The DirecTV 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 2, 2000 was a historic race for NASCAR’s most iconic families.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. got the first Cup Series victory of his career that day as his seven-time champion father finished seventh. And Adam Petty, the grandson of seven-time champion Richard Petty, made his first Cup Series start.
Petty’s race only lasted 215 laps before his engine failed and he finished 40th. But as he followed his great-grandfather Lee, his grandfather Richard and his father Kyle, he became the first fourth-generation driver to start a Cup Series race. And he also became the first member of a family to have four consecutive generations compete at the top level of a sporting series.
That was, unfortunately, Petty’s only start at NASCAR’s top level. He was killed in a practice crash just 40 days later at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Petty was just 17 when he made his first NASCAR start in what’s now known as the Xfinity Series in 1998. That race came at Gateway in St. Louis, where he finished a nondescript 27th.
But Petty was on the fast track to NASCAR stardom, not only because of his name but also because of his talent. While his father Kyle didn’t come close to having the success that Richard had — and to be fair, it’s hard to live up to a standard set by your father as the most successful NASCAR driver of all-time — Adam was set to be one of NASCAR’s stars of the 2000s.
He finished fourth in just his 12th Xfinity Series race and followed that up with a fifth-place start a few races later during the 1999 season. He showed enough promise during that season that another full Xfinity Series campaign was on tap for 2000 along with some Cup Series starts.
The 2000 season didn’t get off to a blazing start. While he did make that Cup Series debut at Texas, Petty failed to get a top-10 finish in any of the first 11 races of the season and was outside the top 20 in points ahead of New Hampshire.
As Petty and his team were practicing for that New Hampshire race, something went horribly wrong. The throttle in Petty’s car got stuck as he entered turn 3 at the tight and flat one-mile oval. The car barreled into the outside wall.
Petty was killed instantly during the crash. He suffered a basilar skull fracture as his head and neck snapped violently forward upon impact.
As NASCAR investigated Petty’s crash in the weeks that followed, another up-and-coming driver was killed in the same spot due to the same reason. Kenny Irwin Jr.’s car crashed into the wall in turn 3 at New Hampshire on July 7 because of a stuck throttle and flipped on its side. Like Petty, Irwin was killed in the crash because of a head injury.
Following Irwin’s crash, NASCAR mandated switches to shut off the engine on the steering wheels of every driver and even put restrictor plates in every car’s engine for the fall race at the track. Yet the sanctioning body didn’t mandate head and neck restraints or full-face helmets. That only happened in 2001 after Earnhardt died of a skull fracture on the final lap of the Daytona 500.
Not long after Adam’s death, Kyle Petty switched his NASCAR number to the No. 45, the number that Adam drove. Petty drove that number for the rest of his Cup Series career.
The Petty family also decided to start a camp in his memory and built Victory Junction, a camp for children with medical conditions or illnesses. The camp opened in 2004 and continues to this day, where it provides fun diversions for kids across the country who are receiving medical treatment. And when they arrive at the camp, those kids are greeted with an oversize model of Adam’s No. 45 car.
“When you see these kids leave with a smile on their face, that’s a little bit of Adam smiling with each one of them,” Kyle Petty said.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.