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First Place
Mike Hembree, NASCAR Scene

END OF AN ERA: LEGENDARY PETTY ENTERPRISES’ LONG, PAINFUL DECLINE COMES TO AN INGLORIOUS END

The dying came slowly. There was no smoking gun, no final signoff. The death of Petty Enterprises, linchpin of all that was good and special in stock-car racing for decade stacked upon Petty blue decade, came with a whimper. No farewell parade, no gubernatorial proclamation, no sheriff’s auction.

At the end, it simply failed to exist, like a file unceremoniously wiped off a computer screen.

There was no funeral service, and there were no black mourning curtains to drape over the storied No. 43. The obituary had been in the process of being written – in increasingly distressing hues of black and blue – for years.

This was a death that many predicted, most feared and one man – the King, the Man Himself, Richard Petty – tried with all his charisma to avoid. Still, the burial detail showed up, if not on time then maybe a year or two after it might have been forming.

Petty Enterprises is dead.

It went from an old reaper shed – this was once about farming, after all – on the Petty property in Level Cross, N.C. to the polished-wood boardrooms of New York City corporations to victory lanes from sea to shining sea and, finally, to ignominious irrelevancy. The Petty cowboy hat and sunglasses were shields from reality for so very, very long, and now, no more. The out-of-date racing shop, a revered racing cradle for a father, a son, a grandson and, most tragically, a great-grandson, and a competition headquarters for drivers as diverse as Ralph Earnhardt, Bob Welborn, Buddy Baker and Pete Hamilton, finally is closed.

Perhaps it died of a broken heart.

That diagnosis works for John Andretti, who came about as close to being a Petty as someone not in the family could be. He drove for Petty Enterprises for seven seasons and, barring some strange sort of revival, will go down in NASCAR history as the last person to drive a Petty Enterprises car into victory lane. That occurred April 18, 1999, at Martinsville Speedway.

That 1 is the loneliest number. It represents the totality of Petty Enterprises NASCAR Cup victories from the 1998 season to the present. And the numbers preceding it are no prettier. The late Bobby Hamilton won single races for the team in 1996 and ’97, and there were no victories between 1984 and 1995, a sour recent history for an iconic team that set numerous patterns for the sport and lifted a smiling, gangly North Carolina boy named Richard Petty from helping his family on the farm to helping a sport gain national and international traction.
           
“It breaks my heart to know how hard the people there have worked and for it to end like this,” Andretti says. “So much has been put into it. It’s probably one of the oldest motorsports organizations anywhere.

“It’s amazing to think we’d ever be talking about this day. It’s the end of a long era.”

The 43 Lives On

Petty, now 71, moves on. He and the No. 43 will be a part of the newly reorganized Gillett Evernham Motorsports, which was renamed Richard Petty Motorsports.

Petty remains an icon. He draws crowds virtually everywhere he goes. Some years back, he visited a small town in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia after a race at Loudon, N.H., and the village closed a main street as a big crowd gathered around him to gawk and talk.

He is a godsend in his hometown of Randleman, the “bigger” town five miles from Level Cross. Churches, local sports teams, an endless string of charities – all have benefited from Petty’s famous generosity. “To everybody else, he’s a famous race-car driver,” says Randleman resident Charles Hensley, “but to us here he’s a good neighbor. You couldn’t catalog all the things he’s done for this community.”

But Petty Enterprises, the spit-and-polish team that set the standard for winning NASCAR operations with a record 268 victories and was a mainstay for 60 mostly uninterrupted years, is gone.

“Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt are the two most recognizable names in American motorsports, in my opinion,” says driver Jeff Burton. “To people that are longtime racers and historians and understand what this sport is all about, Richard Petty is the man. To have Petty Enterprises, a company that won as many championships as they won and ushered in a lot of policies and ways of doing business that we still mimic today, go away, that’s a huge loss.”

The Branson Mill Road shop in Level Cross that housed 10 Cup championship teams (seven by Richard, three by his father, Lee) was abandoned by the team last year for spiffier digs in Mooresville, N.C., where every team wants to be. The change didn’t produce any miracles, however, and sponsors fled, and soon Petty and the Boston Ventures equity firm managing the operation were involved in the mania of the moment – merger and acquisition talks. Gillett Evernham, in its own state of flux, stepped in to claim the remainders of the Petty Enterprises legacy.

“Petty Enterprises, when they left Level Cross in North Carolina, was just another race team,” says Kyle Petty, once considered the future boss of the team. “They weren’t Petty Enterprises anymore. So when I look at where our sport is, and where my father’s business is and where Petty Enterprises is, we’ve not existed in the guise of Petty Enterprises for a year or more.”

Richard Petty moved the team to Mooresville last year with the hope of gaining traction by being closer to the supply of mechanics and technical and operational personnel that fuels every Cup team based in the Charlotte area. Then he sold the majority voice in the operation to Boston Ventures but remained involved.

Mark Mauldin, who now works as a pit crew coordinator for Hendrick Motorsports, was a pit crew member and tire specialist at Petty Enterprises from 1996 to 2002. “It was a really neat experience for me to work there and to see Lee and Elizabeth [Richard’s parents] drive down that driveway every day and to see Lee out in the front yard hitting golf balls,” he says. “They are class folks, a class act. They just don’t make many like them. I hate to see it happen like this for them.”

Mauldin says the Level Cross location was a key factor in the team’s struggles.

“The shop was so far out of the loop,” he says. “In the Charlotte-Mooresville area, if something happens in one shop everybody knows about it by lunchtime. And the labor pool is a lot greater. In Randleman it was hard to attract top quality people. When you’re not competitive, guys just don’t want to venture out that far – unless you’re winning races.”

Although Kyle publicly supported the move to Mooresville, it was clear that he and many in the Petty inner circle made the transfer with teeth clinched, kicking and screaming as the gates in Level Cross closed behind them. The beginning of the end, perhaps, had come in 2000 when the family’s fourth-generation driver, Adam Petty, was killed in a crash during practice at Loudon, N.H. The Petty operation had started yet another revitalization attempt to rebuild its foundation with Adam as its future; when he died the energy surrounding him collapsed.

Now, as the sport anticipates the beginning of another season, and with Kyle on the outside looking in without a ride, there is the realization that there might be a season run without a Petty in a starting lineup.

“There was always going to come a year when there was not going to be a Petty racing,” Kyle says. “It looked like when Adam came along ... that it would go on for another 15, 20, 30 years. But when that accident happened, that date was out there a lot closer than we as a family thought and maybe people in the sport thought.

“There’s no bitterness. I think there would be bitterness. Let me be clear, there is not bitterness at all. But if I was 22 years old, I’d be bitter as hell. I’m 48 years old. I’m at the backside of a career, not at the front side of a career. Everything runs its course. It’s part of life.”

The sour side for racing purists, though, is that Petty Enterprises was part of life. To have it unceremoniously shelved in the archives after six decades is a bucket of cold water to the face.
           
Hard Times Hit Home

For Richard Petty, the end has come hard. Even through the down years – and there have been many – he has displayed the bright Petty smile that forever accompanies the cowboy hat and sunglasses, the superstar shine that he carries a quarter-century after his last win. Even during this offseason of uncertainty, he still was flying around the country, supporting this charity and that concern. 

The reality, though, is that it is a bleak winter. People Petty has known almost forever and workers who proudly – even in the empty seasons – wore the red and blue Petty insignia are in the vast unemployment pool. And the racing complex that grew from his father’s farm shed to a sprawling, somewhat disjointed compound of more than a dozen buildings is effectively shuttered. This was almost literally a home for hundreds – people like dependable crewman Wade Thornburg, who left the team in the early 1970s to work on cement trucks but returned a few weeks later, like jackman and motorcoach driver Archie Kennedy, who ramrodded a young Adam Petty’s go-kart racing, like Horst Fischer, an arrival from Germany who somehow wound up as the transporter driver.

Some of them left over the years, but most of them came home.

“That was the hurting part. Moving, selling out, doing all that stuff was emotional to a certain degree because it ended 60 years,” Richard Petty said in his first public comments about the move. “So when you had these people who’ve worked for you for 10, 15, 20, 30, 40 years and had to let them go, I don’t mind letting people go that don’t do the job.
“But it’s hard to walk in and tell somebody that’s been working for you 40 years, ‘You’ve been working for me 40 years and you’ve done the job perfectly and I don’t have a job for you.’ That’s tough. That had to be done. That is really tough. It’s kind of hard to sleep for the next two to three weeks after that.”

For Dale Inman, Petty’s first cousin and his crew chief during strings of championships and victories, the past few months also have been hard. Another one of those who came home (he left the Petty organization in the early ’80s to be a crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Terry Labonte, among others, before returning), Inman, 72, is officially retired but has been a consultant at Petty Enterprises in recent years, a position he’ll retain in the new operation.

“I’m sad for the people,” Inman says. “The people were Petty Enterprises. Am I heartbroken over the place going away? We’re still going to have the 43 and the Petty name and some associations with some of our sponsors, but I’m sad for the people who have worked there.”

Sitting in his den in Randleman, Inman is surrounded by a treasure of Petty Enterprises memorabilia – trophies and plaques and helmets and mementos saved from nearly a lifetime of racing on the high ground of greatness. 

Inman grew up working with Richard and Richard’s brother, Maurice, on team patriarch Lee Petty’s race cars in the embryonic Petty Enterprises facility in the 1950s. He and Maurice drove one of the Petty race cars across country – this was before the large web of the interstate system – in 1958 for the first Cup race at the Riverside, Calif., road course. Lee Petty drove the car in the race and finished fourth, then Inman and Maurice jumped in and retraced their route cross-country to Randleman, still carrying the car number (42) on the vehicle.

Andretti, who retains close ties to the Petty family, says the racing world changed dramatically over the years and big business became much more important as the Pettys plowed through seasons of drought.

“The complexion of racing changed,” he says. “It’s not just racers doing it anymore. When you get big, there’s a price to pay. There are people who do this now who are in control but who are not racers. That’s good, but it brings a price.”

In 1967, Richard Petty won 27 races, including a staggering 10 in a row, and in the same car. That was then. This is now.

Despite the team’s remarkable successes from the 1950s to the 1970s, all the team’s principals have admitted that Petty Enterprises simply did not keep up with the bolder, bigger scope of racing as it became dominated by such power owners as Rick Hendrick and Jack Roush.

“I don’t know what it would have taken to keep it going,” Inman says. “I guess if we were at the level we should have been we probably wouldn’t have had to move to Mooresville, but we weren’t, so that went away. Then we went to Mooresville, and things didn’t work out with that. Now the 43 is going to Statesville [to the Gillett Evernham shop]. At least there will be a name with Petty in some form or fashion.”