By Greg Gelpi
Winston Cup race car driver Kyle Petty and NASCAR sponsor Georgia-Pacific teamed up to put the brakes on careless driving, bringing their Teen Safety 500 program to Jonesboro and Lovejoy high schools Thursday.
The Lovejoy community was rocked by the death of 16-year-old Darren Brooks, one of its students in March.
Only months later, his mother Wanda Thomas returned to the school to endorse the Teen Safety 500 program and caution students of how quickly a drive to McDonalds took her son's life. His death showed what can result from inexperience and breaking the law, she said.
"Darren paid the ultimate consequence for not listening to his parents," his mother said of his decision to leave school to grab breakfast and let friends ride with him. "We don't make rules to make your life not fun."
Brooks had his license for three weeks when he was killed, she said. Justin Phillips, a 15-year-old passenger, was also killed when Brooks' car collided with a school bus head-on.
Two other passengers, Kenneth Colvin and Armonne Gallow, and the school bus driver were also injured.
Petty whips around turn after turn on the racetrack, but it's not as easy as it looks, two Lovejoy seniors said.
"It was a little difficult getting it to turn on the wet track," Brady Jordan said. Jordan was one of a group of students who participated in a defensive driving session at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
"I just thought we would go out there and learn stuff," Andy Lassiter said. "I didn't think we would get to drive."
Made famous by his ability to drive and excel at high speeds, Petty explained the difference between professional drivers and teenagers who just earned their license.
"I grew up around racecars," he said, explaining that just like he admires other professions, he couldn't do their jobs. In the same way, fans may admire him, but don't have the experience to drive at the speeds he does.
"Speed is for the racetrack, not the highway," Petty said. "It's that simple."
He went on to explain that racing in a "controlled environment" is different from street racing and careless driving.
The seat in his No. 45 racecar alone costs $15,000 because of the special carbon fiber material it is made of to maximize safety, he said.
"Everything in Winston Cup is designed for safety," Petty said.
Petty listed several tips for young drivers, including turning the radio down to a normal volume, not talking on a cellular phone and buckling up.
His son, Austin, was involved in a wreck last week, but was unharmed because he wore his seatbelt, Petty said.
About half of all high school students will get into a driving accident before their graduation, said Bob Dallas, director of the Governor's Office of Highway Safety.
The Teen Safety 500 program pits rival schools, Jonesboro High and Lovejoy High, against in each other in a race to log safe driving miles.
"It's a contest that puts Lovejoy against Jonesboro, but the main thing is about keeping you safe," Petty told a packed Lovejoy gym. "Put your minds in gear before you put your car in gear."
Students at both schools register online for the program and log their mileage each of the next three weeks.
At the end of that time, the school with the most participants will win prizes. Also, 30 students from each school will have the opportunity to experience a high-speed skid on a wet track, breaking suddenly and changing lanes in emergency situations at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Petty ranks 12th among all active drivers in all-time poll positions and is 16th on the all-time money list.