The time was 1995, and it was my rookie season in the NASCAR Cup series.
Upon arriving at Dover International Speedway, I was made aware of a family from my hometown of Newburgh, Maine, who had abruptly lost a son. The young boy’s appendix had burst. Devastated and with little funds to move forward, the family was lifted by the support of its community in the small town.
An auction had been organized at the same elementary school I had attended in Newburgh. With the help of my PR director, Bob Hice, we organized an airplane flight that would leave immediately following the NASCAR race on Sunday so I could attend and participate in raising money for the family the following night.
At the conclusion of the Dover race, I came to a stop on pit road and exited my car. I heard “Petey, Petey!” ring out and there was only one person who called me that. I rolled my head back across my shoulder to see Kyle Petty, who had just completed the 500 miles in his stock car, running toward me with his helmet in hand. As he got close, he asked me, “are you headed North? I heard about the family who lost their son — here take this and see if you can get anything for it,” and Petty handed me the helmet that he had worn that day.
I would say that we had established a bond that day, but the truth is the bond was established when I moved from Concord, New Hampshire, to Concord, North Carolina, years earlier. I was a Yankee by measure of most who called the Carolinas home; a damned Yankee by a few, but the Pettys always treated me as though I belonged from Day 1.
Kyle was convinced Pete Hamilton had to be my father. Remember Pete who won the Daytona 500 driving for Petty Enterprises? And that’s where the “Petey” came from.
Drafting with my Hero Richard Petty pic.twitter.com/ZnIVEdTfuG
— Ricky Craven (@RickyCravenESPN) May 7, 2018
A couple of months ago, Kyle reached out and said, “hey man, you said you would join me on the ride some year … well this is the year, we’re leaving from your home state, Portland, Maine.” That’s all I needed to hear to begin organizing my small part in the eight days required for the annual motorcycle event known as the Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America.
The trip, now in the rearview mirror but forever etched in my brain, required more than 1,000 miles on our “iron horses.” We traveled several states, and visited even more towns. Everywhere we rode we witnessed signs of support and moments of inspiration. Each stop we made had the appearance of a campaign rally, with the authenticity of simply wanting to be a part of something special.
For six days we had breakfast, lunch and dinner as a unit — a brotherhood, a fraternity. Our personal day in between was still spent together, a few of us guilty of attempting to rehydrate with wheat beer. Never in my lifetime have I spent so much time with so many people whom I did not know the previous month.
Never in my lifetime did I experience a weeklong event organized with such precision that something was destined to go wrong … and it did! Midway through the trip upon entering that evening’s room, I discovered an extra container disguised as a piece of luggage. I stared for a few minutes and wondered what could possibly be inside, and how on earth did they fit it through the door? The tag read: Morgan Petty (Kyle’s wife, who by the way was the most amazing member of the team). Morgan received her luggage and all was right again.
Morgan is small in stature, but enormous in ability and she is the general of the Kyle Petty Charity Ride. She was the energy, the organizer and the resolve in this year’s event, and she did it all while being eight months pregnant! She’s an absolutely amazing lady.
From start to finish, the ride was a perfect balance of detail and dedication, all in large part because of Morgan and certainly not because she did it all, but she led us all, and she inspires the man she married. I’ve never seen Kyle so happy and this content. This was an important component of my experience — people rally behind good, people rally behind happy. This trip was both.
Our trip concluded on the most appropriate geographic spot on the planet, at Victory Junction in Randleman, North Carolina. What I had learned on this trip is that this camp is the place that children with disabilities can go and enjoy a week like other children enjoy a week but otherwise would not exist if it weren’t for this creation.
The testimonials of the children at each stop during the week was the ultimate endorsement of all the effort that had gone in to these 24 years, but equally valuable were the words of the parents who had never gotten the day off because circumstances wouldn’t allow it.
This camp fully is equipped with nurses and a medical facility that allow peace of mind for those needing a place to create balance in their lives. This was the most valuable takeaway from my first Kyle Petty Charity Ride, it was the ride of my life.