It had to happen, really.
Petty Enterprises’ announcement on Wednesday that they had sold a portion of the family business that has been around as long as NASCAR has been on the track was not really a surprise. But on some level, it is a disappointment.
Boston Ventures, by all accounts, is a wealthy, stable company with pockets deep enough to fund new technology for the two-car team, and are even talking already of adding a third team to the stable. That part is help sorely needed. Petty Enterprises was a team that time had nearly passed by. A contender a decade ago, the team was being left behind by technology – and its growing cost. The money that Boston Ventures appears eager to put into the team will be a welcome and necessary addition. It will take time, but if approached correctly, the team may return to a semblance of its former glory.
Then why does it seem like the end of an era?
Because, in a way it is. Formed in 1949 under the banner of Lee Petty Engineering, the company can boast of 10 championships – three for Lee Petty and seven for Richard Petty. Kyle Petty became the third generation to drive for the family business, though he also drove for other owners during his career. And Adam Petty, of course, was to have been the fourth. The car numbers reflected the heritage for a time – Lee’s 42, Richard’s 43, Kyle’s 44, Adam’s 45. Kyle took the No. 45 as a tribute to Adam after Adam was killed in a practice crash in 2000. And in a way, that was when the empire began to crumble.
Because Adam made one Cup start before his death, the Pettys are the only four-generation legacy in any major American sport. From the beginning, it was a family business. Both Richard and his brother Maurice worked on Lee’s cars – Maurice was one of the best mechanics in the garage, choosing that route over driving. The whole family would travel to the races. They helped other drivers make it in the sport, and still do, employing a very young Michael Waltrip in the shop and giving Chad McCumbee his best shot at NASCAR stardom, among others. Petty blue became instantly recognizable on the palate. Petty Superbirds stalked the superspeedways once, and nobody, but nobody crossed Lee Petty on track without consequence, not even his own son. Fans owe a lot of the accessibility they enjoy from drivers today to Richard Petty, who would sign autographs for everyone who asked, even after a race.
I hope Boston Ventures remembers all of this and more when they put their stamp on the company. I hope that it doesn’t turn out to be a corporate takeover akin to Ma and Pa’s General Store being bought by and then becoming a Super Duper Mart, losing all vestiges of its former self in the process. In this case, it’s the team’s past that sets it apart from any other team on the track, not its potential value at the bank.
If Boston Ventures can make Petty Enterprises into what it once was, a thriving business with nothing more on the agenda than to win – win now, win next week, win at all costs allowed in the rulebook and maybe a few that aren’t – they will have brought out the real glory the team once had. If they try to make it a generic race team that settles for comfortable consistency, they will have let us – and the Petty family – down in a way that will signal the team’s death knell. Sure, they might survive, but without the soul of Petty Enterprises the way Lee Petty built it so many years ago.
In a sport with so few ties to the past, Petty Enterprises has been a constant entity almost from day one. It would be a shame for that to end. So take this team, Boston Ventures, and treat it like the icon it was and can be. Recognize it’s history and build its future in that image. Make it right for the Petty family and all the fans. Don’t let the ride – the wild, glorious 60-year ride, come to an end.