Dale Earnhardt Jr. became the latest member of the Victory Junction Founders this week, committing to donate $1 million through his foundation to the camp started by Kyle and Pattie Petty in Randleman, N.C., for children six through 16 with serious medical conditions.
The late Adam Petty was the inspiration for the camp. After visiting a camp in Florida, he told his parents Kyle and Pattie that he wanted to build one in North Carolina. Petty died in a Nationwide practice crash two months shy of his 20th birthday in 2000 and his parents decided to build Victory Junction to honor his memory. The Petty family may be the driving force behind it, but the camp has evolved into a NASCAR community project that grows each year.
"Junior's donation is a prime example of the support we've gotten from the NASCAR community," Kyle Petty said. "We started out doing a camp for kids in North Carolina, South Carolina, part of Virginia and eastern Tennessee. We started as a regional charity and became a national charity real quick."
Victory Junction opened its gates on June 15, 2004. It has had over 13,000 children and their family members make free week-long visits. It costs approximately $2,500 per child and the camp operates 52 weeks a year. The budget for 2010 is $6.3 million, all raised through donations.
Tony Stewart has given $2 million to the organization, while Kurt Busch pledged $1.3 million. The Carolinas Credit Union Foundation leads the non-NASCAR list at $1.7 million, and the NASCAR Foundation -- which began operating in 2006 -- has given $1.97 million.
"NASCAR hadn't started its foundation when Adam had his accident and I think people were looking for a cause to support," Petty's father said. "We were growing so fast in NASCAR, Victory Junction gave everybody a focal point. People were saying, 'We're blessed to do the things we want, let's give something back to people who need it.' We've been blessed by everyone's support and they've done a tremendous job of it."
The largest single donor has been Kyle Petty's Charity Ride, which has given $5.2 million. The charity ride predates Victory Junction and has raised a total of $13 million. Petty's 16th Charity Ride Across America will be May 1 through 9, starting in Indian Wells, CA., and ending in Randleman.
Other Victory Junction Founders include Richard and Linda Petty, Kyle's parents that donated the 84 acres of land it sits upon, Michaeland Buffy Waltrip, the late Paul Newman and the Bahre family -- the former owners of New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
There are also plenty of NASCAR drivers and fans who have contributed.
"All their fans look at the camp and say, 'if Jimmie (Johnson) donates, I'm going to donate'," Kyle Petty said. "You get Tony (Stewart), Dale Jr., Michael (Waltrip), all those guys who beat each other into the wall every week and they all come together to help Victory Junction. That part to me is the most amazing, how all these guys pull in the same direction to make something better for somebody else."
Victory Junction has everything children from six to 16 could want, offering horse riding, fishing, a water park, an arts and crafts building, miniature golf and a sports and recreation center. It also has the Body Shop, a medical center that allows them to attend camp.
"We're a small working hospital," Petty said. "We have a full-time doctor and several full-time nurses. The kids that come to our camp with the diseases we see, they have to have medical supervision there. We can do dialysis. We can do chemo at camp. It has to be a medically safe environment. Most of the kids who come to camp spend 90 days in a medical treatment center per year."
Victory Junction has broken ground on a second camp in Kansas City, slated to open in 2011. "We'll have the hospital part up and running by the end of summer and start building from there," Petty said. "We're seeing so many kids from west of the Mississippi, we needed something in the Midwest."
Earnhardt's donation will build the Dale Jr. Corral and Amphitheatre. Ground breaking is scheduled for March 27 during the Dale Jr. Foundation Physical Disabilities Weekend at Victory Junction.
"There are many reasons why we wanted to get involved with Victory Junction and build this amphitheatre, and it starts with the tremendous impact the camp has on these kids," Earnhardt said. "It's incredible how one week changes lives. Just as important to me is my friendship with Kyle and Pattie Petty and the memory of my buddy, Adam Petty."
Though five years younger than Junior, Adam Petty and Earnhardt forged a friendship early on.
"Adam and I met each other at an early age and from that point on our lives and careers were virtually parallel," Junior says. "He was as genuine as they get and a great friend. If I can play a small part in helping Kyle and Pattie keep his dream alive, it doesn't require a second thought."
Victory Junction has tagged their fund-raising campaign "Keeping the Dream Alive" and the Earnhardt donation has gotten it off to a big start. What would Adam Petty think about what his dream has done?
"My wife and I laugh about it," he said. "I think he'd be embarrassed by it, all the hoopla made in his name. He wasn't that type of kid. I think he'd be a little embarrassed and, at the same time, be honored that Dale, Tony, Kurt, all these guys have said, "That was a good kid, let's do something for him."