Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram
End Of An Era
There have been many calamitous moments in the history of Petty Enterprises. But the recent dramatic changes, leading to the de facto end of the team, are unmatched in their frequency and sting.
Owner Richard Petty sold majority ownership last year, about the time Kyle Petty was notified that he would no longer be a driver, the second falling shoe in the saga. Then came the merger with Gillett Evernham Motorsport and the end of Petty Enterprises, which began when Lee Petty drove his entry to NASCAR's first "Strictly Stock" race in Charlotte in 1949.
If this doesn't signal hard times for stock car racing, then nothing else will, although several other legacy teams are on the ropes as well.
The Petty clan that started with Lee and Elizabeth, who once broke up a fight between her husband and Tiny Lund using her purse, are a stout bunch and they will weather this storm. But the rest of us will have to settle for watching good ol' No. 43 under new circumstances that signal an era has passed.
It's been worse for the Pettys. The death of Adam Petty behind the wheel in New Hampshire still reverberates. Whether his talent and kingly smile could have rescued the team over the long haul will never be known.
The family's other trials and setbacks on and off the track are the stuff of every day legend. The crash at Daytona that sent Lee over the guard rail and into retirement. Richard Petty's crash at Darlington where his car rolled and flipped seemingly forever or his loss to David Pearson in the most cussed and discussed Daytona 500 ever. Crew Chief Dale Inman's departure after directing all seven championships for "King Richard." The embarrassingly over-sized engine in Charlotte, followed by The King's switch to the team of Mike Curb just before winning his 200th race. The long, slow decline of Petty Enterprises in the intervening 25 years, underscored by Adam's fatal crash.
In all cases, the Pettys found a way to sustain NASCAR's winningest team, a victory in itself. Now others may share commercial rights to the legacy but the Pettys still own the record books.
The ten championships is under threat, but 10 straight victories by The King and his 27 victories in 1967, as well as his 200 victories, 126 poles and 1,185 starts are untouchable. Of the 13 driver records listed in NASCAR's record book, Richard Petty holds seven outright and is tied for three others. The ones he lacks: oldest winner, youngest winner and most consecutive road course victories.
The sheer number of starts by the 46 different drivers for Petty Enterprises is amazing -- just short of 3,000. Beyond the statistics, the Pettys have lived the racing life like few others, led by love of the sport, an unbelievable dedication to it, guts and skill.
Team owner Richard did everything he could to sustain the operation, starting with extending his driving career until 1992 to help build its financial wherewithal. In the process, The King launched the souvenir business with his Farewell Tour that became a 10-figure enterprise if all of NASCAR is taken into account.
The Richard Petty Driving Experience was another important economic cog for the team along with Kyle's unique ability to make sponsors happy despite not getting to victory lane. Richard and Kyle helped bring back former crew chief Robbie Loomis, too, one of the sharpest leaders in the business who learned his trade in the shops of Level Cross, N.C.
There's enough irony to fill a book, starting with the fact supposedly savvy banker and investor types started the current economic woes leading to the recession in sponsorship. It was investors who swept in to buy the team when the sponsors disappeared. Next up in No. 43 will be Reed Sorenson, who takes over after the merger and, thankfully, is a talent perhaps now ready to make his mark.
When the time comes, Richard will sit down for an extended interview with the media to talk about this latest development from his point of view. Other than founder Bill France, the man who has done more to build NASCAR than any individual will have some pragmatic, straight and unsentimental things to say. And, he'll do it graciously.
He'll remain the ever-charismatic king.
Richard may even remind us that the famed Petty blue color came from mixing what little paint they had one day before going to the next race. The new mix of team ownership says a lot about how far the sport has come since then. And how determined "The King" is to keep No. 43 on the track and get it back into victory lane.
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.