After 25 years, Kyle Petty is still riding across the country, raising millions

Kyle Petty's 25th annual charity ride will lead 250 riders through 11 states in nine days, covering about 3,700 miles. Kevin Kane Photography

At some point years ago, some forgotten date somewhere on the timeline of 25 years, the Kyle Petty Charity Ride was rolling through the literal middle of nowhere.

A hundred motorcycles were rising and falling and pitching and yawing along the lunar landscape of the Southwest, the boom of their chrome choppers rattling off the rocks as their bikes sliced through heat waves radiating off the blacktop. This is the country where dirt roads depart the asphalt in all directions, leading up to solo homes slapped onto mountainsides and one-room schoolhouses that come with double-wide trailer dorms because it takes "local" children so long to get to school that they stay for the week.

Somewhere on one of those nowhere roads, after more than an hour of riding, Kyle Petty found himself wondering, "Man, when are we going to see another human being again?" Then, suddenly, there were four of them. A man, a woman and two kids, standing in the bed of a pickup truck at the head of one of those paths that intersected with the main thoroughfare. The quartet was drenched in sweat, so much so that Mom and Dad had soaked through their Kellogg's Racing T-shirts but not enough to ruin their homemade sign that said: WE LOVE YOU TERRY LABONTE.

"The whole ride pulled off the road. All of us. Everybody." Petty recalls now. "They got down off the truck. Terry took pictures with them. Harry Gant did. My dad [Richard Petty] did. Here's a hundred of us, all circled up around this family. They had read that Terry was going to be with us, and they got a map of the route and found the closest place to them that we'd be passing. They just wanted to see us ride by, thank us for what we did, and let Terry know that they loved him.

"And by the way," Petty continues. "That closest point to them, it wasn't close at all. They'd driven 280 miles to be there. Just to wave at us."

Petty has so many of these stories that he talks for nearly two hours and never repeats himself. He only repeats the enthusiasm. It's the same spark he will carry with him later this week when the Kyle Petty Charity Ride rolls out for its 25th edition to attack its most ambitious itinerary yet, leaving Friday for a nine-day trek from Seattle to Key West, Florida, covering 3,700 miles.

"It sounds crazy, doesn't it?" the ageless 58-year-old says, punctuating the question with a trademark Petty family smile. "But I have more than 200 people coming with me. So at least I know my friends are just as crazy as I am."

Those friends will include Gant, Labonte, Richard Petty, Donnie Allison, West Coast stock car legend Hershel McGriff, IndyCar racer-turned-driving coach Max Papis and current NASCAR racer David Ragan. "We might not raise as much hell as we used to when we were all 25 years younger," Petty admits. "But we still pick our spots. I don't care what your deal is or how old you are. If you get a bunch of friends riding motorcycles together, a good time is going to be had."

Riding with friends is exactly how the charity ride started. In 1994, Petty and three pals decided to commute to work by riding their motorcycles from North Carolina to the next race, at Phoenix International Raceway. As they pushed west, they kept picking up more and more friends along the way, finally gathering a group of 30 by the time they reached Arizona. Inspired by the experience, Petty saw an opportunity to do some good. The next year, he formalized it into a fundraiser, a transcontinental ride-a-thon that fans could support either by pledging or by simply handing over whatever they could at each stop along the route.

In the quarter century since, the Kyle Petty Charity Ride's 8,400 participants have logged 12 million miles, hit 48 of the 50 states and raised $18.5 million. Last year's ride, from Portland, Maine, to Greensboro, North Carolina, raised more than $1.3 million.

It takes year-round planning, first mapping out a potential route and then riding it to scout road conditions and find places to sleep, eat and, most importantly, to fuel up every few hundred miles or so. In early December, Petty, wife Morgan, their 6-month-old son, Overton, and Morgan's parents boarded an RV in Seattle and did just that. "You gotta get hotel contracts and you gotta order meals and you gotta talk to the gas stations and you gotta have police escorts through every town, because guess what? We come rolling in unannounced, we are going to shut you down."

Morgan, who married into this deal, rides herd on the undertaking, constantly on the phone from the end of that RV ride until the end of the actual ride in mid-May. But both Pettys insist it doesn't feel like work. It is a literal labor of love, especially with another pair of anniversaries on the way.

This summer marks the 15th anniversary of the Victory Junction Gang Camp, the Petty family's 84-acre facility that gives the summer camp experience to children with serious medical conditions. It's a place where kids who can't walk get to ride horses and swim, where children normally confined to cancer wards can get outdoors and sing under the stars. A decade and a half ago, Petty remembers running panicky (and, as it turned out, thankfully unnecessary) drills to save lost campers who'd wandered off into the forests of Level Cross, North Carolina. On the eve of the 2004 opening, he sat up all night worried that no one might show up.

This summer, Victory Junction's 30,000th camper will pass through the front gate.

The place is pure magic, and it has been the primary beneficiary of the Kyle Petty Charity Ride since 2004. The camp's centerpiece has always been a building shaped like a race car, sporting the same stylized No. 45 on its door that Kyle Petty once drove on his own racing machine and has always worn atop his head. It's the number and race car of Petty's first son, Adam. Victory Junction was Adam's dream. This Mother's Day weekend will mark 19 years since the 19-year-old was killed in a crash during a NASCAR Busch Series practice session in New Hampshire.

"Adam would have been 39 years old this July. Can you imagine that?" his father asks. It is indeed impossible to envision because the would-be heir to NASCAR's most storied kingdom -- son of Kyle, grandson of Richard, great-grandson of Lee -- is frozen in time. He'll forever be a teenager in photos -- and in the minds of fans, especially those who wait to greet every KP Charity Ride, looking to hand Kyle some money for the camp and hug his neck.

"There are still a lot of guys out on the racetrack every weekend that Adam raced against, that he'd probably still be racing against now," Petty continues. "So, the fans of those drivers, they remember Adam. They know Adam."

Petty still has every sympathy card and letter that poured into his home and office in the months after Adam's death. There are tens of thousands of them stored in a dozen industrial-sized plastic bins, and he read every single one of them. While he did, a shift happened in the grieving process. It's a dynamic that continues now, nearly 20 years later.

"These letters, they broke your heart because these people, they sound like they lost a family member. Lee Petty fans who begat Richard Petty fans who maybe became Kyle Petty fans, Adam was their guy. And he was gone. They were lost. Our family was in their living rooms and in their lives for, well, their entire lives. Now, on Sunday afternoons, we weren't going to be there anymore. Not out there racing.

"It sounds crazy and I never saw it coming, but I went from being the guy who lost a son to wanting to console this person, this family, for their loss. It's been that way ever since."

It is a beautiful burden. Not only because it provides new personal connections on a near-daily basis but because it keeps Adam Petty alive. As Kyle and his friends motor across the United States this week, he will take all of the hugs and handshakes those people will give him. If they shake his right hand, they might even catch a glimpse of Adam's name tattooed inside his father's wrist. And any donation they might press into that hand -- "Small change, big impact," Kyle likes to say -- also keeps Adam's Victory Junction Camp dream alive.

Camp fundraising survived the inevitable dip when its newness wore off, followed by the economic crash. A big reason for that was a series of large donations from the NASCAR All-Star likes of Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch and others who have donated time or included the camp in their foundations. But the lifeblood has always been the steady, smaller donations made by the fans of those drivers.

It's the Kyle Petty Charity Ride that has kept Victory Junction on the minds of those fans. Petty plans to keep riding to make sure that never changes.

"We have 10 guys who have been on every ride and three guys who have ridden every single mile," he says. "There are times when we'll look at each other and say, 'Can you believe we're still out there doing this?' Then I look at Dad out there riding, and he's 81. And I look at Donnie Allison on his bike, and he's almost 80. And freaking Hershel McGriff is out there, and he's 91!"

Kyle Petty gives a thumbs-up.

"I'm only 58, man. So, I'm thinking we can get this thing up to 50 years. At least."