DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The cowboy hat and dark sunglasses are still iconic, along with the toothy smile, homespun charm and a reputation for never turning his back on a race fan.
While his legacy as the sport’s greatest driver and ambassador remains larger than life in NASCAR, Richard Petty has been in a difficult, if not impossible, mission to be something more than a figurehead in a sport he helped build.
A family that used to take winning for granted now looks for more significant victories – remaining relevant in a sport that doesn’t slow down for anyone.
Even a Petty.
Long before “The King” ran his first lap in a family-owned stock car in 1958, the Petty legacy already had been created. Father Lee Petty won races and championships before turning things over to his son. Richard took it things to a historic level by winning 200 races and seven championships before hanging up his crash helmet after the 1992 season.
Although Richard’s son Kyle tried to keep things going, the family hasn’t been up to speed for a couple decades.
The company has narrowly escaped bankruptcy a couple times in the past four years. The famed No. 43 has a handful of sponsorships planned for the upcoming season, but with half of the season remaining unsponsored it might force Petty and his new investors to take as much as $10 million out of their own pockets.
“I’ve been up,” Richard Petty said. “I’ve been down. I’ve been in-between.”
As an organization, the Pettys won 263 races from 1949 until Richard Petty retired. They’ve won five since. New teams were quicker to find modern approaches to erase the mechanical prowess of the older, more-established teams like Petty Enterprises, Wood Brothers Racing, Bud Moore Engineering and Junior Johnson and Associates.
Wrenches have been replaced by laptops; gearheads have been replaced by engineers. The teams of the past were slow to conform, and it didn’t take long for them to be left behind.
Including the Pettys.
Now it’s going to take more than money to get things turned around. It’s going to take a commitment, a leap of faith, by investors, sponsors and everyone on the race team.
But more than anything, it’s going to take some lasting stability.
In an effort to catch up to the new power teams of the era like Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Penske Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Petty sold controlling interest of the team to George Gillett Jr. in 2009. He already owned the Montreal Canadiens of the NHL, the Liverpool Football Club of the Premier League and an interest in Evernham Motorsports.
Gillett quickly forced Kyle Petty out of the organization, while relying on Richard Petty to be little more than the front man to woo fans and sponsors.
While Kyle Petty has not talked publicly about his departure, those close to the family said it still affects the relationship with his father.
And it proved to be bad for business. Gillett essentially leveraged all of his teams against each other. A year after getting into NASCAR, he was forced to sell his hockey and soccer teams, and he simply walked away from Petty, leaving more than $90 million in debt.
There were no plans for Petty to return in 2011 until Andy Murstein’s Medallion Financial and Doug Bergeron’s DGB Investments bought controlling interest a few weeks before the season-opening Daytona 500. Richard Petty reportedly put in as much as $10 million of his own money to maintain a limited piece of the operation.
“In effect we got George Gillett’s stake by buying the debt,” Murstein said. “It’s a great business that’s been strangled by debt.”
“We had no choice. This is the only thing I’ve done my whole life,” Petty said. “There were times I was worried if we’d make it.”
The second revival and new money still hasn’t bought speed yet. A.J. Allmendinger had one top-five finish last year while finishing 15th in the standings. Marcos Ambrose had five top-fives and a 19th-place finish.
Once a lofty goal for any aspiring driver, Richard Petty Motorsports now is considered a stepping stone to bigger and better things. For some, the plan for escape formed as soon as they got there.
Kasey Kahne signed a contract to drive for Hendrick Motorsports 20 months before there was an opening there. His relationship soured quickly at RPM, finally ending with the team dumping him with five races remaining in the 2010 season.
Allmendinger spent three years driving for the Pettys, but he quickly bolted during the off-season when his sponsor, Best Buy, pulled out and there was a new opening at Penske Racing after Kurt Busch was abruptly fired.
“Things definitely haven’t been easy, but I feel that everyone has done the best job they could,” Kahne said in 2010. “There have been some times that I wondered, but they probably wondered about me, too.”
Ambrose will return in Petty’s No. 9 Ford this year. Aric Almirola, who’s never won a Sprint Cup Series race, will take over in the No. 43.
“I realize that I’ve got a lot of learning to do,” Almirola said. “I don’t expect to just go out there and win six races and run for the championship, but I do expect to be competitive. I do expect to run really good on a regular basis. Their equipment is very capable of that.
“I feel very confident that we’ll be competitive and run up front and we’ll have some weekends that are great and some weekends that are just okay, but, at the end of the day, I feel like on a regular basis we should run competitively and wherever that shakes out I’d love for it to be in the Top 15 and have a shot at making the Chase.”
If so, it would be the first top-10 finish in the standings for the Pettys since Bobby Hamilton finished ninth in 1996.
“I’ve always been a racer and never was much on financing,” Petty said. “You all can see that. They’ve put me out front and I’ve got a little bit of say-so on what’s going on, so I feel better about that.”