Considering his last name, it might seem that Jeremy Petty was predestined to make his mark in the field of auto racing.
But the 27-year-old professional racer from Smolan just as easily could have wound up making a living playing baseball. He was a standout player during his high school years at Southeast of Saline, but when he was T-boned at an intersection by a motorist who ran a stop sign, he suffered a punctured lung and a badly broken leg. He would never regain his top form on the ball diamond, although he did play at Brown Mackie College.
His focus ultimately shifted to the racetrack. "I stopped playing baseball and started racing full time," said Petty, who owns Billet Race Products, a company that supplies racing parts, and serves as the Midwest distributor for Pitboxes.com.
"Everything I do is racing-related," the soft-spoken but engaging Petty says. It's a natural enough arrangement, considering most of his relatives have had considerable success racing on the round tracks of the Midwest, and that he is, in fact, distantly related to Lee, Richard and Kyle Petty of NASCAR fame.
At the track, he fields the predictable questions. "People ask me 100 times a weekend, 'Are you related to the Pettys?' " he said. "My grandpa (Jack Petty) and my dad (Joe Petty) raced in Kansas. In Kansas, people want to know if I'm related to these Pettys. Outside of Kansas, they want to know if I'm related to THE Pettys," he said, with a chuckle.
When he was a high school freshman, Jeremy bought one of his grandfather's old sprint cars and, with the help of his dad, restored the yellow No. 6 car. His last two years of high school, he ran the car in Kansas Antique Racers Association races, earning Rookie of the Year honors.
From there, he stepped up to racing more powerful Modifieds and continued to hone his round-track skills. By the 2004 racing season, at the wheel of his No. 77 Modified, he went on a tear, ripping off a string of 17 straight feature race victories, earning the JRP Speedway championship in Tulsa and winning the Missouri Cup race at I-70 Speedway near Odessa, Mo.
"We had a good year," Petty said with considerable understatement. Again, it was time to step up to the next level, so Petty sold off one of his Modified cars and traded another for an Evernham Racing engine to put in a former NASCAR chassis and began competing in the ARCA stock car series.
It was an expensive step up: "A set of tires costs $2,000. You can spend $10,000 to $12,000 every weekend," Petty said. The cost of one weekend of ARCA racing could fund an entire season in the Modified ranks, he said.
"Speed costs money," he said simply. Last season, he finished 13th in the ARCA points chase. Finding sponsors to help pay the bills is a constant task, he said, and he's on the lookout now for backers to help him get a ride in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
"That's the goal, to keep moving up," he said. "The ultimate goal is the Cup Series... that's every racer's dream," he said. "Those are the best guys, with the best cars and you want to see what you can do against them."
Petty, with the help of his father, Joe, brother-in-law Jamie Helsel and buddy Bryan Hickman, plans to compete in two or three ARCA races this season, but keep his sights set on breaking into NASCAR.
"Right now, we're still a small-time operation," Petty said. But having earned the right to compete in NASCAR truck racing through his ARCA success, and with the right backing, Jeremy Petty seems poised to take that next big step in the world of auto racing.