There really was never any doubt that Kyle Petty was going to be a race car driver.

“Look, we are from the rural South,” he said. “My grandfather (Lee Petty) raced, my father (Richard Petty) raced. In the South, the rural South, it’s not uncommon for a farm to be in a family for six, seven, generations. You did what your dad did, what your family did. If your father ran a grocery store, you ran a grocery store. If he raced, you raced. I never thought twice about it. My father raced, and I wanted to.”

Kyle Petty, now 57, was pretty good at it, his NASCAR Cup Series career spanning 30 years with eight wins and 173 top-10 finishes.

And just as there was no doubt Petty would be a racer, there was also no doubt what he would do with his notoriety.

“Racing was what we did,” he said. “And we were able to use that platform to do different things. And with the things you do and the blessings you receive and the notoriety you receive is a responsibility to do something with it. So you take that and you turn it into something good.”

Petty, now a NASCAR analyst for NBC, will be in Portland this week for the start of his 24th annual Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America, a 1,200-mile motorcycle trek to Greensboro, North Carolina, to raise money and awareness for Victory Junction, a camp established by Petty’s family to provide camping experiences for children ages 6-16 with chronic or life-threatening illnesses.

“It’s really a hospital disguised as a camp,” Petty said in a phone interview. “We have doctors, nurses. They can do chemotherapy, dialysis treatments. At the same time, the child can go fishing, visit the water park, ride horses, archery, go bowling, like any other child who goes to camp. They’re just under medical supervision.”

The ride has raised more than $18 million. It will feature 225 participants, including celebrity riders such as Richard Petty, current NASCAR driver David Ragan, former NASCAR driver and ESPN analyst Ricky Craven of Newburgh, former NFL players Herschel Walker and George Rogers, and NASCAR legends Harry Gant, Hershel McGriff and Donnie Allison.

They will leave Portland on Saturday morning from the Westin Portland Harborview garage and head toward New Hampshire through Waterboro and Alfred. This is the first time in seven years that the charity ride has been on the East Coast.

Petty said a visit along Maine’s coast last year with his wife, Morgan, convinced him to start the ride in Portland.

“My wife and I left Connecticut to go to New Hampshire for (a) race last year,” he said. “It was midsummer and she said, ‘Let’s go along the coast and look at lighthouses.’ It was just incredible, beautiful.

“And we found Portland to be the perfect size, the right look, for a city to start the ride in. It really hit us.”

Plus, he said, last year’s ride began in Portland, Oregon. “I thought it would be cool to send out invitations to the riders saying, ‘Welcome back to Portland.’”

Petty, who said he has been riding motorcycles since before he entered the first grade, plans on spending some time Monday around 9 a.m. with fans at Big Moose Harley-Davidson on Riverside Street in Portland. Big Moose is helping him with the ride. “We just want to go hang with them,” he said. “They’re all good people.”

Petty started the ride in 1995, at first donating the funds to children’s hospitals to help parents pay for treatment. After his son, Adam, was killed in a practice-session crash at Loudon, New Hampshire, on May 12, 2000, the Pettys decided they needed to do even more.

Adam’s death spurred them to build Victory Junction on a 70-acre parcel of land in Randleman, North Carolina. Since 2004, nearly 9,000 children have attended Victory Junction at no cost to their families. Last year, the ride raised $1.3 million. Fans can donate money at dedicated pit stops as part of the “Small Change. Big Impact” program.

“For me, this is not just a charity,” said Petty. “The ride and the camp are incredibly personal. When it’s personal, you just do it. You’ve got to participate. You’ve got to be a part of it.

“These fans that come out to greet us and meet us along the way, they might have a nephew or a sister or a niece or a daughter that can benefit from a camp like this. At the same time, they may have lost a brother or a son and can relate that way. Or sometimes, they’re just great people who want to help.”

He never expected it to grow like it did.

“The first year we did this, we raised $35,000, and I said it will never get any better than this,” he said. “Let’s just stop now. Let’s drop the mic. Here we are, 24 years later, doing the same thing. Every year it gets better … I’m humbled by the amount of people who have participated and helped it grow.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH

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