The Frontstretch: Nepotism In Reverse: Kyle Petty's Days Coming To a Close at Petty Enterprises? by Vito Pugliese -- Tuesday September 30, 2008

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Nepotism In Reverse: Kyle Petty's Days Coming To a Close at Petty Enterprises?

The Voice Of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Tuesday September 30, 2008


There was a stunning admission made by Patti Petty, wife of NASCAR driver Kyle Petty, reported Sept. 29 in the Winston Salem Journal With a few choice words, she changed the landscape of racing’s royal family, giving us pause to reconsider what, to this point, we’d assumed was a fully functioning unit.

But perhaps functional is no longer the right word to use in this case. It seems Kyle Petty will soon depart from Petty Enterprises — a team he once helped run — but is not doing so voluntarily.

“Maybe I’m the only one here willing to tell the truth,” Patti Petty said, venting her frustration in public to reporter Mike Mulhern. “They haven’t wanted Kyle in the car the last three years. They want a young driver, a 30-year-old, a 20-year-old. They told him at Watkins Glen, right when he was standing there in his driver’s suit, that they didn’t want him in the car.”

Boris Said, the veteran road racer, took over the No. 45 that day and finished 24th — tying the best run Petty himself has had in 14 starts in ’08. It’s one of the worst years of the 48-year-old’s career; but according to Patti, he’s still got both the drive and the financial support to turn things around.

“Wells Fargo, our sponsor, says it’s going to stay with Kyle, whatever he does,” she continued. “I wish Chip Ganassi (a fellow Dodge team owner) would take a look at [him]. He’s got a 12-race sponsorship deal for next year that would be a perfect part-time schedule for Kyle. And Kyle could help mentor a young driver.”

Sadly, that mentorship appears less likely than ever to occur at PE. Kyle Petty had returned to run for the family business in 1997, after having driven for Felix Sabates from 1989 – ‘96, where he scored all but two of his eight career victories. Petty’s last win actually came for Sabates in 1995, at a race in Dover in which the field was decimated after a lap two melee that left only five cars on the lead lap. In subsequent seasons, Petty’s performance has been spotty at best; but at the same time, not much worse than other cars in the Petty camp. His highest points finish since that last win was a 15th in 1997, when he came back to rejoin the race team that was begun by grandfather Lee in 1949. His teammate, the late Bobby Hamilton, finished five points behind in 16th that year.

Unfortunately, the stats would mostly go downhill from there. The last win for the storied organization that has amassed 268 victories and 10 championships came two years later, with John Andretti at Martinsville in 1999. Over the nine years since, the team has shown flashes of future potential; but, more often than not, it gets saddled with a season of struggle. This year has been no exception, with Bobby Labonte in The King’s No. 43 sitting 21st in owner points while Kyle’s No. 45 car has slumped to 40th — decidedly out of the Top 35 provisional cutoff almost all season. Note the “owner/driver” status on Kyle’s resume, however; for while Richard Petty is generally regarded as the owner and operator of Petty Enterprises, it has been Kyle who has been tasked with wearing both owner’s hat and driver’s helmet for the better part of the last decade.

Apparently, even being listed as head of the No. 45 car isn’t enough to keep Kyle Petty in it much longer.

But based on recent history, this move should come as no surprise. Earlier this season at Texas, the decision among Petty Enterprises leadership (sans Kyle) was made to pull the veteran from the April 6th event in favor of rookie Chad McCumbee. Petty, at the time, was not pleased with the move, and made no secret of his displeasure with the decision.

“I told them I’ll do whatever it takes to make this team better,’‘ he said at the time. “They felt [that] was me being out of the car and somebody else being in it. If that’s the way they feel, then that’s their option, because they [Robbie Loomis and father Richard] run the place.”

“Do I think I’m the problem? No, I don’t think I’m the problem, but I’m pretty arrogant on that side…I think we have problems, but I don’t think Kyle Petty is the problem.’‘

Following this statement, the question was raised if Kyle would consider driving for a team other then the one he had poured so much into, particularly in recent years.

“Oh yeah,” he responded. “Even though you think I make a living running my mouth, I try to make a living driving. And if there’s no place for me here, then you’d have to go someplace else.”

Kyle emphasized that his departure would not be made until Petty Enterprises determined what exactly it was going to do in the future. But based on wife Patti’s comments, it appears as if they have already made that decision for him.

So who, exactly, is pulling the strings here?

With new investors entering the picture, Robbie Loomis and Richard Petty are forced to make difficult choices on the future of the organization — choices that increasingly alienate Richard’s own son.

The answer is probably someone else.

In June of this year, Richard Petty sold a significant portion of Petty Enterprises to Boston Ventures, raising the question of whether or not the new investor is taking a more active role in its new acquisition than maybe some had anticipated. It was not that long ago that specter was raised to Petty, as he took a good portion of the summer off while the No. 45 team used a platoon of drivers such as Terry Labonte, Chad McCumbee, and Boris Said to pilot its Dodges. But it was just last month that Petty tried to put those fears to rest.

“We’re so far back in points, it really is going to give us an opportunity to evaluate a lot of things,” he explained. “Texas was a different deal. We’re all on the same page on this, and everything is going according to plan. I was mad at Texas, and you know I’m not going to hide it if I’m mad about it. We don’t have a shot of getting back in the Top 35, and so when you get to that position, then you can try a lot of different stuff.”

Apparently, trying “different stuff” really means “finding a new driver.”

With Petty on the outs, it has been rumored that drivers under consideration for the Petty Enterprises ride are Truck Series driver and occasional substitute driver Chad McCumbee, Michael Waltrip Racing’s (and Texas Motor Speedway crash test volunteer) Michael McDowell, and recently displaced Red Bull Racing driver A.J. Allmendinger. For an organization that seems to be in a perpetual state of rebuilding, is asking whether a younger driver can do the trick a bad idea for their future?

The answer lies in the car — and specifically, the car’s number.

Many may not understand the importance of the No. 45 machine to the history of Petty Enterprises. Kyle’s son, Adam, drove the No. 45 in the ASA and then-Busch Series, making one Cup start in 2000 at Texas (ironically). Later that season, he was killed during a practice crash in preparation for the Busch Series race in Loudon, NH.

A month earlier, grandfather Lee had passed away from complications following a stomach aneurysm. Kyle’s heart was crushed, and to this day he maintains a piece of him died that day as well. Since then, he runs his car with a black paint scheme when the series heads to New Hampshire, as a remembrance to the tragedy that will affect him the rest of his life.

Regardless of Kyle’s performance, Petty Enterprises had been on shaky ground to begin with this year. An offseason move to Mooresville, NC, was supposed to be the first step in yet another rebuilding process for the team that was forever situated in Level Cross and, some might say, still living there to cling to past successes and days of faded glory. As a result, Petty Enterprises had come dangerously close to becoming little more than a museum filled with old Plymouths and Pontiacs, and needed to move closer to the epicenter of NASCAR where nearly all the top teams were aligned.

A few months after this move, word came down that longtime sponsor General Mills announced it would be jumping ship to Richard Childress Racing’s fourth entry for 2009. With Patti Petty’s statement that sponsor Wells Fargo will be going with Kyle wherever he may end up (would you really want to be sponsored by a bank these days?!), that makes two sponsors and a driver — who coincidentally happens to have his name on the door — that Petty Enterprises will have lost in the last three months.

Not a good start for the new investment team.

Might it not make sense to add a third car to the stable for a younger driver instead? All the Dodge teams have been struggling this season, so it isn’t as if Kyle has suddenly forgotten how to drive a race car. Clearly, he’s getting just about all out of the equipment as there is to be gotten. Couple that with the fact that no Petty car has gotten a whiff of a win since Jerry Nadeau blew a rear end out with three laps to go at Sonoma in 2002, and the stats tell the story: Petty Enterprises isn’t exactly Hendrick Motorsports.

What it all ends up looking like to those on the outside is that this is a situation of nepotism in reverse. We’ll know more in the weeks to come, but what we’ve got to work with now is new money clashing with old racing — and the new money winning out. While the Roush Fenway arrangement seems to be working quite well and the Gillett Evernham merger, despite a rumored move to Toyota, is business as usual, there appears to be something else at work inside of Petty Enterprises.

There has been a palatable rift between Kyle Petty and Vice President of Operations Robbie Loomis ever since the Texas debacle that saw Petty essentially being benched in favor of McCumbee; who, by the way, failed to qualify for that event back in April. The McCumbee move, along with the incident in August at Watkins Glen, is part of what publicly has been deemed an “evaluation.” And with Patti Petty’s comments published yesterday, it raises a question that Kyle Petty had likely asked back in April:

“Et tu, Robbie?”

The answer will likely tell us who’s in control at PE; but one wonders if, at this point, it’s anyone related to who started the whole thing up in the first place. And such is the price to play in NASCAR today, where even the sport’s royal family is chained to the demands of corporate cash.

Contact Vito Pugliese

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09/30/2008 08:54 AM

A better comparison of success in NASCAR would be Petty vs RCR . Childress has seen far more success than Hendrick .
When you think that putting Chad McCumbee into your car is a big step up , you need to stop and rethink things . If Bobby Labonte ( or for that matter Terry ) can’t make em run , why would anyone think Chad would be an answer . Truth is , the engineering part of Petty hasn’t kept pace since the 1980s . And many new additions to the personel and the shop have done nothing to improve the team over the last 20 years . But even at that , there was, and is, far more going on here than meets the eye .

09/30/2008 11:06 AM

I’m reminded of a column Kyle used to write for AutoWeek. Back in the late 80’s or early 90’s. Kyle has always been pretty honest, & blunt.
This was when he was driving for Sabco. He said“there are several drivers,being paid a million dollars a year. Including me, who aren’t earning their money. For some reason that blunt assessment has stuck in my mind for 20 years. Regardless of what anyone thinks of Kyle’s in car talents. You have to admire Kyle the person. If the day is near, that he makes his living running his mouth. He will be a breath of fresh air, on any program he might wind up on.

09/30/2008 01:29 PM

I don’t quite think Kyle is washed up, but driving the level of equipment Petty has it would be hard for anyone to win. A dramatic point is look at Joey L (sliced bread) in good equipment he looks like a good up and coming driver, put him in the 96 and he is a back marker 2-5 laps down. You could put Robby Gordon and others in this group, good/great drivers in the best equipment, Warhorses ready for the glue factory in equipment that is what seems like light years behind the best.

09/30/2008 09:00 PM

Kyle returns to PE to save the family business, and does his best to do so. He takes the worst equipment they’ve got to race, and in return, he’s now made out to be part of much bigger problem in an attempt to bring in new money. It’s Corporate America doing what it does best. Blaming people for failures beyond their control and decisions being made by people that don’t seem a clue. It’s a shame.

09/30/2008 09:32 PM

Sadly, being a longtime Petty fan we now have to realize that with Kyle possibly out and at some point Richard as well what will it be called at that point? There will come a time that there aren’t any Petty’s associated with the 43/45..and won’t that just be strange. I agree though that on the tech side the Petty’s are still on a learning curve it seems. If Bobby can’t get out of mid-pack then that should give you a clue that the car has troubles so therefor Kyle’s car is maybe even worse.

10/01/2008 12:03 PM

What can I say, Kyle ever since he started driving for Petty he got the junk. Remember “magnum farce”, he could qualify, but had to run at the bottom of the track out of everyone’s way, heaven forbid he steals any of the “kings thunder”. It wasn’t until he started to drive for the Wood Brothers that he started to shine. The turning point I believe in his career was when Gary Nelson left Sabco to run NASCAR, he never got back to the consistent performance he had, sure he won races, but not on a consistent basis, much like Dale Sr. when Kirk left RCR or Jeff when Ray left. Don’t throw him under the hauler(bus)yet, Kyle has some wins left in him he needs a good team with some good engineers. Patti mentioned Ganassi that’s his old mentor Felix’s team, could be a make or break deal, at least Kyle would know if its him or the car, still I think with a good car and some luck he could win Daytona.

10/01/2008 09:20 PM

I find it unbelieveable that many fans believe it’s an equipment problem if a team/driver sucks. Guess again, this isn’t how it works!

You can look at the 18 car as a perfect example to illustrate the point (there are many others example that could be used also). Steve Addington didn’t just become a great Crew Chief, and the Gibbs teams didn’t just start sharing information with the 18 car. All the Gibbs cars share their info with each other, it’s in their best interests and would be more expensive not to! JJ was a 25-30th place driver and Kyle is a 1st-5th place driver IN THE SAME EQUIPMENT (I recall Kyle Busch was top of the board in the 18 car at last year’s Atlanta COT test when he was still driving the 5, and JJ was way way down the sheet). The results speak for themselves. Kyle will only get better, as he did this year, and JJ is history.

In the Cup series (and only the cup series) the paridy between teams is so close. You could have Jimmie Johnson jump in the 22 car and he would check out just the same! This sport isn’t about setups anymore, it’s 90% who you have behind the window net. It’s time everybody figures this out.

Although Kyle Petty is a great guy and has done alot for people, he can’t get out of his own way on the race track… He’d do the same in a Hendrick, Gibbs or Roush car.

10/01/2008 10:32 PM

Sorry Trick, but it’s almost all equipment. If you’re correct then please explain Bobby Labonte in the 43. Won a championship with Gibbs, but barely in the running with the 43. Did he forget how to drive? No, It’s always been the equipment at Petty once their heyday was over.

How about Jeff Gordon? With Ray Evernham the 24 was nearly unbeatable. Now, they are just an average top 25% team. Did Gordon forget what it takes to win? Nope, once the team was broke up, the chemistry wasn’t there and the setups were never the same.

Kurt Busch. Won a ton of races in Roush Equipment. Kinda won a Championship too. Now… Well, I guess the anesthesia from the ear pinnings must have affected his motor skills. (Actually, everyone else learned coil binding.)

Even if you’re right about the 90/10, if the 90 is at it’s best, it can’t make up for a 7 when all the other teams are building nines and tens.

About time you figured that out.

10/06/2008 07:49 PM

“If you’re correct then please explain Bobby Labonte in the 43. Won a championship with Gibbs, but barely in the running with the 43.”

I will! Bobby won the championship 8 years ago, 8! The guy who won it the year before is long gone and hadn’t been competitive for sometime before he left. His name is Dale Jarrett. In BL’s last year with Gibbs he didn’t win a race and was 24th in the points all while Tony won the championship – in the same equipment! BL has been better in PE stuff all three years than his final year at Gibbs!

“Did he forget how to drive? No, It’s always been the equipment at Petty once their heyday was over.”

Comparing cars from today to those of 20-30-40 years ago is totally a mute point.

“How about Jeff Gordon? With Ray Evernham the 24 was nearly unbeatable. Now, they are just an average top 25% team. Did Gordon forget what it takes to win? Nope, once the team was broke up, the chemistry wasn’t there and the setups were never the same.”

JJ has been a friggin machine for the last 5 years in the same stuff. And Gordon was exceptional last year… Some years are better than other, likely do more to circumstance. There is no reason that the 24 couldn’t win 3 race in a row starting next week! Ray Evernham didn’t make Jeff Gordon, Jeff Gordon made Ray Evernham! I’ll add this. Look at the 5 and 88. Casey Mears is a decent 2nd tier driver, and is performance shows it. Dale arguably ran better last year! His engine problems stunted his results. What was it 8 DNFs to blown engines in 2007? Plus Haas is a satellite team using the same chassis and engines…Do the math.

“Kurt Busch. Won a ton of races in Roush Equipment. Kinda won a Championship too. Now… Well, I guess the anesthesia from the ear pinnings must have affected his motor skills. (Actually, everyone else learned coil binding.)”

Kurt Busch has been pretty consistent for the most part over the last 6 years. Winning 2 – 4 races a year with the exception of this year and 2006. The coilbinding issue you refer to affected Newman not Busch. He wasn’t dominant the year he won the chase, he just ran better than the other 10 drivers in the last 10 race.

“Even if you’re right about the 90/10, if the 90 is at it’s best, it can’t make up for a 7 when all the other teams are building nines and tens.”

The part that isn’t understood is that the spread in car developent between teams is so so close. There are no 7’s in the field with the exception of the 08, 09 and 34 when they make races.

“About time you figured that out.”

You are clearly not an insider.

Contact Vito Pugliese