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 1990s 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.”
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 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 1970s, 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 Petty 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-90s, 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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