Pettys Face A Somber Fathers Day

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LEVEL CROSS, N.C. -- The four generations of Pettys gathered in the family museum for a photo next to the white 1959 Oldsmobile that patriarch Lee Petty used to race.

Lee stood proudly next to his 19-year-old great-grandson Adam, whose decision to become a race car driver had made the Pettys the first four-generation family in NASCAR. Lee's son, Richard, and grandson, Kyle, flanked the two.

With all four Pettys flashing their infectious smiles, the photo last year turned out so well it was reproduced and stitched onto a blanket, the kind race fans might give to their dads for Father's Day.

Lee loved the idea, so did Adam.

Neither got to see the finished product.

Lee died in April at 86 of complications from a stomach aneurysm. Adam was killed six weeks later in a wreck during practice at New Hampshire International Speedway.

So there will be little joy for the Petty family Sunday, Father's Day. Richard will be thinking of his father and grandson. Kyle will be mourning his grandfather and son.

Lee's death, although not unexpected, was difficult for the tightknit family.

A pioneer driver and the greatest star of the 1950s, Lee was the head of the Petty family. His son Richard, who went on to become ``The King'' of stock car racing, considered him his hero.

Kyle, Richard's only son and a 20-year Winston Cup veteran, said shortly after Lee's death that he'd never seen his father so down.

"I've seen my father in 10 million different situations in his lifetime, from laying in a hospital bed to standing on top of his car in the Daytona 500 victory lane," Kyle said. "But I don't think I've ever seen him this emotional about anything."

As difficult as that was, it did little to prepare the Pettys for Adam's death May 12.

In his only public comments since Adam's death, made three weeks ago in Dover, Del., Kyle Petty broke down several times while remembering his oldest son.

"We were really close," he said, unable to hide the tears behind dark sunglasses. "We used to joke about being a father and son, and best friends. And I think we were."

The strong Petty family ties can be seen in photos and videos at the old garage-turned-museum, just yards from the house where Lee's widow lives.

Filled from front to back with photos, old cars and memorabilia from the past 50 years, the Richard Petty Museum in this tiny town just south of Greensboro is a tribute to The King's career.

Some photos show a young Richard listening intently to advice from his father. Others show him in Victory Lane, a young Kyle standing beside him, with matching curly hair and cheek-to-cheek smiles.

The most recent images show all four Pettys standing beside a hauler, or leaning against one of the Petty-blue cars. They almost always stood in the same order: Lee in front, followed by Richard, then Kyle, then Adam.

All four always smiled.

Some of the museum's most emotional scenes come from a 75-minute video from 1991 that cuts back and forth between interviews with Richard and Kyle.

Richard describes how he dreamed of one day racing just like Lee, his hero.

"He told me to come back when I was 21," Richard said in the video. "So I forgot about it. Then one day I came in and said, 'I'm 21 now.' And he said 'OK, let's go.' "

Richard set the same rule for Kyle, although he'd been bringing his son to the track since he was 8 months old.

"I told Kyle I didn't get to start until I was 21, so you don't get to start until you're 21," Richard said in the video.

But Kyle persuaded his father to let him start at 18. The trouble was convincing his mother, Lynda.

"She knew the good sides and the bad sides of racing," Kyle said. "She told me there are some really, really high points and some really, really low points and you've got to take them both."

Kyle was asked what he would do when Adam, then 11, expressed interest in driving.

"I'll tell him to go see his granddaddy," Kyle said with a laugh.

Then he turned serious.

"I don't know what I'm going to tell him because I'm not sure when the bug is going to bite him, or if it will bite him at all," Kyle said. "But if it does, I'll tell him that whatever direction he wants to go, I hope I can point in that direction and give him a head start."

Just weeks ago, the blankets with the Pettys' stitched likenesses from last fall's photo shoot arrived. One now hangs in the family museum, a poignant reminder of happier days for NASCAR's first family.

"When we ordered it, they were all living," said Bonnie Davis, who runs the museum. "Since it came in, the two middle ones are gone. It's a very sad reminder."

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