Kyle Petty says he never got nervous when he put on a helmet and slid behind the wheel of a race car, even though he knew the dangers.
But stepping out onto the Grand Ole Opry stage? That’s something that makes the former NASCAR driver, and son of the legendary Richard Petty, more nervous than the possibility of wrecking at 200 mph.
When you first hear the name Kyle Petty, obviously your first thought isn’t going to be “country music singer.” The son of the King spent nearly 30 years racing in NASCAR’s top series, winning 8 races before retiring to join Fox and now NBC Sports as a NASCAR analyst.
But as Kyle explained during an interview with Whiskey Riff, country music is something that’s just always been a part of his life:
“I grew up riding in a car with my dad and my mom to races, and you couldn’t put your feet in the floorboard because you had these huge boxes full of 8-tracks. You had 8-track tapes of Willie and Conway and Loretta and Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, Boots Randolph, man we had it all.”
And even before Kyle was following in his legendary father’s footsteps, he had a connection to country music that led him to the Grand Ole Opry:
“When we used to come here and race at the [Nashville] Fairgrounds, Marty Robbins drove a race car, and Marty would come to Daytona and Talladega and run some, but he would invite my dad and Bobby [Allison] and some of the other drivers over to the Opry.
And we would come over to the Ryman and stand on the edge of the stage there with those huge fans, and they would just blow air because it was so hot in that place. There was no air conditioning in the late ’60s, early ’70s.
Country music and that has always intertwined and gone almost hand in glove with what NASCAR racing was.”
So it was only natural that Kyle would take an interest in country music – and start playing himself from a young age:
“I started playing when I was about 12. Started playing guitar. There was a preacher that came to the racetrack. He and Marty were the first two guys I ever saw play a guitar in person…
I took lessons, and learned most of the major chords in a month or so, and the guy that I was taking from, he said, ‘I can’t teach you anything else, you just gotta go learn on your own.'”
Of course Kyle ended up making a career out of NASCAR and not country music. But he got his first taste of being a country singer somewhat unexpectedly, when he recorded a song as part of an album with other NASCAR drivers:
“In the early ’70s, they did a country album with my dad and Buddy Baker and David Pearson and Cale Yarborough and all those. Well this guy tried to duplicate that in the early ’80s. Myself, Dale Jarrett was on it, Bill Elliott, a bunch of us were on it. So we had to promote. We had to help promote the album.
The guy called me and he said, ‘Can you stop through Nashville and help us promote the album?’ I said sure, yeah, no problem.
So I got here and he said, ‘I need you to go on this TV show.’ Sure, no problem.
I was on my way to Riverside, California and he said, ‘Will you sing your song?’ Sure, no problem, I’ll do it, whatever.
So I do this TV show and I sing my song, and I go to California. Well when I get to California this guy comes up to me after I’m there for a day or so and he says ‘Hey man, saw you on TV singing. That wasn’t bad.’ And I said, ‘Ok. Were you in Nashville?’ And he just kinda laughed.
And somebody came up a little bit later and he said ‘Hey man, saw you on TV singing.’ And I said, ‘Were you in Nashville?’ He said, ‘No, that’s cable.’
I didn’t get cable, we lived out in the woods, we didn’t get cable TV. So I was on Ralph Emery’s show, on Nashville Now, and I sang a song. I had no idea that was a national show. I thought it was some local morning show that I was on here in Nashville.”
From that experience, Kyle got hooked up with somebody who helped him do some music on how own. That led him to the opportunity to open up for some legendary country acts like Randy Travis, the Oak Ridge Boys, and even Hank Williams Jr.
“That was psychotic. That was crazy man, that was a lot of fun.”
But eventually Kyle said music started to feel like more of a job, which he already had with his racing career, so music took a backseat to NASCAR.
Now that Kyle’s retired from the driver’s seat, he’s been able to spend more time doing something that he’s always enjoyed. And it’s led him to playing on the Grand Ole Opry stage.
Kyle’s first appearance at the Opry came in 2021, when he debuted a new song that he had written called “Hard Times.”
And last night, he stepped into the circle once again to play two more songs, one called “Gasoline and Fire” and another one that pays tribute to all the old-school movie cowboys like John Wayne, Gene Autry, the Lone Ranger, and Lash LaRue.
But for somebody who spent his career facing injury or death every time he went to work, Kyle says it’s more nerve-racking to step out onto the Opry stage than it was strapping into a race car – because it’s something that’s out of his comfort zone:
“Way out. Way out. Oh yeah, way out.
You can strap me in a car and say, ‘Ok, here’s what I want you to do. I want you to go out there and you need to run really fast and you might wreck.’ And I’m ok with that.
But you strap a guitar around me and say, ‘I want you to go out there and sing,’ and I’m only partially ok with that.
I want to do it. And I want to do it bad enough that I kinda power through it. But it’s fun. Once you get to do it it’s a lot of fun. But it’s just you. I don’t have a helmet on so you can see my expression when I screw up or you can see how it is when things go wrong.
So yeah, it’s a little more intimidating.”
And the Opry is a different animal for a lot of performers who are used to rowdy crowds. When you step into the circle, all eyes are on you, the crowd is dead silent and paying complete attention to your performance.
But Kyle says it’s that atmosphere, and that history of the Opry, that makes it such a special place to play:
“There’s places in our sport – Darlington, South Carolina where the first superspeedway for NASCAR was, Daytona – and you think about all the great drivers who have raced there…there’s so much history in that place.
And when you go places where there’s that much history, if you don’t feel it, you don’t belong there.
That’s kinda the way it is stepping out there. You feel that history of everybody else who stood there in that circle and the people who come long, long, long many years before you even thought about it.”
If you want to see more of Kyle, he’s also getting ready to kick off season 3 of Dinner Drive With Kyle Petty on Circle Network. This new season premieres on June 29 and will feature guests like Kyle Busch, John Crist, Muggsy Bogues, Mike Golic, Terry Bradshaw and Greg Olson.