Tuesday, June 26, 2012

SPORTS STORY >> Right sport drives Austin teen

Leader sportswriter

He’s not exactly a chip off the old block, but 16-year-old Austin resident Chandler Petty has still found a way to fulfill his dad’s wishes when it comes to being young and competitive in a sporting capacity.

It just doesn’t involve sticks, balls or goals.

It does, however, involve engines, shocks and sheet metal. And with a last name like Petty, maybe it should’ve been obvious all along.

There’s no relation to the famous Petty racing family, but there has been lots of prep time at the race shop with young Petty contending for the Comp Cams Super Dirt Series Rookie of the Year title as the youngest regular competitor on the regional super-late-model tour.

Petty’s father Brian grew up a farm boy turned multi-sport college athlete as a baseball and basketball standout at Crowley’s Ridge College in Paragould during the early 1990s, but struggled years later when it came to getting his grade-school-aged son involved in any type of athletic endeavor. Stints in T-Ball and basketball proved uninteresting to the younger Petty, who finally convinced dad to explore the world of go-kart racing.

“He couldn’t get me to play any other sport,” Petty said. “I couldn’t get into it. He was a football star and everything else, and I just couldn’t get interested in it. I tried a couple of sports, I just didn’t like it. We just got into the kart deal, and here we are.”

The potential for success was evident right away, as Petty quickly became a rising star at Arkansas Motorsports Park in Paragould. He won four races and finished second in the points his first season in 2007 before heading out on the national circuit the following year.

That led to more success, with Petty winning 28 feature events, including the coveted Gator Nationals. In 2009, he moved up a class and won 14 races, and the following year, he tested the stock-car waters with a hobby entry at Beebe Speedway, winning two races and finishing third in the points standings.

Petty also stayed active in the karting world that year and won the Batesville, Miss. Nationals, the biggest karting race in the country. He switched to a crate late model in 2011 and won nine features, finishing eighth in the NeSmith Late Model Series national championship.

For the elder Petty, his son’s fast success in racing was an added benefit for his quest to get Chandler away from the television set. The character development and responsibility learned while participating in organized sports was important to Brian when it came to his son, and while racing was not his first choice, it seemed to fit the bill after a number of fruitless attempts in more conventional youth activities.

“I kept pressuring him,” Brian Petty said. “Because all he was ever doing was playing video games. I finally said, ‘what is it you want to do?’ He told me about go-kart races they had in Warren, so we went and checked it out. I bought him a racing kart for his birthday that year, and that’s where it all started.”

The learning curve has been considerably steep with the move to super lates this season. Petty has failed to qualify for three events on the Comp Cams tour, and had four straight finishes outside the Top 10 in the events where he did make the show. His breakthrough run came at Riverside International Speedway in West Memphis on June 2 when he posted a sixth-place finish, his best finish this season.

Last Friday’s feature at Beebe Speedway was another learning experience for Chandler, who had to finish the last half of the 35-lap event without brakes. He stayed out of trouble in the caution-marred event and brought home his second top-ten finish with an eighth-place effort.

“It’s about a 400-horsepower difference,” Petty said of the switch to super late models from crates. “They’re fun to drive, and I don’t think it’s been the motor that’s thrown us for a curveball this year, it’s just been bad luck. I mean, we’ve had about as bad of luck as you can get.”

Many young racers have dreams of making it to NASCAR one day, but Petty’s aspiration for the future is to rise to the top of the super dirt late model world. He said he would not turn down an opportunity to race in the major-league ranks, though his heart truly lies in the dirt.

Sponsoring Chandler’s 47 car is also a family affair, with grandfather Gordon Petty providing the primary backing from his successful Whistle Stop Barbeque restaurant on Pleasure St. in Searcy. Gordon is also a fixture in the team Petty pit area on race day. While most of the wrench turning is left up to Brian, Gordon’s position seated to the side of the trailer ramp with cigar in hand appears to be more of a supervisory role.

Vision Wheel also sponsors for Petty, who is currently second to Bryant modified veteran Robert Baker in the CCSDS rookie standings.

Petty has a full slate of racing on tap this summer before returning to Cabot High School in the fall to start his junior year.

The football frenzy that consumes Panther Nation every autumn is among the strongest in the state, while few in the town of 29,000 pay much attention to racing.

Many of his classmates will be practicing blocking patterns and running drills later this summer, but Chandler will still be in the shop, doing the things necessary to excel at his sport.

“It’s a football-crazy town, and no one really cares about racing,” Petty said. “They don’t really know what it’s like. There’s so much more than what people think. When I’m not at school, I’m working on the car like they are with practice. It’s not any different, and it’s just as much athletic work like you wouldn’t believe.”