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Kyle Petty’s life story comes alive in ‘Swerve or Die’

Kyle Petty has written plenty in his day, it’s just that many of those words have been set to music. So when it came time to handcraft those words that tell his story, his life in racing and the many people whose lives he’s touched, the process hit differently.

“Verse-verse-chorus, verse-verse-chorus, bridge,” Petty says with some levity in his voice, “that’s something totally different than this is.

However new the process, the same heartfelt quality that threads its way through Petty’s songwriting catalog is woven into “Swerve or Die,” a seat-of-the-pants autobiography that takes an intimate view inside one of NASCAR’s foremost families. The book, co-authored by Ellis Henican, will be released Tuesday by St. Martin’s Press.

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Much of the book focuses on Petty’s life in racing, but the chapters explore his other passions — as a musician, a broadcaster and a long-established philanthropist. In adding author to this list, the 62-year-old tells the story of the generations that shaped him. Petty’s name and familiar grin may be front and center on the cover, but the story is about family — those who related by blood and close friends who may as well have been.

“To me, it’s not the people that I actually treated as family. It’s the people that treated me as family,” Petty says before recalling a long list — Felix Sabates, the team owner who sealed his deal with little more than a handshake but always stayed true to his word; the Wood Brothers, who gave him a home at a critical juncture of his racing career; Don Tilley, the prominent Harley-Davidson dealer who oozed cool and cultivated his love of motorcycles; Marty Robbins, the country-western crooner who inspired with his effortless blending of music and stock-car racing. That list goes on.

“So it is about family, and it’s about support,” Petty says. “And it’s about, for me, it’s about just continuing to move, just to continue to live.”

 

The way Petty has fully lived his life comes through in the book’s anecdotal style. The humorous stories from his days as an adventurous youth, to a next-generation racer and a father all connect, with some reminiscence that was previously untold. That includes a gripping recollection of secretly letting his young son, Adam, slip out onto two of the sport’s biggest speedways in a Cup Series car — a cloak-and-dagger act that seems unfathomable today.

“The guys that worked with me, we just had a good time. That’s the lesson,” Petty said. “That’s when it was fun. You know, it was fun to be on a team, it was fun to go to the race track, it was fun to test — all that stuff. So yeah, I’m not sure any of that would fly, ever again, and I’m not sure anybody else would have an opportunity to do it.”

For all the cheerful moments, there is also tragedy, and Petty doesn’t shy away from sharing it. Petty’s uncle, Randy Owens, and his son Adam were both killed in at-track incidents, 25 years apart.

“A lot of things, it was like it happened yesterday,” Petty says. “With a lot of things, the scar, you think it’s healed, and then you say six words about it and you realize it’s just, it’s still fresh. It’s still incredibly fresh.”

While writing about the loss, Petty arrived at a sense of catharsis. But processing those emotions on paper was far different from speaking the words when it came time to record the audio edition.

Petty thought that process would come as second nature. “Shoot, yeah, I’ll do the audio book, man,” he recalled saying. “I run my mouth for a living, I can do that.” The book’s warm, conversational style reads much like the “fireside chat” storytelling session that he capably moderated at the NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremony last winter. But when it came time to verbalize the book’s more sensitive passages, Petty faced an unexpected challenge.

“I mean, I want to tell you that may quite possibly be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, because it got so emotional, reading it and hearing it out loud,” Petty said. “I mean, I think to put it down is one thing. To read it out loud? I talk to myself, and I talk to myself all the time — I mean, a lot. Lots of people tell themselves stuff and it motivates them to keep going. But when you hear it read out loud, and then you play it back, it’s like, oh my gosh. So it was very therapeutic and very healing in a lot of ways at the same time.”

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Petty also takes special care to use his crystal ball in the book’s final chapter. While claiming “I’m no Nostradamus,” Petty dives deep into the recent changes that have shaped current-day stock-car racing, but looks forward into what the future could hold.

“I think the sport will continue to change, and will continue to change for the better and will always be here,” Petty says. “So many people want to sing the death knell of this sport so many times. I mean, they want to go, ‘Whoa, this is happening, so the sport can’t survive that’ or ‘This is happening and so, I don’t know what we’re going to do now. I don’t think the sport is gonna be here in 10 years.’ My point is, this sport has been whatever it needed to be in whatever time it needed to be that for 70-plus years, and it’s still as relevant to its fan base and to the people that love it as it was in the very beginning. And I don’t see that changing in the future.

“But the things that we will have to change to are obviously electric cars, it’s the inclusion, it’s the social climate that we live in. It’s being a more inclusive sport, a more welcoming sport. And we need to be that for anybody that loves cars and loves going fast, we need to be that for everybody.”

The question of “why now” for Petty’s entry into the autobiographical record draws two responses — one is that the book is meant for his children to have an account of their father’s path as they grow up, the other is the timing of the pandemic. When COVID-19 first broke and society went on lockdown, Petty immersed himself in songwriting. Telling his story in book form provided another creative outlet.

But Petty’s story is still being written, through his involvement with racing as a broadcaster for NBC Sports, but also through his charity foundations — the Victory Junction camp and the Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America. The book digs into the origin stories for both, plus how Petty met his wife, Morgan, as the two helped to guide those organizations into the future.

Both Victory Junction and the charity ride began with casual conversations and a shared vision that led to action. It’s a chapter of the book that’s still being written.

“It evolved over those years to be what it is, because it wasn’t perfect the first year, and at one point, we just kept moving,” Petty says. “And the title of the book, we just kept swerving and we never died. I mean, we just kept moving, and that’s the deal. That’s, to me, that’s what the title means, in a lot of ways is you just keep moving. You just keep moving.”