12 years ago today, NASCAR lost one of its brightest young stars on a bright afternoon that belied the somber mood in the garage. During practice for the Busch 200—a Nationwide (then Busch) Series event at New Hampshire Motor Speedway—the throttle on 19-year-old Adam Petty's No. 45 Sprint Chevrolet stuck, sending him head-on into the Turn 3 wall. Petty, the first known fourth-generation athlete in his family's chosen sport, died of a basilar skull fracture, the same injury that had killed 1996 Indianapolis 500 pole sitter Scott Brayton and longtime NASCAR driver Neil Bonnett.
Of course, we know now that Petty's passing was just the start of an annus horribilis. His was the first of four deaths, capped off with the stunning casualty of Dale Earnhardt from the same injury in the Daytona 500 the following February. It was also one of many accidents involving a stuck throttle during that season—a mechanical gremlin that permeated all three of NASCAR's national touring series.
12 years removed, I'm not sure which is worse: the fact that a young life was cut short in its prime, or that we failed to honor his sacrifice by improving safety for other drivers until we lost three more lives.
By now, we know that the then-New Hampshire International Speedway, despite its long, fast straightaways and tight, unbanked turns, wasn't the problem. Kenny Irwin lost his life just under two months later in a similar accident, and Dennis Setzer limped away from the same thing in that weekend's Truck Series race; the oval at Loudon, rather than the stuck throttles themselves, became the scapegoat.
In September of 2000, Ed Hinton, then of the Chicago Tribune, noted an informal poll where 82 percent of fan respondents would have been okay with their favorite driver skipping Loudon altogether.
When NASCAR visited the track again in September, officials mandated the use of modified-style restrictor plates to attempt to alleviate the throttle-sticking problems and slow the cars down. The result was a widely panned race in which Jeff Burton led all 300 laps.
While the restrictor plates seemed like a decent stop-gap solution, they were more in response to the fear of the track's layout than they were about addressing the true cause of the wrecks. Bobby Labonte, winner of that year's Winston Cup, had a stuck throttle occur in Friday practice for that year's Southern 500. Hinton noted Labonte's implication that he might not have been alive to win that Sunday's race had the incident happened in New Hampshire.
Worse, NASCAR did little to address driver safety itself. In fact, from reading the columns of that year, NASCAR's characterization is of a sport hopelessly stuck in its "Wild West" days, still far removed from Earnhardt's death, the eventual catalyst to its biggest safety innovations.
It wasn't until August that the sanctioning body approved kill switches—a move that Jay Fox of Lehigh Valley (PA)'s Morning Call "abhor(red) in its tardiness." The HANS device was still over a year away from mandatory status, as many drivers believed that its restrictive nature would cause more injuries than it prevented. Even quick-release shackles, which Scott Pruett used during his lone NASCAR season in 2000, weren't enough to sell the majority of drivers on the device.
Perhaps most telling, especially in the age of the SAFER barrier, is Hinton's use of quotes around the term "soft walls," as if they were a crazy and totally unproven experiment.
Remember, this was in late summer. Tony Roper hadn't yet had his Truck Series accident at Texas in October, while Earnhardt was still in the midst of his best Cup season in half a decade. Only one of NASCAR's three most important safety advances of the past decade was even in the early stages of development, and the sport was still reluctant to embrace the other two.
Fox implored NASCAR to act fast on safety issues, but two more drivers, one a seven-time champion, still lost their lives. Why did it take us so long to learn?
Adam Petty's legacy as a human being, however short his life was, has been rightfully revered in the years since his passing. Within the year, the Petty family had announced plans to establish the Victory Junction Gang Camp for terminally and chronically ill children as a way to honor Adam, who was well-liked for his friendly demeanor and warm personality. The camp opened in 2004 and remains one of NASCAR's most popular official charities.
Father Kyle has honored his son's legacy both on and off the track as well. Besides his work with Victory Junction, he left the Winston Cup circuit to take over Adam's Busch Series ride. He brought Adam's No. 45 to the Cup Series in 2001 and continued to race it for the rest of his career. Petty's signature hat to this day is a black baseball cap, featuring Adam's stylized 45 with a black bar through it.
Regardless, we went a full nine months between Petty's passing and Earnhardt's. There was no groundbreaking NASCAR investigation for Petty's accident; there were no major safety recommendations made in its immediate aftermath; there was no widespread change in the mindset of drivers about their safety in the car. We mourned, but we didn't make changes.
Hindsight is 20/20, of course. We had no way of knowing just how bad the next year or so would be. And off the track, Adam Petty's legacy has been well-honored by a sport that looked forward to his career and sorely missed his budding star power. Still, he was a racer first. The fact that the sport that he loved so much didn't learn from his fate before the loss of three other drivers seems like a sad way to pay tribute to the young man who was poised to become its next star.
A death at a young age is sad enough. A death that could have helped save the lives of others, but was unable to, is sadder still.