Billed as “The Ultimate Bucket List Motorcycle Ride,” the 20th-annual Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America covered 2,800 miles in a coast-to-coast trip across America. Indeed, this year’s Ride from Carlsbad, Calif. to Daytona Beach, Fla. was about as “across America” as any ride could be.
“We knew that some of our people had, at some point, ridden from California to the East Coast,” explained Kyle Petty, the former NASCAR driver, current motorsports TV analyst and leader of the annual trip that bears his name. “But we didn’t think very many had gone literally from one shoreline to the other, from beach to beach, from the Pacific to Atlantic like this ride. If anybody still had a ‘water-to-water’ ride on their bucket list, this was the ride for them.”
Petty and his wife, Pattie, created the Ride in 1995 as a charitable fund-raiser for the Winston Cup Racing Wives Auxiliary. The first trip included about three dozen riders going from Santa Clara, Calif. to Charlotte, N.C. Along the way, the group stopped at childrens hospitals to present oversized checks. When the Pettys created Victory Junction Gang Camp in 2004 to honor their late son, Adam, the Ride became one of its primary fund raisers. For the past 11 years the camp and its corps of doctors, nurses, therapists and volunteers have provided a free summer camping experience for children with chronic or terminal illnesses.
So, on May 3 of this year, about 150 motorcyclists departed from a seaside resort in California to go along the southern end of the country and arrive at a seaside resort in Florida. It would well and truly be coast-to-coast ride, beginning 50 yards east of the Pacific Ocean and ending 50 yards west of the Atlantic Ocean.
Perhaps 75% of this year’s riders were on Harley-Davidsons. (Graciously, the manufacturer supplied mechanics, a repair truck and spare parts and pieces for everyone; lacking that, some riders wouldn’t have made all 2,800 miles). There were a handful of Hondas, plus Yamahas, Victorys, BMWs and Triumphs. Several three-wheelers were part of the group, among them three Can-Am Spyders.
My mount for the journey was a spanking-new Vulcan Voyager provided by Kawasaki. It proved to be a great choice for a trip: a touring bike equally comfortable on the long, high-speed stretches of interstate and the twisty, low-speed, through-the-gearbox stretches across mountains and blacktops.
As usual, the Ride drew a number of celebrities. In addition to Petty, former NASCAR drivers Harry Gant and Geoffrey Bodine went coast-to-coast, and former racer Donnie Allison did several days. Heisman Trophy winner and pro football star, Herschel Walker, was back for another Ride, signing hundreds of autographs and posing for countless pictures.
Former congressman and current TV political pundit Allen West (R-Fla.) was a popular Ride rookie. NASCAR legend Richard Petty and motorsports TV personality Rutledge Wood rode several days between their NASCAR commitments in Alabama and Kansas.
Many athletes resent intrusions on their free time, but that was never the case for the seven celebrities on the Petty ride. Walker, for example, willingly and enthusiastically tossed a football with a young Georgia fan during a gas stop. Wood, something of an out-of-control motorsports figure on TV, kept up a constant chatter of jokes and physical comedy at every stop.
Despite his other duties, Kyle Petty signed autographs and posed for pictures from Carlsbad to Daytona Beach. “If people take time to come see us,” he said during a fuel stop in Texas, “I can take time to sign and pose. The King (his father, Richard Petty) taught me that whenever a fan asks for an autograph, it might be for the first time. I try to treat everybody special because you can’t make up for a bad first impression.”
And these celebrities didn’t ask for special treatment. Richard Petty, for example, plopped down under the same shade tree and chose from the same selection of boxed lunches and soft drinks as everybody else.
Walker, a Ride veteran, feigned indignation when a Florida Gators fan asked for an autograph. “I love Florida,” he said, grinning broadly at the kid. “You know why: because I never, ever lost to Florida when I was at Georgia. No reason not to like ’em.”
Even Gant, who didn’t become a NASCAR star until his 40s, garnered a lot of attention. “I’m just glad they still remember me,” he said. “Nobody on the Ride should refuse these fans anything since they’ve taken time to come and see us.”
After an overnight stop in Tucson, Ariz., Day 2 featured a side trip to Tombstone. The routing from Tombstone to the first fuel stop in Douglas was among the Ride’s best. It carried us through modest mountains and beautiful canyons, offering just enough challenging curves and straights to make things interesting before we headed to Las Cruses, N.M. for the night.
Day 3 started well enough, passing through snow-capped mountains and verdant forestland to a fuel stop in Cloudcroft, N.M. in the Lincoln National Park. But the rest of the 356-mile day was forgettable: mostly though flat, sandy, windy desert that didn’t offer much scenery. It seemed like the entire town of Carlsbad, N.M. turned out for our fuel stop, which was followed by an uninspiring ride along state routes into Midland, Texas.
Day 4 was more of the same: four-lane divided highways from Midland to Austin, a distance of 344 miles. Day 5 was a short, 248-mile dash from Austin to Beaumont, in far southeastern Texas. After dodging a traffic jam in Houston, we reached welcoming green trees and lush farmlands, a sign that we were almost done with our three-day slog through Texas.
Day 6 was only 291 miles, getting us to New Orleans by mid-afternoon. That gave our group the opportunity to explore the city’s famous French Quarter area, leaving some riders more free time than they needed.
Day 7 was mostly an all-interstate day, stretching into Tallahassee, Fla., three states over. There was a pounding half-hour rainstorm between Slidell, La. and Biloxi, Miss., the Ride’s only bad weather. When the skies cleared, the group enjoyed a pleasant ride along the Gulf Coast, through Mobile, Ala. and into northwest Florida. It was only 387 miles but seemed much longer to those riders who had enjoyed their time in New Orleans a bit too much.
Along this 2,800-mile trip, Kawasaki’s Voyager performed well for me. Its at-speed ride was smooth and quiet, and unlike the Harleys, its mirrors almost perfectly calm at idle.
Day 8 to Daytona Beach wasn’t especially interesting: interstate from Tallahassee to near Lake City, Fla., then along state highways to Route 100’s dead end at Flagler Beach on the Atlantic. From there, it was a short run southward into Daytona Beach, with the Atlantic on our left just as the Pacific had been on the left eight days earlier.
After the ride, I was reminded of this not insignificant footnote: in the 19 previous years of Petty’s Ride, it has generated tens of millions of dollars for charities. That’s a comforting thought, especially when the routing from Yuma to Gila Bend to Tucson is 103 degrees and seems like it’ll never end.
For more info about the Kyle Petty Charity Ride, visit the official website.