The grandson of Richard Petty spent the majority of his childhood under the impression he was prohibited from a career that would allow him to race automobiles.
Now 20, Thad Moffitt is realizing what once felt like a pipe dream: extending the legacy of a legendary racing family. And the winding path that has led Moffitt to the ARCA Menards Series was established in part by an unusual high school football game.
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Moffitt, the son of Petty’s daughter, Rebecca Petty Moffitt, grew up playing football, basketball and baseball in and around his hometown of Trinity, North Carolina. Football had become his primary sport by the time he reached Wheatmore High School.
Racing by this point also had wedged itself onto Thad Moffitt’s plate. He began competing in go karts at age 14 and, as is the case for many developing athletes, eventually felt obligated to make a choice.
“I continued to play football up until my sophomore year,” Moffitt explained. “One time, we played six overtimes. And then I pulled a tripleheader the next day at Hickory (Motor Speedway). And I was like, ‘Dude, there’s no way. I can’t do this anymore.’ Like, they had to carry me out of the car. I couldn’t even carry my driver’s bag back to the car; my sister had to carry it out of the track. I was just so dehydrated.
“I was like, I’m just going to have to choose one or the other; I can’t do this anymore. So I chose racing.”
Moffitt’s career as a driver, which has seen him earn four top-five finishes and 14 top-10 runs in 30 ARCA Menards Series races over the last four-plus seasons, was unofficially born with that decision. He says his interest in racing arrived earlier in life, when he was just 8. But the hobby wasn’t an option at the time.
Moffitt’s family – particularly his grandmother, Richard Petty’s late wife Lynda – had done everything they could to keep him away from the sport that took his cousin’s life. Adam Petty, the son of Moffitt’s uncle Kyle, was killed in a crash while practicing at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in May of 2000, a few months before Moffitt was born. Adam Petty was 19.
Said Moffitt of Richard Petty: “Grandpa was like, ‘Isn’t there something else you can do?’ “
Yet it was Petty who lit the fire in his grandson. He brought the then 8-year-old Moffitt to pit road following the 2009 Daytona 500, a race in which three Richard Petty Motorsports cars finished in the top 10.
“I was like, ‘Dude, this could be me one day,'” said Moffitt. “That’s when it kind of got real for me.”
If you could live the life of anybody else for one day, whose would you live?@ThadMoffitt‘s answer is simple: his grandfather Richard Petty
– ARCA Menards Series (@ARCA_Racing) February 18, 2021
Moffitt’s family caved and bought him a Quarter Midget car. But the opportunity to race it never came.
Lynda Petty around that time was diagnosed with cancer. So Rebecca Petty Moffitt spent the majority of her days with her mother at Duke Medical Center, roughly an hour’s drive from home. Brian Moffitt, Thad’s father, was busy serving Petty Enterprises, then as Vice President of Marketing. With both parents constantly on the road, Thad Moffitt’s racing plans were put on hold.
Lynda Petty passed away in March of 2014. A year later, the family was ready to support Moffitt’s racing efforts, but he had grown too big for the Quarter Midget. So they bought a dirt go kart.
“Not even a full season later, they were like, ‘Alright, you’re doing good in this stuff, so we’re going to go ahead and put you in a stock car,'” Moffitt recalled with a laugh.
He flourished immediately, winning the Southeast Limited Late Model championship in 2016. He did this while juggling his work as a student at Wheatmore … somewhat.
The school called Moffitt’s parents after his sophomore year, when he racked up 80 absences in 180 days. The administration would have no choice but to fail Moffitt if he were to miss so many days as a junior.
“I was like, ‘Well I’m not not going to go race Thursday or Friday because y’all want me to come to class,” said Moffitt. “I had good grades; I was A-B honor roll the whole time. It was not like I wasn’t keeping up.”
So Moffitt completed his last two years of high school online, a situation he says prepared him for what became the norm in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic while he worked online toward a college degree.
Despite his lineage, Moffitt didn’t feel as prepared for the racing portion of his life when he started competing in the ARCA Menards Series. Somewhat limited by his equipment at Empire Racing from 2017-19, the quality of the competition was his wake-up call.
“I feel like the ARCA series, when we first got there, had a lot of experienced guys,” said Moffitt. “And I still had no idea what I was doing.”
Last season, David Gilliland Racing signed Moffitt to drive the No. 46 Ford for what he hoped would be a full season, but funding dried up when the COVID-19 pandemic impacted sponsors. Still, Moffitt proved his capabilities, earning a trio of top fives and eight top 10s in 13 races.
Still driving the No. 46 Ford for DGR with Clean Harbors and Aqua ChemPacs as partners, Moffitt again is hoping to run a full ARCA Menards Series schedule in 2021. The team has the first 14 events of the 20-race schedule sold but is battling the same COVID-related funding issues to fill the remainder of its slate.
Moffitt is on the right track. He earned a new career best with his third-place run at Phoenix Raceway this month. He is fifth in ARCA Menards Series points through two races despite his involvement in an accident in the opener at Daytona.
And at this point, Moffitt has pinned his own weaknesses and strengths. He calls himself the “worst qualifier in the world” and is training himself to push the car to its limits. He feels his biggest strength as a driver is his consistency.
“Grandpa, when he first started coming to watch, he would be like, “If you’re slow, you’re consistently slow. But if you’re fast, you’re consistently fast,'” said Moffitt. “It’s not like I would run a really fast lap and then slow down. I was running the same thing every time.”
– Thad Moffitt (@ThadMoffitt) March 14, 2021
Moffitt is thankful for the guidance he receives as a fourth-generation racer. For example, if and when Moffitt graduates to the next level of stock car racing, Petty would prefer his grandson compete regularly in the NASCAR Xfinity Series rather than the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Petty doesn’t like the idea of throwing truck aerodynamics into the equation for a driver learning to race cars.
Even though he is tied to the Petty legacy, Moffitt does not carry himself in a way that suggests he is under pressure. He is laid back and loose. His goal is to reach the NASCAR Cup Series, of course, but he also is taking a variety of college courses to give himself multiple career options down the road.
Which makes sense for a guy who was never consumed by racing despite being raised by a racing family.
For Moffitt, thanks in part to the fact that he has never felt obligated to be “the next Petty,” this is fun. It’s a unique opportunity, a chance to put to use the talent he already has made evident.
“I wanted to at least give it a shot,” said Moffitt. “Everybody else got their shot.”