“Back in the day,” both the Petty Engineering and Wood Brothers race teams combined to be the top dogs in Cup racing. In the early to mid-1970s, they dominated the sport, staging epic battles which left the fans on their feet and cemented their history as two of the sport’s legendary car owners. In 1973, David Pearson won 11 of the 18 races in which the Wood Brothers participated. In 1974, Petty fought back, and the two teams combined to win 17 of 30 Cup events; they followed it up in 1975 by winning 16 of 30. Eventually, Junior Johnson and his boys crashed the party as well, and the three “super-teams” dominated the sport in way that one could argue Gibbs, Roush and Hendrick compete atop the Cup Series today.
But Junior left the sport at the end of the 1995 season due to off-track personal issues as well as his increasing disillusionment with where the sport was heading and the way NASCAR ran things. The Pettys and the Woods have soldiered on since then; but right now, the future is looking bleak for both outfits. The Woods are missing races, and so is the No. 45 team out of the Petty camp, with the team failing to make a Cup event this month. Recently, word has come down the primary sponsor for the storied No. 43 team, General Mills, is leaving at the end of the season to sponsor a fourth team for Richard Childress. Bobby Labonte may or may not make the switch that fourth RCR team at the same time, leaving the team in need of both a driver and a sponsor for 2009.
I’ve gotten a bunch of emails lately asking my take on how things have gotten so bad for two of NASCAR’s most historic and successful teams. Well, it’s like the fine print reads in those mutual fund ads: past performance is no guarantee of future performance. Certainly, things didn’t go bad for the Pettys and the Woods overnight. In the Pettys’ case, they had been the Chrysler factory team for decades when suddenly, Chrysler got out of the racing game in the late 1970s. The team went on to enjoy some success in Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles, Buicks and Chevys, but it wasn’t the same sort of success they’d once enjoyed under the Dodge umbrella. Richard Petty, one of the sport’s legends, might have also hung on a few years too long before retiring, which got the Pettys in a hole during his career transition in the early 1990s. By then, his replacements struggled simply to make races; and once you’ve dug yourself in a hole that deep, it’s tough to recover.
Racing is a tough game. When teams aren’t running up front, it’s tough to find good sponsors; or, if you are fortunate enough to have sponsorship, to ask for more money. And without high levels of funding, it’s tough to run well – what a vicious cycle. While all that’s going on, other winning race teams attract the top-dollar sponsors, spending that money to further leave the Pettys and Woods in the dust.
But my guess is that the Pettys and Woods are part of a bygone era in NASCAR racing. Petty Engineering was started by Lee Petty, who won three titles in NASCAR’s top division (and was robbed of a fourth); of course, Richard Petty went on to win seven titles for the outfit shortly thereafter. The Wood Brothers also started off a family affair; Glen Wood originally drove for the No. 21, though he never enjoyed the sort of success that Richard and Lee did. But once he stepped out and legends like AJ Foyt, Pearson and others stepped in, the team went on to win 97 times, with four Daytona 500 trophies to their credit.
At their core, the Pettys and Woods are racers that were in the business of racing. That differs from the new super-team owners named Roush, Hendrick and Gibbs, who are businessmen that went racing – not the other way around. (Yes, Rick Hendrick did run two Cup races once upon a time. Let’s just say he’s a lot better businessman and team owner then he was a driver). Because they made their fortunes prior to coming to NASCAR, not only did these three men have money to invest in their teams; they knew that to be successful, their teams had to be well-run businesses.
Today’s top organizations also knew they had to court high-dollar sponsors to create success. As businessmen themselves, they were able to talk the language of the boardroom to entice large corporations into mutually beneficial relationships. But in the end, they knew talking could only get them so far; they realized that maintaining those sponsors meant their cars had to run up front, win races, and contend for championships. For all the occasional animosity between Roush and Hendrick, both have, in fact, driven each other to perform on a higher plane. These owners have proven ready to spend considerable sums of money to develop and refine the latest technology to improve their teams.
In that same era, perhaps the Pettys and Woods didn’t invest enough in their cars to keep up. Perhaps they couldn’t; after all, in addition to funding, the team’s family members drew their salaries from the sponsorship dollars and race purses. While Petty won more races than any other driver in the history of sport, he was winning in an era when racing didn’t pay particularly well. For example, in 1967 Petty won 27 races; but even with that record total, his prize money totaled just $150,000. In his 35-year career as a driver, Petty earned a little over $8.5 million; Jeff Gordon earned $10.5 million last year alone. Having grown up in near poverty in rural North Carolina, the King has also been known to be tight with a buck; and in his era, a racer didn’t necessarily have to have the best car to win races (though then, as now, it did help). Instead, a driven and talented driver could win in average equipment if circumstances swung his way. That age is long since gone; but apparently, the memo was late in arriving from NASCAR’s Charlotte hub to places like Level Cross and Stuart, Va.
It’s still possible that Petty Engineering and the Woods could pull out of their tailspin and return to contention. RCR went through a few lean seasons a few years back, and they’ve bounced back to contend for wins and titles. Childress is one of the team owners that succeeded in an era where the sport was transitioning from the Petty/Wood era to the Roush/Hendrick business model, keeping himself above the fray while other independent organizations crashed and burned. Childress actually entered the sport as a driver/owner, a lightly regarded competitor who never put many points on the board. But he was wise enough to see Dale Earnhardt as a diamond in the rough, and climbed out of the cockpit to focus on the team-owner side of racing while letting Earnhardt handle the driving duties. One could argue that a driver like Earnhardt is a once in a generation phenomenon, but had Childress decided to keep driving rather than putting Dale in the seat, he’d have become a footnote to the sport’s history – not a player. Racing has made Childress a wealthy man in the end, but he’s still old school. When discussing what he’s paying for Research and Development these days, Childress’s face still reflects the shock and alarm of a guy who knows the value of a buck. But he’s also seen the costs of not investing sufficient money into keeping his teams competitive, and has adjusted to that threat accordingly.
I’d liken the Petty and Wood Brothers situation to a homeowner who finds the roof of his house is beginning to leak. That fellow can save some money by patching the holes rather than investing the money to replace the roof. But down the road, each dollar saved can cost that same homeowner 10 times as much when the Band-Aid approach fails. Should the guy continue to resist spending the money to fix the problem, eventually the entire house can collapse and become worthless.
If the Petty and Wood Brothers teams are to survive, it seems they have to follow the business model Ray Evernham adopted. Evernham’s credentials prove him to be one of the best race strategists ever born; but as a businessman, he found himself in over his head trying to be point man when Dodge decided to go racing again. Evernham has since partnered with financial mogul George Gillett to take care of the business side of his operation. Heck, even Jack Roush partnered up with the Fenway Sports Group to try to keep his teams ahead of the learning curve in the rapidly evolving sport.
There was an era once where a guy like Richard Petty could take care of the business side of things Monday through Friday and then race competitively on the weekends. Those days are through; racing has become a business, for better or worse. And while a well-heeled businessman is going to have a tough time starting a team from scratch (many have tried and failed as of late), racers can’t run a business, either. The trick is to partner business people with racers, and let each side of the equation do what they’re good at… before it’s too late.