Get lost? A corn maze for a cause

The Oakhaven corn maze is coming along and will be ready on Sept. 1. Courtesy Oakhaven Properties LLC

You never forget a smile like Adam Petty's. It was omnipresent. Big. Bright. Infectious. The portrait of promise, his grin was comprised of equal parts pride, mischief and heritage, not unlike his father's and grandfather's and great-grandfather's before him.

Just a teenager, he was the next in line to shade excellence in the familiar family blue. He would be the flint to rekindle the Petty competitive flame. The future was limitless.

He had a unique way with people. He was kind, thoughtful. And when it came to NASCAR, he got it. He got the racing part, and he got the vital corporate part.

In 1999, Adam was one of the young stars in the Busch Series to whom NASCAR could hitch its wagon for the next two decades. There was a slew of young stars in the series, as Dale Earnhardt Jr.,Matt Kenseth, the Grubb brothers and Hank Parker Jr. all enjoyed budding fan bases.

Another rising star was Casey Atwood. Back then Atwood was a 17-year-old can't-miss shoe who, at that point, backed up the hype. He was fast behind the wheel but slow to discuss it. Generally, he wasn't overly keen on media obligations. That made his publicist's life difficult.

That publicist, Paul Setliff, is an old buddy of mine. He's easygoing and doesn't get too excited about trivial matters -- especially those stemming from cranky race car drivers. And when Atwood gave Paul grief about an appearance, Adam would often come to Paul's aid, and explain to Atwood why it was necessary.

From there, Paul and Adam became fast friends.

When Adam Petty died, in a crash during a Busch Series practice session at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on May 12, 2000, so did his infinite promise.

Paul's son, Cole, was just a few months old at that time. Paul remembers arriving home from Loudon, N.H., that Sunday, walking straight inside his house to Cole's crib, and sitting and staring at his son, while pondering the unimaginable hurt Kyle and Pattie Petty must have felt.

Paul said he looked down at Cole and thought, "If there's ever any way I can help give back in Adam's honor, I'm going to do it."

He found a way 10 years later.

When Setliff chose to exit the NASCAR circus in 2005, he struggled to find his niche. He was caught up in a couple of corporate layoffs and didn't know where to turn. For a couple of years he'd brought Parker to Oakhaven Farm in Ruffin, N.C., near the Virginia-North Carolina border, to hunt.

In doing so, he built a close relationship with Oakhaven manager Gary Barrett, and when the farm's owners began diversifying their business plan, they hired Setliff to manage marketing and public relations.

Last fall, the Oakhaven staff was kicking around ideas to drive traffic to the property and generate revenue. Setliff had just taken his kids to a corn maze in Cary, N.C., which was shaped in the likeness of former North Carolina State women's basketball coach Kay Yow, who had recently died after a long bout with cancer. The maze became a national story.

That gave Setliff an idea.

"I thought that was such a cool way to honor [Yow], and it made me start thinking about some of the guys we'd lost [in NASCAR]," Setliff said. "To me, this was a great way to honor Adam, and give back to something he cared so much about, with Victory Junction. He deserves it. He was such a great guy."

Setliff and the Oakhaven staff immediately started planning the maze and the surrounding events known as "Oakhaven's Corntacular Adventure" (you can check it out at www.comegetlost.com).

The first step was to get the Petty family's blessing.

"When I saw the drawing, initially, I'm like, 'There's no way you're going to get this done.' It was like crop circles, personified," Kyle Petty said, laughing. "And these guys did it. And when you fly over it, it's phenomenal. What they've done is amazing. You look at stuff like that, and you think about it, and in a strange way it becomes a work of art because it takes so much time and effort."

Once the family signed off on the plan, Utah-based Maize Company was hired to design and cut the maze. It is massive, eight acres of corn planted in rows 30 inches apart, horizontally and vertically. Some 400,000 kernels were planted inside. Then developers played connect-the-dots to form the maze. After gridding it, a chemical was sprayed to kill off the unwanted vegetation. The entire process took just four hours.

The Oakhaven Maze will be open to the public from Sept. 1 to Oct. 31, and all proceeds from pumpkins sold during that time will go directly to Victory Junction, a camp for chronically and terminally ill children. Now in its 10th year, the Victory Junction Gang Camp's motto in 2010 is "Keeping the Dream Alive."

The Oakhaven project will help. The goal is to attract some 16,000 visitors. Setliff's research says first-year mazes in areas with similar demographics typically draw 14,000 to 25,000 visitors. If Oakhaven draws 16,000, and sells half that many pumpkins, it will make a fine donation to Victory Junction.

"What feels good is it's been 10 years and there's still people doing stuff," Kyle Petty said. "It's not like, right after it happened, everybody jumped on board for six months and then everybody forgot about what we were trying to do, and what [Adam] was trying to do, with the camp.

"We can talk about the corn maze. We can talk about Kurt Busch. We can talk about [Dale Earnhardt] Junior's donation last year. We can talk about Jimmie's donation of the bowling alley. People just continue to do stuff. That's the part, for me, that's the most gratifying. Even 10, 12 years later, whatever the date may be, people are still interested in doing things in Adam's memory. That's what's cool to me."

Fittingly, the maze is a rendering of a wonderful photograph of Adam.

He is staring straight ahead in his firesuit, smiling.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.