Tony Sanford leaned across the red tape that briefly roped off Broad Street on Friday evening, joyfully screaming at former NASCAR driver Kyle Petty, "I've been a fan of yours all my life!"
Unlike many modern athletes, Petty quickly responded. Despite having just ridden more than seven hours on his motorcycle from Choctaw, Miss., to Chattanooga on the next-to-last leg of his nine-day, 3,800-mile Charity Ride Across America, he shook Sanford's hand and briefly spoke to him.
"I've got tears in my eyes," said the 52-year-old Sanford, who drove up from Dalton to see Petty led into town by a 13-cycle police escort and the subsequent Songwriters Concert at Miller Plaza featuring Petty and country songwriters Brett James and Tim Nichols.
"I love his dad and I love him. This is one of the best days of my life."
Petty is one of the best things ever to happen to sick children in need. The Kyle Petty Charity Ride has raised more than $13 million the past 15 years to help various charities, especially the Victory Junction camp for kids with chronic medical conditions or serious illnesses.
Petty and his wife Pattie began Victory Junction in honor of their late son Adam, who died in an auto racing accident in 2000.
"We never really keep tabs on how much money we raise," Kyle said. "Our goal is this: We want to have one more dollar tomorrow than we had today. If we raise $25,000, we'll give $25,000 away. If we raise $2.5 million, we'll give $2.5 million away. Our goal is just to keep getting Victory Junction out there and keep raising funds."
He and Pattie have gotten Victory Junction out there so well for so long that the original camp in Petty's hometown of Randleman, N.C., willl soon have a sister facility in Kansas City, Kan.
The camp -- which welcomes children from ages 6 to 16 for free -- offers programs for 24 disease groups and is partnered with 26 hospitals.
"We just wanted to find a way to honor Adam, and helping these families pay their children's medical bills seemed a great way to do that," Petty said.
This wasn't the only thing he talked about upon reaching the Scenic City after a long, hot ride through the Deep South.
He said he was excited that his legendary father, Richard "The King" Petty was voted into the inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame class, which will be inducted on May 23 in Charlotte.
"We're about 60 years behind in starting a Hall of Fame," Kyle said. "But I'm certainly happy to see Dad in the first class."
He also had an interesting take on NASCAR's attendance decline.
"Discretionary spending is down everywhere," he said. "Ask any American if they're going out to dinner as much as they used to, or the movies as much as they used to. We're back to doing what we should be doing, which is saving all the time."
And Petty, who now does television commentary, will argue with anyone about the supposed feud between Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
"If I'm (mad) at you, that's not a feud," Petty said. "A feud takes years to develop. Right now, Jeff's mad at Jimmie. That's how simple it is."
But the simplest thing is understanding what Kyle and Pattie get back from all their charity work.
"When you see these kids come to Victory Junction, you don't have to ask why you do this," Petty said. "Their faces explain everything."
Because 52-year-old fans aren't the only ones crediting the King's kid with giving them one of the best days of their lives.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...