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Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Curiouser & Curiouser – The Story of RPM & Yates

The press announcement initially seemed pretty cut and dry, if a bit surprising. Richard Petty Motorsports and Yates Racing intended to merge for the 2010 Cup season, and both teams would be running Fords. Well, all right then. How about that?

Pretty quickly, it became apparent there everything was not so cut and dry. While Richard Petty himself (and he is a figurehead for a team actually owned by moneyman George Gillett, who acquired the smoking wreckage of Petty Enterprises last year) seemed pretty confident everything would be worked out in a “couple weeks,” others were caught completely off guard by the announcement. Among them were the teams’ drivers, crew chiefs, chief engine builders, and the guys on the crew. Nobody could say which drivers were staying, which cars they’d be driving, who the sponsors would be, and which team employees were staying and which were going. That’s a pretty sorry state of affairs. It got even uglier when a team principal, Mark McArdle, demanded answers and got fired on the spot.

So it quickly became apparent that this wasn’t a merger of equals. The entity known as RPM Motorsports, again pushing Richard Petty out of the back of their transporter to talk to the press since the rest of them were clueless, is gobbling up Yates Racing. On a practical basis, that makes sense. Doug Yates, both by his own skills as an engine builder and with his strategic alliance with the powerhouse Ford team of Roush Fenway Racing, would be providing power and advice on chassis and aerodynamic issues as RPM transitioned from Dodge to the Blue Oval. So where are those chassis going to be coming from? Is Roush going to build them the way Rick Hendrick builds cars for Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman? Will RPM continue to build their own chassis in house? Will former Yates teammates keep building the chassis? Will they all gather together after ARCA races and piece the best bits left after big wrecks into their new cars? Heck, maybe I’m supposed to build them in my two car garage over the winter. I guess I ought to go get a few rolls of MIG wire.

All three of RPM’s drivers have their contracts expire at the end of 2010 and, given the level of uncertainty surrounding this organization and its plans for next year, I’d be worried. For Elliott Sadler, it’s only been a year since a legal battle kept him in his seat when the team decided to release him. If I were Kasey Kahne, who remains a somewhat hot commodity having made the Chase, I’d be wondering who was running this hot dog stand and seriously considering heading out for tacos.

Paul Menard, the sole Yates driver likely to be offered a ride, apparently isn’t happy with the uncertainty and he’s looking around. Menard is unique in that his dad writes the sponsorship checks that follow him, so he’s a valuable commodity even if he can’t quite seem to get the hang of this racing deal at the Cup level.

The uncertainty doesn’t only extend to the drivers. Current sponsors and potential sponsors surely would like a little more clarity. No matter how well-funded the teams might be, they could always use more backers. But without a driver lineup, any idea who is doing what and when, if former champion Bobby Labonte is coming back to a Yates/RPM car for 2010, and a ton of other unanswered questions, they’re not exactly whipping out their checkbooks right now. “See, here’s our business prospective. We’re pretty sure we’ll be running Fords, all of them with great big numbers painted on the side, driven by a group of drivers to be named at a later date. All aboard!”

The one guy who ought to have all the answers is George Gillett who, by and large, bought the team Ray Evernham started to spearhead Dodge’s return to the Cup Series back before Chrysler was merged with Fiat. Gillett went on to acquire Petty Engineering. Now he’s apparently buying out Doug Yates, but he’s not talking much about it. In fact, I don’t think I’d know the man if he ran into the back of me at a stoplight and cost his insurance company a huge settlement. He apparently just sold some hockey team for beaucoup bucks. Sorry, but I’ll leave hockey to those fans who can endure the sheer idiocy of the game.

What concerns me is Gillett is apparently a successful businessman, so why is he letting all this uncertainty and intrigue surround his team. As a successful businessman, surely he knows the unknown and rumor can ruin any enterprise, right? Or maybe he doesn’t. Gillett strikes me as another guy in the business of racing, not the racing business. It’s a subtle but important difference. Guys in the racing business know it’s important to be seen and heard in the garage area so everyone, especially your employees, know what’s going on. Other successful men in business have come and gone in NASCAR despite some success in other forms of racing. Remember Cal Wells and Tim Beverly? Chip Ganassi, winner of several open-wheel crowns, got lucky in that he teamed up with Felix Sabates while Sterling Marlin still had a few good years left in him…and even that hasn’t paid off with a Cup title yet.

I guess what bothers me is this “merger” involves two of the once most successful organizations in NASCAR. Petty Engineering combined to win 10 titles (three with Lee and seven with Richard) and 268 races. They’ve been a part of the sport since the first race. They’ve competed in over a quarter million miles of stock car racing and, even with the glory days long since gone in the rearview mirror, the organization averaged a 15th-place finish in 2,817 starts. The team Robert Yates bought from Harry Ranier has seemed star-crossed. Despite 56 wins and the 1999 title, they’ve been through some rough times. Davey Allison lost the 1992 title in the final race of the season, then lost his life in a helicopter wreck the next year. Ernie Irvan was battling Dale Earnhardt for a title in 1994 when he suffered critical injuries in a Michigan practice crash that left him with a one-in-10 chance of surviving the day. Still, for long-term fans, the number 28 black Havoline car with the big star on the hood is a fond part of our memories. The fact both organizations were sacked by a businessperson is troubling.

But what bothers me the most is the fate of the employees of Yates Racing and RPM. These are the men and women whose faces you have never seen. They don’t make millions of dollars a year, they don’t have a fallback position in other businesses, and they don’t have endorsement deals. Yet they get out of bed each morning and go to work for long hours each day. Some of them spend weeks and months each year away from the people they love chasing that brass ring. They have kids in braces, kids in college, and daughters planning their weddings. They have car payments, mortgages and taxes to pay… yet they are all facing uncertain futures late in the season when it’s tough to find employment for next year if they lose their jobs. By their sweat, blood, exhaustion and perseverance they have made their drivers millionaires, whether they answer the phones or screw together race-winning engines burning that midnight oil. These are the folks I am truly concerned about because I’ve sweated the bills and burned the midnight oil myself a few times.

Corporate mergers and acquisitions always cost some folks their jobs, but the only thing worse than the doubt is not knowing the final outcome. So Mr. Gillett, step up to the plate and sort this mess out for everyone involved.

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