Kyle Petty wrote a lot in his time, it’s just that a lot of those words were put to music. So when it came time to hand-create these words that tell his story, his life in the race, and the many people whose lives he touched, the process changed.
“Verse-verse-chorus, verse-verse-chorus, bridge,” Petty says with a certain levity in his voice, “it’s something totally different from what it is.
As novel as the process is, the same heartfelt quality that weaves its way through Petty’s songwriting catalog is woven into “Swerve or Die,” a seat-of-the-pants autobiography that takes an intimate view to the inside one of NASCAR’s leading families. The book, co-authored by Ellis Henican, will be published Tuesday by St. Martin’s Press.
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Much of the book focuses on Petty’s life in racing, but chapters explore his other passions – as a musician, broadcaster and lifelong philanthropist. By adding author to this list, the 62-year-old tells the story of the generations that shaped him. Petty’s name and familiar smile may be front and center on the cover, but the story is about family – those related by blood and close friends who might as well have been.
“To me, these weren’t the people I actually treated as my family. It’s the people who have dealt me like 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 time in 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 blend of music and stock-car racing. This list continues.
“So it’s all about family and support,” says Petty. “And it’s about, for me, keeping moving, keeping living.”
The way Petty lived his life to the full comes through in the anecdotal style of the book. The humorous tales of his days as an adventurous youth, to a next-gen runner, and a father all connect, with a reminiscence that was previously unheard of. That includes a gripping memory of secretly letting his young son, Adam, glide down two of the sport’s greatest speedways in a Cup Series car – a swashbuckling act that seems unfathomable today.
“The guys who worked with me, we just had a great 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 hit the racetrack, it was fun to test – all that. So yeah, I’m not sure any of that would ever fly, ever again, and I’m not sure anyone else would get the chance to.
For all the joyful moments, there’s also tragedy, and Petty isn’t shy about sharing it. Petty’s uncle, Randy Owens, and his son Adam were both killed in on-track incidents, 25 years apart.
“A lot of things felt 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.
Writing about the loss, Petty came to a sense of catharsis. But processing those emotions on paper was very different from speaking the words when recording the audio edit.
Petty thought this process would become second nature. “Shoot, yeah, I’ll do the audiobook, man,” he recalled saying. “I run my mouth for a living, I can do it.” The book’s warm, conversational style bears a strong resemblance to the “fireside chat” storytelling session he ably moderated at the NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremony last winter. But when it came time to verbalize the book’s most sensitive passages, Petty was faced with an unexpected challenge.
“I mean, I want to tell you, it’s maybe one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, because it got so emotional, to read it and hear it out loud. voice,” Petty said. “I mean, I think putting it down is one thing. To read it aloud? I talk to myself, and I talk to myself all the time – I mean, a lot. A lot of people say things to each other and that motivates them to keep going. But when you hear it read out loud and then listen to it again, it’s like, oh my God. So it was very therapeutic and very healing in many ways at the same time.
AFTER: Kyle Petty finds his voice in the second musical act
Petty also takes extra care in using her crystal ball in the book’s final chapter. While claiming “I’m not Nostradamus,” Petty dives deep into the recent changes that have shaped stock car racing today, but looks forward to what the future may hold.
“I think the sport will continue to change, and will continue to change for the better and will always be here,” Petty said. “So many people want to sing the death knell of this sport so many times. I mean, they mean ‘Whoa, it’s happening, so the sport can’t survive this’ or ‘This is happening and so, I don’t know what we’re going to do now’. I don’t think the sport will be here in 10 years. What I mean is, the sport has been all it’s needed for over 70 years, and it’s still as relevant to its fanbase and the people who love it as it is. was at the very beginning. . And I don’t see that changing in the future.
“But the things we’ll have to change are obviously electric cars, it’s inclusion, it’s the social climate we live in. It’s a more inclusive sport, a more welcoming sport. And we have to be that for everyone who loves cars and likes to go fast, we have to be that for everyone.”
The “why now” question for Petty’s entry in the autobiographical record attracts two answers – one is that the book is intended for his children to have an account of their father’s journey as they grow up, the other is the time of the pandemic. When COVID-19 first broke out and society went into 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 in the race as a broadcaster for NBC Sports, but also through his charitable foundations – Camp Victory Junction and the Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America. The book explores the origin stories of the two, as well as how Petty met his wife, Morgan, as the two helped guide these organizations into the future.
Victory Junction and the charity run started with casual conversations and a shared vision that led to action. This is a chapter of the book that is still being written.
“It evolved over those years to become what it is, because it wasn’t perfect the first year, and at some point we just kept moving forward,” says Petty. “And the title of the book, we just kept on deviating and we never died. I mean, we just kept on going, and that’s the deal. That, to me, that’s what the title means, in a lot of ways, you keep moving. You just keep moving.