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Life after Adam: Pettys reach out to ailing children at camp

'Every kid touches you by how good their attitude is about their struggle,' driver says

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Randleman, N.C. - NASCAR driver Kyle Petty has heard many compliments about the Victory Junction Gang Camp his family created for chronically ill children.

But nothing touches his heart like the words of a child.

Every day after lunch in the Fuel Stop dining hall, campers and counselors can grab a microphone and say what they're thankful for.

The second week of camp, Petty said, "This little girl, maybe 12 years old, stood up and said, 'I'm thankful I came to camp but I left my illness at home.' It's just so profound to come out of a 12 year old."

A couple of weeks ago a youngster had the staff teary-eyed from one sentence and laughing at the next.

"He'd been in a car fire and was burned just really bad," Petty said. "And he stood up and said, 'I'm thankful that I'm at camp and we all survived the fires that we were in.' It was just a blanket statement for everybody there. Then he said, 'And I'm thankful that we're having a dance on Wednesday night. I'm hookin' up.'"

Moments like that seem to have brought a peace to Petty. He built the camp in memory of his son, Adam, 19, who was killed practicing for a Busch Series race at New Hampshire in 2000.

"If they've got a little bit of Adam's smile on their face when they leave, then I think it's been a good camp," Petty said. "And that's what I see when I go to the cafeteria. I see 60 little Adams running around smiling."

It's a camp masquerading as a stock car racing theme park. Petty credits his wife Pattie's vision for what he calls "the Jetsons meet NASCAR" architecture.

Set on 75 acres donated by Kyle's father, Richard, who lives just a short four-wheel drive ride through adjoining woods, the camp features 16 camper cabins [the beds look like race cars; the night stands like tool boxes].

Campers drive through a speedway-like tunnel to check in at the Body Shop, a neatly-disguised medical facility. The camp also has a Sports and Recreation Center, 120-seat Performing Arts Center, a swimming pool featuring a giant sculpted motorcycle that shoots water out the handle bars, an equestrian center that features horses trained by Petty's daughter, Montgomery Lee.

The Fab Shop, a beauty parlor, has been a surprising hit.

There's a place for arts and crafts, a wood shop, a digital photography studio and a computer lab with 15 IBM work stations being underwritten by Jay Adamczyk's Jayski.com internet racing site. At the Bass Pro Shops Catch, Kiss and Release seven-acre stocked lake, the kids have to kiss the bream they catch, then throw them back.

"We were afraid that we were going to have to limit their computer lab time because kids would be in there wanting to play video games, getting on-line," Petty said. "When it's all said and done, the two things that kids are still gravitating to are a pole and a worm and a place to go swimming. Those are the two most popular places at camp. We give them free time, they go fish."

Tuesday night is NASCAR night, when drivers show up amidst an outdoor carnival with tethered hot air balloons and cotton candy. The kids see a side of drivers the public seldom does: Brendan Gaughan letting the children hit him in the face with pies. Ryan Newman kissing the fish after each child's catch. Tony Stewart hanging out in the cabins with the kids way past lights out.

Petty admitted that, "A lot of things we did were over the top," at the $20 million camp.

Race cars of Terry Labonte and Brian Vickers hang from the cafeteria ceiling. Every hour, the rear tires spin to a sound track of race noise. Cars of Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Ken Schrader lurk on rooftops. Car hoods hang above the seats in the theater.

Adam's Race Shop is a work still in progress. Shaped like Adam's No. 45 race car, the building will have interactive games and mementos of Adam's career.

"But when the kids come," Petty said, "you might as well have tents. It doesn't make any difference; you do not notice the architecture. You don't notice the motorcycle in the middle of the pool. You just notice the kids. That was one thing I always hoped would happen. We could have plowed that field, seeded it, put up a bunch of tents and invited a bunch of kids and we'd have exactly the same camp that we have."

Victory Junction concludes its first eight-week summer schedule Friday. Then it will open on weekends from September to May for family programs. It is part of actor Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall Gang camp network.

The camp plays hosts to children with similar disabilities and disorders each week.

The full-time staff of 25, which includes a medical staff, is supplemented by more than 300 college-student volunteers this summer. Medical director Dr. Sharon Space used to run the pediatric hematology program at Boston City Hospital. "I took care of kids with cancer and blood diseases," she said, "but I get more of a special feeling for what we do here for children in a week."

Michael Palermo, a senior industrial design major at Auburn, volunteered through Phi Kappa Tau, Newman's old fraternity. "I love just being with the kids," Palermo said, "and the fact that I get to walk around taking about 1,000 pictures every week."

Through all the fun and games, however, the condition of the campers is often sobering.

"For me, [epilepsy/seizure disorder week] is just a harder week," said Brian Collier, the camp's executive director, who has overseen special camp weeks for hemophiliacs, kids with sickle cell, cancer, burn survivors and those with skin disease, spina bifida and asthma.

"It hits home more than most weeks about the things that can go wrong in a child's life," Collier said. "When you see children with asthma or even when you see children with cancer, a lot of times the challenges that they're facing are not as visible on the outside. This is more in your face."

This camp was designed to serve children from North and South Carolina and Virginia. But because of NASCAR's reach - many of its drivers who are major contributors to the camp come from all over - kids have come from Oklahoma, New York, New Jersey and Georgia.

But they all display the same grit and courage no matter their zip code.

"Every kid touches you by how good their attitude is about their struggle," Petty said. "It doesn't make any difference if they're seven years old or 16, they still have that same attitude of , 'Yeah, this happened to me, and this is what I got, but it's not a big deal,' and they just keep moving along."

There have been some minor miracles at the camp already, like the child who slept outside his parent's bed for the first time in his nine-year-old life or the 12-year-olds with sickle cell who had never been able to get into a swimming pool.

"This place is never going to replace Adam," Collier said, "but Kyle has got to take something home at night when he thinks he helped to change the life of a child."

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