Richard Petty is the most accomplished NASCAR driver of all-time and one of the most decorated, celebrated legends in all of motorsports history. His 200 career Cup victories and 27 wins in 1967 will never be matched and his seven championships have only been equaled by Dale Earnhardt. Petty’s squeaky clean, fan friendly, Christian persona is so rich in each of these qualities that the second-generation, Southern born and bred driver and owner seems cut from an American folk story. These real qualities still burn bright in the memories of many of the NASCAR faithful and help to deflect the last two-plus decades of Petty Family disappointment. And in the interest of not diluting these grand images, now is the time that Richard Petty needs to step away from NASCAR.
While Petty languished no better than mid-pack most of the last decade of his driving career in the ’80s, and then stepped atop the pit box only to watch his famed No. 43 and its stablemates do no better for the last 18 years, Petty’s image has been hurt the most by developments in the last three seasons. After sponsor Cheerios announced its pending defection from the No. 43 Dodge and driver Bobby Labonte in February 2008, Petty, team executive Robbie Loomis and others at Petty Enterprises knew that cash flow was going to morph from a serious problem to a near terminal catastrophe. Fresh off of a controversial move from the team’s original race shop on the Petty property in Randleman, N.C. to the old Yates Racing shop in Mooresville, Petty Enterprises was in serious need of cash flow. Along came Boston Ventures to solve that problem.
In June 2008, much to the chagrin of son Kyle, Richard Petty signed the controlling interest of Petty Enterprises over to Boston Ventures, a portfolio company that was supposed to infuse both money and marketing know-how into the Petty’s sinking ship. While the idea looked sound on paper, the idea that NASCAR’s most iconic team – an organization alive since NASCAR’s inception – would no longer have the Petty family name as its primary holder seemed wrong. The relationship, however, would be short-lived, as the economic climate took a turn for the worse.
The sinking economy, particularly the failure of the American automobile industry, prompted many teams, including the revamped Petty Enterprises, to discuss mergers and contraction. A rumored partnership between Petty Enterprises and the Toyota teams of Michael Waltrip Racing and Bill Davis Racing never materialized late in the 2008 season. But fellow Dodge team Gillett Evernham Motorsports, suffering from similar cash flow problems, came calling just over one month before the 2009 Daytona 500 with an offer too good for the Petty brass to refuse.
GEM and PE would merge to keep the sponsor-less No. 43 car afloat and the team would operate from the GEM shop. Existing GEM sponsors and funding would be spread thin to fund the No. 43 and GEM’s superior marketing efforts and financial resources would ensure the team’s survival in future years. The cost, of course, would be that almost all ownership of the company would fall into owner George Gillett and his financial team’s hands, further diminishing any remnants of Petty Enterprises. The new organization, though, would brand itself with the King’s name, morphing into Richard Petty Motorsports. GEM’s existing full stable of drivers meant that 2000 Cup champion Labonte would lose his seat in the No. 43 for 2009, in favor of fourth-year driver Reed Sorenson.
The merger also meant Kyle Petty, who had been looking to diminish his seat time with the team, would completely lose his ride at once with his family’s race team. AJ Allmendinger drove the rebranded No. 44 (formerly the GEM No. 10 team), debuting it in the 2009 Daytona 500 with a retro-Valvoline paint scheme from Kyle’s ARCA debut 30 years earlier, drawing great ire from the suddenly retired driver.
2009 brought mixed results for RPM. Kasey Kahne, sporting Budweiser colors (a longtime Petty family no-no) on the No. 9, won twice and qualified for the Chase, but was hung out to dry in the year’s final 10 races. Allmendinger parlayed what was supposed to be an eight-race deal with the team into a full schedule on the strength of several promising runs. But Elliott Sadler in the No. 19 and Sorenson in the No. 43 struggled, as funding for the organization was drying up faster than an ice cube on a Nevada blacktop.
By midseason, Sorenson had been asked to either forego his salary and drive for free or see the No. 43 team shut down, an imperative that Petty himself likely would never have hung over one of his drivers. The end of 2009 saw RPM merge with Yates Racing and add No. 98 Paul Menard and his sponsor’s team, squeezing Sorenson from the No. 43 ride in favor of Allmendinger. The No. 44 team was shut down (or at least the unnecessary members of it were let go) and RPM’s engine shop suddenly became unnecessary, as RPM now had become a Ford team and would use Roush Yates engines. Dozens lost their jobs.
Petty tradition, which once bucked the trend of bigger race teams, gave way to the almighty dollar. Firm agreements with established drivers are eroding to the wayside in favor of murky, unfavorable partnerships to simply survive. Take the merger with Gillett. Petty chose to align his company with an owner who is now reportedly in default of payment on a $90 million loan. The headlines do not say, “George Gillett is in default….” They always read “Richard Petty Motorsports is in default….”
The shell of Petty’s team is also now in bed with an owner and organization who have shown extreme disloyalty in the past. GEM fired Scott Riggs from the No. 10 car in late 2007 in favor of Patrick Carpentier who satiated their need for a trendy open-wheel driver convert. However, they only did the same to Carpentier after a bad qualifying lap at Talladega in fall 2008. In that same time period, GEM exercised its option in Sadler’s contract to prevent him from jumping ship to the open fourth team spot at Richard Childress Racing. They then asked Sadler to take a pay cut at the end of the season and then, without telling Sadler, announced Allmendinger as the driver of the No. 19 Dodge! Sadler sued to keep his ride, won, and somehow remains with the team, though his lackluster results have to spell his firing (again) sometime soon. GEM also skewered Robby Gordon Motorsports, after announcing an alliance with that team in 2008, only to give the No. 7 team an illegal nose (which initially brought Gordon a heavy penalty), never lent the No. 7 enough support to improve its results, and then tried to exercise a right to ownership of Gordon’s team.
Now, RPM is in crisis mode again. Two mergers in two years failed to boost the team’s performance enough to keep star driver Kahne, whom you may have heard is bailing after this season. Kahne’s Bud sponsorship is easily the most lucrative backer at RPM and likely is in danger of leaving, whether with Kahne or not. With debtors lurking in the shadows and threatening to seize the race team’s (not Gillett’s) assets, the future of RPM is seriously in doubt.
Petty, though, has shown no signs of pulling back from the sport. Not only is he still at the track often with his teams, but he and former Petty driver John Andretti are teaming with an Indy team to field a Petty ride in the Indy 500 – another gimmick that pastes the Petty name on a likely mediocre ride. Petty has over-played his ownership status much as he did with his driving career. With his wife, Lynda, battling cancer, Petty needs to shed this growing distraction on the ownership front and enjoy some downtime in both his and his wife’s golden years.
Richard Petty is a man who has made a reputation, first off his performance and now his name. Unfortunately, the Petty name is now attached to a sinking and sometimes corrupt ship. While the media and fans alike first praised Petty for keeping his name on the revamped RPM, the move obviously now has proven to be a mistake. The Wood Brothers have found a way to survive the changing NASCAR landscape and keep the famed No. 21 alive, but that does not mean that Petty should do the same. With his legacy firmly cemented both in our minds and in the soon-to-open NASCAR Hall of Fame, now is the time for Richard Petty to jump into the kayak and paddle off into the sunset, before that ship takes his legend down with it.
Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop racing show with host Captain Herb Emory this Saturday, from 12-2 p.m., on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. Doug also hosts podcasts on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com.