KEN WILLIS: You knew Kyle Petty's autobiography wouldn't be your typical life story

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NBC returned to broadcasting its half of the NASCAR season this weekend.

Gray-tinged onlookers might gaze upon a TV screen, see Kyle Petty with a microphone and say, “I know that guy.”

Well, yes and no.

“This ended up being more about personal therapy than a storybook,” Kyle says of his autobiography, “Swerve or Die,” which is due for an early-August release. Veteran chronicler Ellis Henican was his collaborator.

An “advance reader copy” came in the mail and damn near went into a box full of that stuff I’ll get around to later and, let’s be honest, never will. But if you know Kyle, even a little, something tells you he wouldn’t produce a life story using any time-honored template.

Every autobiography is unique, of course, but Kyle’s is different because you get the feeling he needed to get these stories out there.

And frankly, you feel like you’re doing him a favor by reading them and letting him teach us more about NASCAR royalty — his father, “King Richard,” grandpa Lee, beloved late mom Lynda, and others — while also unearthing deep scars resulting from son Adam’s death, 22 years ago, at age 19.

“I didn’t realize it at the time,” he says, “but when I started writing about it I thought, ‘Man, I was in a dark, dark place.’ ”

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Lee Petty was among those cranking the engines on NASCAR’s initial stock-car efforts in 1949, and became a three-time champ with son Richard looking on and dreaming. Kyle was born on June 12, 1960, and less than a month later attended his first race — the Fourth of July Firecracker 250 at Daytona.

Grandpa finished fourth in that race, dad finished 11th, and no one could’ve imagined how much Daytona Beach would factor into the family’s life over the coming decades. While Lee had won the first Daytona 500 in1959, Richard would win seven, as well as two Firecrackers, and Kyle, at age 18 in February of ’79, won the 200-mile ARCA Series race in his stock-car debut.

Kyle Petty's book will be released in early August.
Kyle Petty's book will be released in early August.

Kyle's NASCAR career began later that year. He won eight times in a career that peaked in the early-'90s and lasted until 2008. The Kyle Petty story doesn’t begin or end in the cockpit, by any stretch, but his racing stories are quality material.

Along with the backstage stories, there’s a seemingly endless reel of NASCAR highlights and lowlights that Kyle, since he was old enough to form thought, has witnessed.

In recent years, he says, while spending many hours chatting with his NBC colleagues (Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton, and others), he’d find himself recounting this and that from NASCAR’s days of racing on dirt tracks and AM radio.

“I’ve been around a long time, seen a lot of stuff,” he says. “You don’t realize it until you start talking about it. So I started taking notes.”

Those notes go way back.

“I remember watching Dan Gurney win at Riverside when I was 7 or 8 years old. The reason I remember? He was in the No. 121 Wood Brothers car. I’d never seen three digits on a race car. I had tennis shoes with PJ written all over them, for Parnelli Jones. I knew guys like that when I was 9, 10, 11 years old.

“Later, I watched Darrell Waltrip come in, then Dale and Rusty and the rest. One day you look back and think, ‘I must be 200 years old!’ ”

It wasn't all good.

Kyle’s first dark deluge came in 1975. His uncle — Randy Owens, his mom’s younger brother and a Petty pit-crew member — was killed in the Talladega pits when a pressurized air tank exploded. Randy was just five years older than Kyle and more like a close cousin than uncle — "I idolized him," says Kyle, who was just 15 feet away, holding the water hose, when it happened.

In the book, Kyle writes, “It was the first time in my life that I truly remember thinking something had happened that could never be undone.”

It’d be 25 years later when Kyle learned just how dark the world could turn. Son Adam was 11 races into his second season in the Xfinity Series when he was killed in a crash during practice at New Hampshire Speedway. The fourth generation, and future, of Petty racing was gone and Kyle Petty’s life was obviously torn apart while also, eventually, redirected.

We learn about the earliest days of the Victory Junction Gang Camp, a camp for seriously ill children, which was formed in Adam’s memory and with help from the camp’s inspiration, Paul Newman. The annual charity motorcycle ride gets plenty of attention, too.

Kyle writes about the 2012 end of his longtime marriage to Pattie, followed eventually by his 2015 marriage to Morgan — he openly tells of the May-November factor in their relationship, which today includes young sons Overton and Cotten with another child due in the coming weeks.

Also, there’s son Austin and daughter Montgomery Lee from Kyle’s first marriage.

“When you think about it, I’ve almost lived backwards in a lot of ways,” Kyle says. “With all my kids now, and the death that happened when I was a kid, it’s almost reversed.”

Putting words and thoughts, as well as music (another big part of the book), on paper proved therapeutic for Kyle. Wife Morgan would often read parts of the autobiography, and upon learning something about her husband’s past, would occasionally press for more details..

“She’d cock her head to the side and say, ‘OK, finish that story,’ ” he says. “I’d tell her that’s all there is and she’d say, ‘no, there’s more to it.’ ”

Someday, his young kids will become readers and might pull this book off the shelf. They’ll likely learn things about their dad they’d never heard him talk about. That, too, seems to be a big part of why Kyle told his story.

“They can read it and know a lot more about things I would probably never talk to them about,” he says. “Whether it be Randy, Adam, my depression for a long time.

“Then you have the light come into your life with these kids, and you see it. You have to get it out there, but it’s something I’d probably never talk to them about.”

It’s all for the best, he hopes, while also acknowledging he might someday regret hanging out so much laundry for everyone to see. He laughs at the prospects.

“You know, I’m just arrogant and stupid enough to put it in print so it can be read for a long time. But I developed a taste for crow a long time ago.”

— Reach Ken Willis at ken.willis@news-jrnl.com

This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: Kyle Petty autobiography discusses emerging from a 'dark, dark place'