Tears with a Grandfather
The last time I saw Adam Petty alive he had just finished qualifying for the Richmond Busch Series race in 2000. He didn’t qualify well, and his mom was consoling him with a pimento cheese sandwich. Skinny as a rail, Adam did not take comfort in food, and this day was no exception. As good as pimento cheese is for consoling a wounded ego, his mom could only get half of the sandwich down him with a couple of sips of Coke.
He still mustered an incredible politeness to me during our visit, and the last thing I remember as I walked out of the transporter door was him sitting on the counter of the parts desk, still in his uniform. But mostly I remember that moment for what everyone remembers about Adam—a 1000 watt smile! The boy had a deep joy from a genuine faith, and it came to a friend or visitor through his teeth.
Adam finished 16th in Richmond after starting 36th. I remember thinking, “Not a bad recovery for a pitiful starting spot.” I also hoped he didn’t waste any more of the pimento cheese. The following week Adam Petty died after a wreck at a testing session in New Hampshire. He was one of several drivers over the next 2 years who died of a “basal skull fracture,” medical terminology I became sick of hearing rather quickly. I wasn’t in New Hampshire that day which is why I was able to drive up to Adam’s hometown to be with his family. It was the first time I would have a conversation with Adam’s grandfather, Richard Petty.
Richard Petty is known, even by his children, as “King.” They call him “King.” I will never forget the first time I heard his son, Kyle, call him that. Not “Pop.” Not “Dad.” “King.” But that day as I drove up the road to Richard Petty’s house in Randleman, North Carolina, I didn’t sit down with the king of racing, I sat down with a shocked and broken-hearted grandfather. He sat there on his porch in a rocking chair as I pulled up. They told him I was coming. His wife, Linda, and Adam’s mom, Patty, were inside. Kyle, Adam’s father, and daughter, Montgomery Lee, were on an airplane coming back from a horse show in England.
Sitting there in his trademark apparel, shirt-jeans-boots and cowboy hat, it was his sunglasses that hid his eyes from me, and his thoughts. I couldn’t help but wonder what he was thinking. Was he thinking about all the times that he had come out alive after the many crashes he had endured? He was already a grandfather and 50 years old when during the 1988 Daytona 500 his car went airborne and barrel rolled along the catch fence. Farther back in 1970, he suffered what looked to be a fatal crash in Darlington. Was he reliving his own near misses?
I heard him speak later about questioning the depth of his family’s involvement in the sport. “Probably if I hadn’t been in racing, Kyle wouldn’t have been in racing and neither would Adam.” It is part of the grief cycle that we go through after suffering such a loss. But there was even more than that grief; there was a dashed hope--a promise that the Petty family would have a legacy in racing with Adam. Adam even looked like Richard. Richard Petty could look at his grandson and see the future, and that’s a very powerful thing for a grandfather. The pain that comes after that kind of shock is beyond our normal disappointments. It was all there right in front of Richard that day, all wrapped up in the love, pride, and yes, expectation that a grandfather has for his grandchild.
I could identify with that much. I thought about my own grandfather and how he dug coal in West Virginia as a young teenager, how all he could see in his future were sons and grandsons who would be coal miners. The desire to break that chain was palpable on a daily basis to him. He told me that if I ever put my application in for a mining job, he would come and get me even if he had to drag me from a shaft. Honestly, it wasn’t his threat that kept me out of the mines but his passion for me to find a new road for our family. I can only imagine the conversations that Adam and Richard Petty had as they moved along the racetracks of the carnival that is NASCAR. Imagine the stories Richard told his grandson. It’s no wonder that Adam climbed in behind the wheel unafraid. Look what his granddad had not only accomplished, but endured.
I sat in my car that day on the Randleman horse farm and looked at this despairing grandfather, rocking on his porch and mourning his grandson. I was thankful that I could point to Adam’s faith and remind all of them where he stood with Christ. Adam had a great faith for a young man and a divine compassion for children who lived with chronic and terminal illness. As comforting as it was to remember this, it also stung as to why such a gracious and grateful young man would be taken from this earth.
As I sat with Richard that day, I did so as a grandson who no longer had his grandfather, like he was now a grandfather who had lost a grandson. I don’t remember much I said that day at all, but it was a sacred moment I’ll never forget. Not long after Adam died, we lost two more drivers to identical injuries suffered on track. I watched as Richard tried to comfort others who were fresher to grief than he was. The line I heard him repeat over and over again was somewhat unexpected. I expected him to be raw, even angry, disillusioned and withdrawn. And yet his words always struck a chord with me concerning the sovereignty of our Creator: “I had to stop putting a question mark where God had put a period.” To be able to possess that kind of surrender and resolve stems from the deepest humility before God.
As you grow and mature through the suffering of life as well as the triumphs, may you not only pull your grandchildren into the story of your life, but also your response to it all. May you be not only humble, but grateful. May all the cynicism and bitterness that life can sow in our lives be met with a hope for the future—not merely for this life, but for eternity.