Thursday, July 16, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Kyle Petty twirls a few tweets and tales

So there Kyle Petty was at the Bonsack Kroger on Wednesday morning, posing in front of a display of Coca-Cola products, doing the kind of thing NASCAR drivers often are asked to do.

His people took some pictures. The Kroger people took some pictures. The Coke people took some pictures.

But Petty, for some reason, wanted his own picture.

As if he were standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, he reached into his pocket, pulled out his personal camera phone and handed it to a woman. He showed her how to snap a picture with it. She did, then returned it.

Why would he possibly want this shot -- just him in front of a bunch of soda bottles?

"So I can put it on Twitter," Petty said.

Of course.

Sure enough, that photo was soon up on the social networking site. So was a shout-out to the Roanoke restaurant where he had lunch. And a positive note about his visit to the WSLC-FM studios.

This is where we're heading, folks. In all sports. Athletes are going to tell us what they're doing, what they're eating, how they're feeling -- all in a tidy 140 characters or fewer.

With Petty, though, a Twitter obsession somehow makes perfect sense. He is 49 years old, the son of a NASCAR legend and country to the core. But if anybody was cut out for this type of rapid-fire social networking, he'd be the guy.

Supremely gregarious and genial, Petty has used the technology to connect with fans and raise money for his Victory Junction Gang Camp, his charitable playland for terminally ill children. On Wednesday, a woman who'd seen the Twitter posting about his appearance at Kroger showed up with a $45 check for the cause.

"It's goofy. It's like a fad thing. It'll run its course," Petty said of Twitter. "But if you can use it to raise money for camp and stuff, that's my main reason. I'll put goofy stuff on there just to keep people interested."

Among his goofier tweets: "How many port-a-johns are on the grounds at Bristol Motor Speedway?"

"People just start sending numbers," Petty said with a laugh.

Or this one, during a rain delay in Charlotte while he was working the race for TNT: "OK, what does it say about your body shape when a poncho is a flattering piece of clothing?"

But Petty communicates just as well verbally. Among the topics he discussed during his visit Wednesday:

n On his new role this season as a TNT analyst: "I miss the driving part. ... I'm still doing the promotion part, I just don't get to get in the race car and drive. You do miss that part. ... Driving's not the kind of thing you do until you're 65 or 70 years old. It's not a regular job. It's a strange job. I feel like I've been thrust back into civilian life."

n On his future plans: "I'd like to drive some next year. I'm not going to drive any this year. I'm working on a couple deals and talking to some people for next year. And if it pans out, it pans out. If it doesn't pan out, it just doesn't pan out."

n On whether he'd drive a series other than Sprint Cup: "I didn't grow up wanting to be a truck driver. I didn't grow up wanting to be a Nationwide driver. I grew up wanting to be a Cup driver, and that's what I want to be. I'm not really interested in going back and doing that other stuff."

n On the Jeremy Mayfield drug-testing flap: "I think when we go back and look at it in five years or whatever it is, we'll look at this incident and say it strengthened our drug-testing policy. It made us a better sport because of this. Right now, it's just a quagmire of legal issues. Nobody even talks about, 'Did this happen? Did that happen?' It's all, 'I got an injunction, you got an injunction, he got an injunction, we got an injunction.'"

n On the chances of drivers on the outside rallying to make the Chase: "If you're more than about 120 or 130 points out, you're pretty much out. The problem with being out of the Chase [at this point] is this: If you're 100 points out of the Chase, you're not just racing one guy to get into the Chase. You're racing the three or four guys in front of you and the three or four guys that are already in the Chase. ... I think when you get to this stage, it's kind of settled in."

n On Tony Stewart's success as team owner/driver: "I don't give Tony a lot of credit for being a driver because he's a great race car driver. He already had that talent when he came to the table. That's not anything new. ... What he does have that other start-up teams don't have is the backing of Hendrick [Motor Sports]. ... But I do give him credit for hiring [Floyd native and crew chief] Darian Grubb. I do give him credit for putting the team together that he's done, because that's Tony Stewart 100 percent. And no matter how much money you have and how much engineering and how good a driver you are, unless you get the right people in the right place, you can't win races. Tony deserves all the credit for that."

n On the NASCAR Hall of Fame: "I think Bill France Sr. should be the first to go in. Beyond that, it's anybody's guess. I've talked to fans and they say, 'Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon ought to be inducted in the Hall of Fame. Why weren't they in the first class?' Duh. They've only been here 10 or 12 years. That's like putting Barry Bonds in the Hall of Fame before you put Babe Ruth in the Hall of Fame. You've got to go back to the beginning of the sport."

n On new technology: "It's easy to sit at home and go on Twitter or go on Facebook or call your friends or go on a blog and criticize something. That's incredibly simple. I want to see a blog where people are giving positive ideas, giving ideas on how you can make it better. So far, that Web page is empty right now."

n And finally, his top Twitter argument with a fan. It happened June 21, during the Cup road race at Sonoma. Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- "You can't criticize Junior for anything," Petty said with a smile -- qualified 35th. When Earnhardt moved into the top 20, Petty tweeted that it was a good run for him considering he's not known as a great road racer.

"Open mouth, insert foot," the fan tweeted.

"What are you talking about?" tweeted Petty.

"Dale Earnhardt's a great road racer."

"OK, give me an example."

"He won Watkins Glen in a Busch car in '99."

"That's 10 years ago, and Little League stats don't count in the majors."

"He won at Fontana."

"Fontana's an oval."

Petty laughed as he recounted the final response from the fan, one that translate just as well on the Internet, on the phone or in person.

"I've had too much beer."

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