NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Nepotism in Reverse – Kyle Petty’s Days Coming to a Close at Petty Enterprises?

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 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. 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 2 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 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?

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, McCumbee and Said to pilot its Dodges. But it was just last month that Petty tried to put those fears to rest.

HENDERSON: BOSTON VENTURES CAN GIVE PETTY A BRIGHT FUTURE IF THEY REMEMBER THE PAST

“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 McCumbee, Michael Waltrip Racing’s (and Texas Motor Speedway crash test volunteer) Michael McDowell, and recently displaced Red Bull Racing driver AJ 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 Petty, 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, N.H.

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, N.C 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.

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