NASCAR

Petty team dealing with tough times

Kyle Busch (R), driver of the #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota, talks with team owner Joe Gibbs
Joe Gibbs (left, talking with Kyle Busch) is a rare successful, non-driver owner.
SceneDaily.com Jeff Owens
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It should come as no surprise that Richard Petty Motorsports – formerly Gillett Evernham Motorsports, formerly Evernham Motorsports – is teetering on the brink of collapse.

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Jeff Owens

The organization has been struggling to survive since Ray Evernham sold a majority interest in the team to George Gillett in 2007.

And it appears that not even Richard Petty, NASCAR’s “King,” can save the organization.

If the organization does indeed fold and does not return in some capacity next season, it will be a sad day for the sport and another black eye against NASCAR.

RPM is not just another victim of the tough economic times that are taking a toll on sports franchises everywhere. Its struggles are another example of the difficulty of landing high-paying sponsors to back Sprint Cup teams when the costs of being competitive continue to spiral out of control.

It is also an example of the difficulty of outside businessmen succeeding in a sport that is still ruled by a close-knit fraternity of former racers. Not only is it practically impossible to beat those on the track, but it is equally difficult competing with them in boardrooms when it comes to courting the backing of corporate America.

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Gillett had been a successful sports entrepreneur, owning the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens and the professional soccer team in Liverpool. (Both of which he ultimately wound up selling as his empire began to crumble.)

He was unable, however, to translate his success in other sports to NASCAR, finding it increasingly difficult to attract the multimillion-dollar sponsors that it takes to run a successful team and to keep up with the sport’s superpowers. Not even the iconic name of Petty seemed to help in that regard.

How many of today’s top Sprint Cup teams are owned by businessmen who made their fortune outside of racing?

One. Sort of.

Former NFL head coach Joe Gibbs started his own race team in the early 1990s, back when it was still possible for a wealthy man to take a little bit of cash and turn it into a bundle by building a successful NASCAR team.

But Gibbs had something most businessmen don’t have: charisma and a famous, widely-respected name to help attract sponsors and investors.

Fallout at RPM

 

RPM's managing partner makes an appearance at Homestead, but refuses to discuss team's future.

Richard Petty Motorsports

Petty team's collapse part of larger NASCAR problem.

Gillett’s financial difficulty puts RPM future in doubt.

 

Aside from Gibbs, the top team owners today are all former racers or have been around the sport for years – Rick Hendrick, Richard Childress, Jack Roush, Roger Penske, Tony Stewart, Chip Ganassi and Michael Waltrip.

They are the movers and shakers in NASCAR, team owners who have succeeded at attracting the best of everything – sponsors, drivers, crewmen, investors, etc.

Why?

Because they have a long track record of winning races and fielding winning teams.

Unlike other professional sports, NASCAR takes more than just money to be successful. It takes a racer’s mentality of knowing where and how to spend that money and low expectations of getting it back by turning a profit.

Gillett did not have that background and reputation and, as a result, he has had a hard time keeping the organization Ray Evernham started afloat.

Evernham, a championship crew chief at Hendrick Motorsports, started the team in 2001 with the backing of Dodge, which was returning to the sport after a long hiatus.

It didn’t take Evernham long to build a winning team, winning races first with veteran Bill Elliott and then Jeremy Mayfield. When he landed young phenom Kasey Kahne, the organization really took off, with Kahne winning a career-high six races in 2006.

But Evernham soon learned what many NASCAR team owners have discovered – running a successful Cup team is not only a huge financial burden, but mentally and physically taxing.

In 2007, with the costs of staying competitive skyrocketing, Evernham sold his team to Gillett, retaining only a small, minority interest.

Though Gillett brought great promise to the organization, without Evernham’s guidance, he has struggled to keep it afloat. He landed Budweiser and managed to re-sign Kahne, but now both of those are gone. Budweiser is leaving for Richard Childress Racing after this season, and Kahne already has left for Red Bull Racing, where he will also drive next year, and Hendrick Motorsports in 2012.

With big-money sponsorships scarce, Gillett has merged with other teams twice in an effort to survive and remain competitive.

First he merged with Petty in 2009, with Petty acquiring a minority interest and lending his name to the team.

This year, it merged with Yates Racing, acquiring the backing of Ford and forging an alliance with Roush Fenway Racing. The move created a four-car team for Kahne, AJ Allmendinger, Elliott Sadler and Paul Menard.

With Kahne and Menard leaving after this season, the plan was to return with a two-car team with Allmendinger and new driver Marcos Ambrose next season.

Now, just surviving this season appears in jeopardy.

Despite mergers with Petty and Yates – two well-known names in NASCAR circles – and an affiliation with Roush, Gillett’s team is again on the verge of collapse.

If it folds, the implications will be far-reaching.

Allmendinger and Ambrose, two promising drivers, could be without rides for next season, and dozens of crewmen could be out of work.

Ford’s NASCAR program could be reduced from 11 full-time teams to just six.

And perhaps more important, Petty, an iconic figure who is, for some, the face of NASCAR, may no longer have a prominent role in the sport.

For more than 50 years, Petty was part of the vaunted Petty Enterprises, the winningest team in NASCAR history. When he retired with a record 200 victories and seven championships, he continued to run the organization until closing it down at the start of the 2009 season.

The deal with Gillett kept Petty in the sport as a team owner.

Though he insists he will still be around, not having Petty involved with a team or as a competitor would mark the end of an era for the sport.

And in an age when NASCAR is struggling to regroup and recapture the magic that made it the nation’s fastest-growing sport a decade ago, having a multicar organization and two such prominent figures as Petty and Gillett fail is another black eye.

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