Former NASCAR star Kyle Petty is more songwriter than speedster these days, as he pursues a long-held desire to write his own songs and perform them in front of an audience. He’s set to play the White Horse Black Mountain with fellow singer-songwriter David Childers on Saturday in Black Mountain. (Get tickets here.)
Petty is best known, of course, for his stock car racing career. The son of legendary racer Richard Petty went on to have a strong record himself. He’s officially retired as a driver, but he continues to work as a NASCAR commentator on NBC Sports Network’s daily NASCAR America show, and on pre-and post-race NASCAR Sprint Cup shows on NBC and NBCSN.
But music, and particularly songwriting, has always been a refuge, Petty tells me during a recent phone interview. Marty Robbins and a guitar-toting traveling preacher made a lasting impression on Petty at a young age, he says, and “as soon as I started playing, I only wanted to play my own songs.”
Petty signed a record contract with RCA records in the mid-1980s as his celebrity on the race track increased. A single called “The Other Guy” was released. That led to a Hee Haw appearance and gigs opening for the likes of Randy Travis and Hank Williams Jr. A full album was never released, thought, as Petty focused on his driving duties.
After Petty retired in the mid 2000s, he met a racing fan named Dolph Ramseur. He was a racing fan and “a Pearson guy,” Petty jokes, noting the fierce rivalry between the Petty and Pearson racing families. But Petty took note of Ramseur’s work as a music promoter with Ramseur Records, which represents acts including the Steep Canyon Rangers and The Avett Brothers.
The connection was established, and Ramseur put Petty in touch with another musician in the Ramseur Records stable, David Childers. Like Petty, Childers had another career – his was in the practice of law – before turning to music full time.
“I told him I’ve been a closet musician all my life,” Petty says. “I told him I’ve written songs. I said I like ’em, that I’m my biggest fan. But I said I would be interested in a critique. I wanted to know – is this any good, or just the rantings of a crazy man?”
Petty and Childers hit it off. Since then, the two have been constant collaborators and Petty has signed a management deal with Ramseur. Last year, Petty and Childers played a few gigs wherever Petty could fit them in with his busy schedule, usually “venues near racetracks,” he says.
This year, starting with the Saturday show in Black Mountain, will be more music-focused, Petty says.
“I’m not going to be John Prine or a David Childers,” he says, “but I’m going to chase this music stuff.”
That’s a big commitment, because when Petty’s not working on songs or covering NASCAR, he’s raising money for his Victory Junction camp in Randleman, N.C. The camp provides life-changing camping experiences for children with chronic or life-threatening illnesses, and the Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America gathers celebrity, and other, motorcycle riders together for a fundraising road trip each year. This year’s ride, set for May 3-11, marks the 25th anniversary of the event. Since 1995, more than 8,400 riders have logged more than 12 million cumulative motorcycle miles and raised $19.3 million for Victory Junction, as well as other children’s charities.
“The kids that come to camp are sick kids, and we just try to help them have a good time,” says Petty, who says Victory Junction is dear to him. The camp was built after Petty’s 19-year-old son, Adam, was killed in a wreck at a race track.
“I grew up in a family blessed to be able to do things for my community,” he says. “It’s just what you do.”
Kyle Petty and David Childers are set to perform at the White Horse Black Mountain at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 12. Tickets are $18 in advance and $20 at the door.