Luke DeCock

For Kyle Petty, singing on stage is as scary as driving on the track ever was

2/10/08 Kyle Petty smiles as he answers questions on pit road prior to the Daytona 500 Coors Light Pole Qualifying Sunday at Daytona International Speedway. JEFF SINER --
2/10/08 Kyle Petty smiles as he answers questions on pit road prior to the Daytona 500 Coors Light Pole Qualifying Sunday at Daytona International Speedway. JEFF SINER --

Kyle Petty grew up watching his father and grandfather behind the wheel before winning eight races over a three-decade NASCAR career himself. He was born into it and he loved it and he lived it, and none of it ever scared him as much as what he’s doing now.

Holding on to a steering wheel for dear life is one thing. Holding on to a guitar and singing is another.

“I’ve done some fearful things, but this may be on a different level,” Petty said. “It’s just as scary sometimes.”

Music has always been a refuge for Petty, and he once almost made it his career before deciding to stick with stock cars. At age 57, he’s trying again. His tour of small clubs with folk singer David Childers will bring him to the Sugar Magnolia Cafe in Wake Forest on March 21.

“I don’t get to that part of the state much,” Petty said. “There’s no racetracks there.”

Yes, racing is still Petty’s primary profession, as a commentator and analyst for NBC Sports’ Cup Series coverage during the summer. It’s still in his blood: son of Richard, grandson of Lee, father of the late Adam. But music has been with Kyle Petty since he was a little kid, and even if he didn’t want to get sucked into the Nashville machine in his 20s, there’s nothing stopping him from singing his own songs now.

This is one of a dozen or so shows he and Childers are doing this spring, before his television commitments and his annual charity motorcycle ride interfere. The duo opened for Asleep at the Wheel, the old country swing band, for two Charlotte-area concerts last month. It’s a classic songwriter’s forum, talking as much as playing, alternating songs with Childers. And in many ways, it’s the culmination of a lifelong dream, to just play music and not worry about anything else.

“I’m going to tell you what music was for me: Music has always been a place to go where there was peace and there was solace,” Petty said. “My uncle (Randy Owens, his mother’s brother) was killed on pit road when I was 14. I remember I just immersed myself in guitar and playing songs. When my oldest son Adam was killed in 2000, I just disappeared into a guitar case. It’s always been that kind of place for me, especially while I was racing. I’d have a bad day and go to the guitar. For me, in the big picture, it’s always been a safe place. It’s funny. I think music has always been that way for me.”

Petty said his sisters and his wife endorse his musical career, but his father thinks it’s a phase he’s going through, “like the earrings I used to have.” His crowds are a mix of Petty fans who want something signed, the morbidly curious – “this guy drove a race car, let’s see what he’s got,” Petty said – and lovers of live music. His goal is to reach someone from those from the first two with one of his songs.

(L-R) Former NASCAR driver Kyle Petty, Postmaster General Pat Donahoe and former NASCAR driver and Hall of Fame member Richard Petty joke following the U.S. Postal Service First-Day-of-Issue dedication ceremony for the new Limited-edition America on the Move: Muscle Cars Forever stamps on Friday, February 22, 2013 at Daytona International Speedway. Jeff Siner - Jeff Siner

He also continues to raise money for Victory Junction, the summer camp in Randleman for severely ill children his family founded after Adam was killed in a practice-session wreck in 2000. Petty’s Ride Across America, a motorcycle journey that this year will go from Seattle to Florida remains the primary fundraising engine, which also takes two months away from his musical endeavors.

“I’m not going to be a rock star,” Petty said. “Honest to goodness if I could sing three or four nights a week, maybe put out a CD or upload some stuff, have some stuff out there and people hear it, that would be the ultimate. I’m not going to be able to do TV my whole life. I couldn’t race my whole life. I always pick a job that has an end point down the road. I should have broken that habit a long time ago.”

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.