Many of us are drawn to the sport of Sprint Cup racing because of the tradition that the sport has built up over the years. The traditions are many – Speedweeks in Daytona, the Coca-Cola 600 and short track racing at Bristol and Martinsville – but in many ways some of the old traditions in the sport are beginning to fade.
Few organizations in the sport can boast of having a history that comes close to matching that of Petty Racing and the Wood Brothers. Both of these racing organizations can boast of having been involved in the sport for over a half century and both know fully what it was like to be on top of the racing world.
Lee Petty started Petty Racing before giving away to his sons, Richard and Maurice, who teamed up with cousin Dale Inman to form the most successful team in NASCAR history. During this same period, Glen Wood started his own team with help from his brother, Leonard, and soon they became a force to reckon with on race day with several different drivers.
The decades of the ’60s and ’70s were the high water mark for both organizations as the two oftentimes raced hard against each other for the win. In the mid-70s when David Pearson was behind the wheel of the Wood Brothers’ Ford and Richard was driving Petty’s famous #43, each race seemed to come down to a duel between the two organizations.
Sadly, those days are long gone but both organizations are still trying to stay in the sport and be competitive. While Petty now fields two teams, the Wood Brothers are still a one-team operation and in this day of multicar organizations, both teams have struggled to the point that now just making the field is in many ways a huge victory.
Petty’s flagship No. 43 team with driver Bobby Labonte is safely inside the top 35 at this time but has just lost its primary sponsor after General Mills announced it would be leaving at the end of the season and would be moving to Richard Childress Racing in 2009. Petty’s second team with Richard’s son, Kyle, behind the wheel is outside of the highly coveted top 35 and must race its way into the field each week. That hasn’t been an easy chore for Kyle as his team has missed a couple of races and he even sat out one race to see if he was the problem behind the wheel.
The Wood Brothers’ fortunes mirror that of Kyle’s team as it also sits outside of the top 35 but does have somewhat of a safety net when it hires Bill Elliott to drive. Elliott is a former champion that can fall back on NASCAR’s past champion’s provisionals if another more recent champion doesn’t have to use one. NASCAR limits the number of provisionals that a past champion can use to six for the season, which makes Elliott’s job of getting the Wood Brothers in the top 35 even more important.
Without the luxury of being in the show each week and the prospect of missing more races, it has become harder and harder for both teams to attract sponsorships. Both teams now use the multi-sponsor approach by signing several sponsors for a set number of races. This is the same practice being used by many of the top teams in the sport but when you are having difficulty just making the race, the amount of money you can demand from a sponsor to put its name across the hood drops considerably.
Sponsorship dollars are a problem for each team as their tradition and rich history fails to make much of an impact when it comes to signing a new sponsor. Both teams seem to just be holding on but maybe there might be some hope on the horizon.
The car count for the last two races of the season at Texas and Phoenix has been 46 and 45 for the 43-car field. That really cuts down the competition for the cars that have to race their way in when compared to some of the earlier races when the car count on qualifying day was over 50. The decreasing car count may also be what saves the tradition of the Petty’s and Wood Brothers. If that is the case, the fans are the real winners as tradition like that unfortunately is just becoming a distant memory in the sport.
Race Preview – Event: Aaron’s 499. Track: Talladega Superspeedway (2.66-mile trioval, 33 degrees of banking in the turns). Date: April 27, 2 p.m. TV: Fox. Radio: MRN. Defending champion: Jeff Gordon.