Race fans know that when the ball dropped in New York City on New Year’s Eve the beginning of another Sprint Cup season is just weeks away.
The anticipation naturally begins to build for the green flag waving at Daytona next month, but this time the waving of the flag will include a little sadness as there will be no Petty Enterprises car in the starting field. Petty Enterprises has merged with Gillette Evernham Motorsports, which will field Petty’s famous No. 43 this season.
The last year of Petty Enterprises will be one that will forever be hard to understand. 2008 was supposed to be the year that Richard Petty’s operation began making the moves that would once again make it competitive in the series. Something had to be done, as it hadn’t been to victory lane since John Andretti won at Martinsville in 1999, and the last time a Petty Enterprise car had a top-10 finish in points was in 1996 when Bobby Hamilton finished ninth.
Richard Petty, known as “The King” of NASCAR, had finally decided that it was time to move the organization closer to Charlotte, away from the family roots of Level Cross. The shops at Level Cross didn’t begin to compare to the modern shops that have now become the norm in the sport, but part of the sprawling complex at Level Cross included the original concrete pad that Richard’s father, Lee, used in 1949 to build the first car to compete in what was a start-up racing organization known as NASCAR.
Count me as one of the fans that made a couple of trips to Level Cross to see some history of the sport. I have been to all of the major shops over the years and I can honestly say that you knew you were at a special place in the sport as soon as you got out of your car. You definitely wouldn’t confuse Petty’s complex, built next door to Lee’s house, for any other shop in the sport, but then again there is no other shop in the business that could boast of having 268 wins and 10 championships.
Petty Enterprises moved to Mooresville, N.C., just before the start of the 2008 season and it was thought that the move was a step in the right direction. Truth was that Petty needed more than a new home to once again compete for wins and run up front. Petty also needed more money to become competitive and the country’s sagging economy made it a bad time to try and attract new sponsors.
After fighting the fight for years by himself, Richard decided a partner was the way to go in the sport if he wanted his organization to regain some of its past success. Richard announced during the season that he had sold the family racing business to Boston Ventures and his son, Kyle, would no longer be CEO. David Zucker took over the job of running Petty Enterprises with his sight set on attracting more sponsorship dollars and improving the teams’ competitive level.
Unfortunately for Petty and Zucker, Cheerios, the team’s primary sponsor, announced it would be leaving at the end of the season and the hunt for a replacement kept turning up empty. Petty’s second team, driven part of the year by Kyle, was struggling just to make the field and its sponsorship packages were just enough to pay for the decals on the car.
Petty let go over 70 of its employees as soon as the season was over as all the organization basically had left was the No. 43 car. Talks with Gillette Evernham had been going on for some time about a possible merger but with the state of the nation’s economy on very shaky grounds, those talks stalled.
Last week the deal was finally hammered out and now the famous No. 43 Petty Enterprise car, the face of the sport for so many years, will be campaigned by another organization. Although the new merger may contain Petty’s name in some way in its title, the sad fact is Petty no longer owns the car that made him, his family and NASCAR a household name for so many years.
The sport will go on, but it is an end to the chapter that allowed Bill France and his son to write the bestseller that we know as NASCAR’s Sprint Cup.