

While Jarrett was a rookie he went side by side with Petty while competing in Columbia, S.C. Jarrett repeatedly attempted to pass Petty and eventually lost his patience and pulled a bump and run on the defending Grand National champion.

Petty reprimanded Jarrett that night, but the next day at North Wilkesboro, N.C. Petty acknowledged the freshman's potential by offering him a ride. It was a lesson in humility for both men and a moment Jarrett has never forgotten.

His second tale recounted the 1961 accident that, in Jarrett’s opinion, would have put an end to most drivers’ careers. While competing in a Twin qualifier for the Daytona 500, Petty's No. 42 Plymouth and Johnny Beauchamp's No. 73 Chevrolet connected and went flying through the guardrail at an estimated 150 mph. Petty suffered a punctured lung, a broken collar bone, multiple fractures in his chest and thigh and internal injuries.

Jarrett, who won the first of two titles that year, said it was miraculous Petty survived and even more incredible his determination led him back to racing just over a year later at Martinsville Speedway. Petty would run just five more races before retiring from driving duties in 1964, the same year his son, Richard, would win his first championship and the fourth for Petty Enterprises.

I was three when Lee Petty retired from behind the wheel and his attention had already turned to his golf game by the time I moved to North Carolina and began covering motorsports. Richard Petty finished his retirement tour, but was still every bit as popular with his legions of fans.

During my inaugural trip to Daytona I learned firsthand the reason why the Pettys were so popular. I was leaving the track one afternoon and could not understand what the delay was coming out of the infield tunnel. A crowd had gathered around a van that stopped at the light on Speedway Blvd. I climbed out of the car and saw the signature cowboy hat, STP sunglasses and mustachioed grin with the quick draw Sharpee in hand. An impromptu autograph session broke out in the middle of one of the busiest intersections in Daytona. Nevertheless, no one honked their horns or yelled at the van to move. We all sat there in awe, admiring the King and the selflessness he exhibited with the fans.

This same trait was passed on to Richard's only son, Kyle, who in addition to operating Petty Enterprises and racing the No. 44 Pontiac, finds time to execute a food drive at Bristol Motor Speedway each year and organizes a charity motorcycle ride to benefit less fortunate children.

On a professional basis, I was asked to produce a video short for NASCAR Café with Kyle. The Winston Cup Series event was at Dover that weekend and Kyle's current PR person told me he was exhausted. Yet when Kyle was ready to shoot the promotion, not only was he well rehearsed, he suggested we do the video on his Harley for added ambiance, then went to get his bike.

The first time I interviewed Adam, the fourth-generation Petty, he was the person who answered the phone at his ASA shop in Harrisburg, N.C. The conversation was no different than talking to any other teenager accept he was a stock car racer.

A year later, at Gateway International Raceway, Adam greeted me with that million-dollar Petty smile and the same unpretentious demeanor shared by his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. After spending an hour with Adam up in his trailer during the test, I left feeling he was probably one of the most well-adjusted teenagers I ever met. It wasn't hard to see the same values Lee had bestowed upon Richard and Richard in turn to Kyle, ran equally as deep in Adam.

Jarrett was accurate in using the word integrity to describe Lee Petty, but Petty's greatest legacy will probably be the generations he left behind. These men will continue to live by the same values Lee instilled, the values that make Richard, Kyle and Adam not only popular athletes but more importantly, genuinely good people.

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