The 24thAnnual Kyle Petty Charity Ride kicked off last weekend and is headed South. Here's how you can help.

By Rebecca Angel Baer
May 09, 2018

On Saturday, NASCAR royalty Kyle Petty, son of Richard, "The King", Petty led a legion of motorcycle riders out on the 24thannual Kyle Petty Charity ride, benefiting Petty's camp for seriously ill children. Over the last two decades and then some, Petty and his crew have raised millions of dollars for kids in need and to think, it all started as just a joy ride among friends.

"A few of us who were involved with NASCAR at the time just really wanted to ride motorcycles from California to North Carolina. And we told all of our {team} owners and our sponsors that's what we wanted to do and they said ‘no way. Can't be done. We're not giving you guys the day off.' And then we said we're gonna do it for charity and then they said that's the greatest idea we ever heard," Petty told Southern Living.

And that's exactly how it was in the early years—Petty and several of his motorcycle enthusiast friends hopped on their bikes and headed across the country. Along the way they would stop at children's hospitals and make donations—either from their own pockets or from sponsors they picked up along the way. But it was a tragic event in Petty's own life that forever changed the direction of the ride.

In 2000, Petty's eldest son, Adam, was a rising star himself in the NASCAR community. But his racing ambitions and his life were cut tragically short when, at just 19 years old, Adam died in a crash during a practice on track at New Hampshire International Speedway.

It was after this horrible accident that Petty recalled something Adam had told him after they'd visited one of Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall Gang Camps for children facing serious illnesses. Petty then realized that his cross-country bike ride could do so much more good.

"We had visited Boggy Creek which is a camp in Florida and he {Adam} was like, man you guys on the motorcycle ride, you go to children's hospitals, why don't you just build a camp and bring kids to camp?"

Petty had previously met Paul Newman and rang him to ask about building a camp. That is how Victory Junction went from being Adam's dream to a reality and a refuge for thousands of kids.

"Victory Junction is a camp for children with chronic and life threatening illnesses…Not necessarily terminal illnesses. Chronic and life threatening," Petty told us.

The kids attending Victory Junction Camp face a wide variety of ailments from Crohn's Disease to asthma or children who've been burned in fires, or who suffer from blood disorders. Most of these children won't see a cure to their disease in their lifetime.

"We see those kids. And these are illnesses that every morning they get up, they fight it. Every night they go to bed, they fight it. They wake up again and do it again. And if they live to be a hundred, they are more than likely going to have these diseases and until someone finds a cure for them, their entire life," Petty said.

Since Petty and his crew opened the gates of camp in 2004, they've provided a sanctuary for upwards of 26 thousand children—totally free of charge.

WATCH: Dolly Parton Visits Superhero Kids at Vanderbilt's Children's Hospital

"We had a little boy from High Point (NC). His name was Austin and he came to camp and met a little boy from Ohio and they've become best friends…The disorder that they have, I'm just going to say it's very visual and they had never seen another child that looked like them. And it's hard to explain what it's like to be a little boy or to be a little girl and be the only person at school that you feels looks like you, that you feel acts like you, that you feel has the {same} disease. It's very isolating. So when they come to camp…they make new friends. "

"So many kids come and they are withdrawn or just quiet and by the time they leave they're rowdy and rambunctious and I think that's what its all about. We like to say the camp just empowers kids to be kids," Petty added.

Now the Kyle Petty Charity Ride serves as the primary fundraising vehicle for Victory Junction each year and helps to ensure thousands of children have a place to escape and find their new best friend. Many sponsors have teamed up with Petty over the years, and notably one Southern company has been along for the ride all 24 years—Coca Cola. But Petty and crew raise most of their money through donations from the riders themselves. Each rider pays a fee to ride and the majority of that fee goes right towards camp. This year, that pack of riders include several familiar faces including, former NFL player Herschel Walker, NBC Sports personalities Krista Voda and Rutledge Wood, and NASCAR greats Donnie Allison, David Ragan, and Petty's famous father, Richard Petty.

Rutledge Wood, also co-host of Cooking Channel's Southern & Hungry, spoke with Southern Living about both his experience on past rides and his admiration for Petty.

"Being a part of the ride is the greatest thing I've been able to be a part of. It's an amazing group of people who all have a heart of gold. I love Kyle Petty for a lot of reasons, including what he's done for so many."

In addition to the generosity of their riders and sponsors, Petty told us about the remarkable impact the fans make along the way.

"We have a thing called Small Change, Big Impact. Where when we stop at a gas station we ask people to, if you've got a little change in your pocket, just drop it in the victory junction or the Kyle Petty Charity Ride tire that drag along with us and by the time we get home, it's filled up pretty much."

Petty said that those pit stops have racked up over $50,000 alone in the last 24 years. He makes sure that the route they are taking each year is posted on the charity's website so fans all along the way can come by and say hello. And they want you to do just that.

This year the race started in the Northeast but will end at Victory Junction Camp in North Carolina and Petty hopes fans come out to welcome them all home. He wants it to be a celebration. He also hopes that by inviting fans to join the riders at camp, someone might become inspired by what is possible when we help our neighbors in need.

"I always hope that people look at the ride or look at the camp and say, you know what, I can do that. I can go help somebody. I can raise my hand and people will help me and I can help other people."

If you can't make it to one of the pit stops along the way or to camp at the end, you can still help. Donate to Victory Junction here.