The Frontstretch: Is Petty Enterprises Circling The Drain? by Vito Pugliese -- Tuesday April 8, 2008

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Is Petty Enterprises Circling The Drain?

The Voice Of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Tuesday April 8, 2008

 

A couple of weeks back, some friends and I made a road trip across the state of Michigan to Detroit for the weekend. While jammed in the back of a three-quarter ton extended cab 4×4 pickup, my buddy riding in the back began to tire of the noise from the stereo. He leaned forward between the front seats to adjust the controls and, in typical GM fashion, the knob came off in his hand. Our other friend — the driver and owner — offered his assessment of the situation:

"My truck … it's … crum-bl-ing…"

This moment helped spur some thoughts of my own concerning another crumbling American institution - Petty Enterprises. Once the dominant force in NASCAR competition, it has, for some time now, been a struggling operation. Every two or three years, there is a renewed commitment to getting the team competitive, to once again make it a threat to win on race day; but sadly, these initiatives have never seemed to pan out. And now — after several failed attempts — there are stress cracks showing in the foundation of a team on the verge of possible destruction, especially after the events of the past week.

Rumors were confirmed Wednesday that longtime sponsor General Mills would be leaving the most famous number in motorsports, the flagship No. 43 entry of Bobby Labonte, to join with Richard Childress Racing and its fourth entry in the Sprint Cup Series for 2009. It is also rumored that Labonte, the 2000 Sprint Cup Champion, will not be far behind, despite comments to the contrary by Petty Enterprises Vice President of Racing Operations Robbie Loomis in an attempt to diffuse the situation. As if that’s not enough, the now-public dissatisfaction voiced by the heir to the Petty throne, Kyle Petty, has become a matter of increasing scrutiny. Kyle did not attempt to qualify his No. 45 Dodge Charger last weekend, leaving that to rookie Chad McCumbee. While the company line offered by Loomis is that it was a group decision to let McCumbee race, Kyle made it known in no uncertain terms that whatever the decision was, he was in the minority on it. Tensions further escalated when the owner claimed that if given an opportunity to drive for another team, he'd probably accept, calling the future stability of his operation into question with one full swoop.

How could it get so bad so quickly for this NASCAR mainstay? Wasn't Petty Enterprises on the mend over the last couple of years? It had a new championship-winning driver in Labonte, acquired the services of former Hendrick Motorsports luminaries Robbie Loomis and Jeff Meendering, and lured an architect of the most dominant Ford teams of the 1990's in Todd Parrott. There was even talk of a merger between Petty Enterprises and arguably one of the most successful Dodge teams in NASCAR, Gillett Evernham Motorsports. Where did it all fall apart?

As The King would say, "It’s just circumstances."

16 years after the King’s retirement from active driving, his smiling face is still a welcome sight in the garage area; but at the end of the season, the future of his team remains in serious jeopardy.

Last season, the decision was made to move the Petty's racing operation from its roots in Level Cross, North Carolina, to the epicenter of NASCAR racing, Mooresville, occupying the space once belonging to Robert Yates Racing. A proposed merger with Gillett Evernham Motorsports never materialized, while talk of entertaining a new potential investor has begun but never been finalized. The team is now also faced with losing its driver and its primary sponsor, increasing the level of changes the team must absorb over a short period of time — all while facing the challenge of rising expectations in the process.

Some of the organization’s best assets have left or are on the verge of walking out the door in recent years; Parrott has long since flown the coop, similar brainy crew chief Paul Andrews was dropped, and longest-tenured financial backer General Mills (nine years) is heading to RCR. As for what’s left, Loomis and owner / driver Kyle Petty seem to have a difference of opinion as to what direction the team should go; and the role in which father Richard is playing in the whole mess — along with how much longer he’ll be a major decision maker — is unclear at best.

But in the meantime, the direction in which the team is headed has never been in doubt.

While Petty Enterprises has amassed 268 wins and 10 championships in 60 years of racing, to say that performance has steadily waned throughout the years is an understatement. Its last win was in 1999 at Martinsville with John Andretti at the wheel, and the last time it finished in the Top 10 in points was 1995, with the late Bobby Hamilton. Things began to look up last year, as Labonte finished 18th in the standings, but now dark clouds are once again forming on the horizon.

Things are so bleak, in fact, that Kyle expressed no reservations this weekend about driving elsewhere if it was determined that he was an obstacle to the team’s improvement.

“I came back here because this is where I wanted to be and this is what I wanted to do,” he said. “But I don’t want to stand in the way of this team being a better team. And if I’m the problem and they figure out that Kyle’s the problem, then this whole deal is not working out. And if that’s what they truly believe and they don’t have confidence in me and I don’t have confidence in them, no driver ever wants to be in that position, whether you own the team or you don’t own the team, no matter how it’s connected to you.”

For the record, replacement Chad McCumbee did not make the field on Sunday; in failing to do so, he was over seven mph off the pole speed.

But even with that failure, had it not been for the name on the door of the shop, this driver change could have happened a lot earlier. Since 2001, when Petty Enterprises made their much heralded return to Dodge after Chrysler’s exodus from the sport in the late 1970’s, the combined efforts of the team as a whole have amassed a whopping 21 Top 10 finishes.

21: That's one less than Matt Kenseth scored all of last year. And of those, Petty has accumulated merely six — in 234 starts. That’s one less than Kasey Kahne scored all of last season, in what was widely assumed to be a major disappointment for the young driver.

Turns out disappointment means different things for different people.

At 47 years of age, Kyle has had more than a plateful as an owner / driver since returning to the operation in 1997. After son Adam was killed in an accident during practice at New Hampshire in 2000, many wondered how long he would remain behind the wheel; he was there physically, but was his heart still in it?

It’s a question that has conflicting answers. Last season, Petty stepped out of the car for five races while serving as an analyst for TNT's NASCAR coverage. He plans to return to the booth for TNT again this summer, and will also be out of the seat at Dover in June to attend daughter Montgomery Lee's wedding. But while Kyle has always had interests and pursuits outside of the car, he is still a race car driver by trade, and his main motivation has always been Sunday afternoons; witness his recent passionate crusade to keep himself in the cockpit of his own car.

So, what is it going to take to get Petty Enter … well, let me stop myself. Everyone has been asking that question since Richard Petty last captured victory No. 198 at Charlotte in 1983; it’s a race he won with a big engine and right side tires on the left side of the car. The King didn't even drive Petty machines in 1984 for wins 199 and 200; those cars were owned by recording mogul Mike Curb while Petty Enterprises took a brief hiatus. Since then, while there was a resurgence of sorts for the team during the mid-to late-90's, it has been a perpetual one step forward / two steps back chain of events that perpetuates itself at this organization year after year. And while this season started off promising with decent runs at Daytona and Atlanta, the pendulum has begun to swing back the other way, with lackluster performances coupled with sponsor troubles — and now the rift between driver and management has gone public.

Let's not be too quick to throw dirt on one of the proudest names and traditions in all of auto racing, as it has yet to be determined where exactly Labonte will end up — and perhaps Kyle's comments last week were needed to clear the air within the organization. No question, the First Family of Stock Car Racing that helped build NASCAR and establish the sport as we know it certainly deserves the benefit of the doubt. However, if the situation worsens, it may very well continue devolving into the old leaky Mopar rotting in the driveway that it’s beginning to resemble; a car no longer functioning, but resting on past laurels and bygone glories to stay out of the junkyard. As the clock starts ticking, we can only hope that Petty Enterprises can forge ahead and once again rise to be a competitive force in NASCAR, and not become a museum full of trophies and old race cars. For them, the knob to turn things around is jiggling loose; let’s hope the team doesn’t make the wrong move to break that thing right off.

For no one wants to see a legend crumble.

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Did You Notice? … A Return To Richmond, Post-Spingate And Quick Hits
NASCAR Mailbox: A ‘Normal’ Saturday And A Valuable Lesson
Beyond the Cockpit: Tony ‘The Sarge’ Schumacher
Open Wheel Wednesday: Controversial Moves, Long Beach Crowds, and Being a Fuddy Duddy
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IndyCar Driver Profile: Takuma Sato
Beyond the Cockpit: Tommy Baldwin on Owning His Team, Hall of Fame and the Number Seven
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Robert Eastman
04/08/2008 06:43 AM
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Of course, everyone LOVES Kyle, and all the good works he has done. BUT
Kyle needs to figure out what his job at PE is.
Is he a race driver or is he a radio/PR rep, or is he CEO???
He has the mistaken idea (like many ego-centrics)that he can do everything well, all at the same time. FALSE!!!
If he is the CEO, then he blew-it by throwing his “best people” under the bus by taking their disagreement public. If he is a race driver, he showed that he is not a “team-player.” If he is the PR guy, he tainted the Petty image by being a public cry-baby. In everyway, Kyle’s tantrum hurt the reputation of his company. Obviously, PE is lacking true “Executive Leadership” that effects more than “on-track performance.” This lack of leadership may be the real reason for the loss of their #1 Sponsor! Kyle must grow-up by coming to the realization that PE and the Petty Legacy is bigger than him. Even Richard understands this and he is the one that contributed the most to the Petty Legacy! (Maybe Teresa E. showed how truly smart she is by hiring Max to be DEI’s President) Maybe PE should follow her example and hire a “true professional” to lead them back to “Greatness!”

Sharon
04/08/2008 10:25 AM
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I feel like Kyle wants it both ways and sometimes you just cannot have it. He steps out of the car when he wants for tv gigs and whatnot, but then cries foul when the team wants to try something new. If he intends to be the driver of that car, he needs to weather the good and bad. If he wants to be a tv personality or whatever, he needs to vacate the car permantely. Its that simple. A lot of good drivers sit at home who would be more than willing to drive full time.

Margo L
04/08/2008 11:56 AM
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The problems at Petty Ent. have often been attributed to Richard’s reluctance to spend money on the team . It’s certainly plausible. He came up in racing at a time when every single dime counted , often being the difference in having gasoline to get home after a race .
Might be a good time for Kyle to take a temporary break from the team and concentrate on driving for someone else for awhile . He’s proven he can win races , maybe just needs to work with another team and get some new perspective . And as far as Petty Ent. , the team obviously has some of the top talent in the shop and on pit road , but i’m not sure a change to Chad McCumbee was the way to go . If they really do intend to change drivers , they need someone with a lot of experience who can tell the team where they’ve gone wrong .

scottb
04/08/2008 01:20 PM
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I hate to say it, but PE’s problems are not going to be solved from within. They need intervention (and money) from an outside source.

The question is, are they even an attractive target for an investor right now? The move to a new shop was a good one, but it came too late. Now with a long-term primary sponsor leaving, a driver likely to follow, and one of the two cars outside the top 35, the organization is beginning to look like a money pit.

The question of Kyle’s role with PE, both in and out of the driver’s seat, should have been addressed long ago. Now the organization is caught with Bobby Labonte expected to leave, Kyle is 47 and not sure of his role, and no development driver is ready to step up to a full time Cup ride and be competitive.

The driver line-up for 2009 needs to be settled ASAP, so they can go after sponsorship. David Stremme, perhaps? Another chance for Johnny Sauter? Beyond that, you get into veterans who would only be a short term solution, or just taking a wait and see approach and hoping that someone marketable becomes available. PE is in a tough spot, but it is their own doing and has been coming for a long time.

Uncle Bo
04/08/2008 03:27 PM
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At 47 yrs old, no one at the Cup level will hire Kyle to drive for them. His career is essentially over. All this talk of him leaving is nothing more than public posturing in anticipation of his departure. If a young driver would come along and start performing well in the 45 car, Kyle would be out sooner than even he thinks.

Kyle has never been 100% dedicated to racing and his craft. When he was in his 20’s he fancied himself as a Nashville country music star. Anyone remember his songs and that horrid NASCAR album? On second thought, don’t bother. Point is, Kyle has always been interested in many things besides driving a race car on Sundays. The only thing that kept him in it was his son and his subsequent death. Its sad to say but Adam’s death sort of reinvigorated Kyle’s career. Until that point the entire future of Petty Ent. was focused on Adam. The entire organization really has not recovered from his death, probably because the people responsible for all the decisions were so overcome with grief and sadness. At least for Kyle and Patti they’ve had something they could focus their lives on besides the racing and the pain.

If Kyle truly cares about the future of Petty Ent. he needs to focus his energy on creating a future for the organization and its people. It won’t be built on the backs of the Petty family but maybe 20 years from now, the legacy of success will carry on. Otherwise, might as well close up shop and spend the rest of their days doing charitable work, fund raising and the ocassional TV appearance.

HenryM
04/08/2008 04:52 PM
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A couple of years ago Kyle fired John Andretti as his second driver. At the time, John was ahead of Kyle in points. Why are you firing a guy who is doing better than you? Kyle thinks of it as a hobby, I guess.

I realize that he does a lot of good things (the Camp, etc.), but driving is not one of them. Sorry.

Tom
04/09/2008 02:04 PM
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There is nothing wrong with Kyle other than getting a few “ghosts” out of the car. First off he wins his ARCA debut, right away everyone figures well here comes the crown prince to take his fathers crown when he retires. That didn’t happen, then along comes Davy Alison, wins rookie of the year and goes on to major stardom in his short career. Does anyone know won rookie of the year when Kyle started? It was some kid named Earnhardt, nuff said about that. Davy was compared to his dad, Bobby and uncle Donnie, while Kyle had to live up to two legends his father and grand father, because it was Lee Petty’s records that Richard broke no one else’s. Three things happened in April of 2000, one Adam made his first Winston Cup start, then Lee Petty passed away, then Adam was killed. Overnight Petty enterprises lost its past and its future, at a time when the team was just starting to gain some headway. Here’s some irony Adams total points as a driver was 43. Look what happened to Hendrick when Rick lost his brother and son in the plane crash they were strong in depth and they still struggled of sorts also, heck since Ray left as Jeff’s crew chief that team still doesn’t have the consistency it had before. Maybe the move closer to the center of racing may attract some much needed talent and leadership. I certainly hope so rooting for team Petty is the only reason I even care to watch racing now days.

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