Commentary

Changing times forced Pettys to uproot from beloved Level Cross, N.C.

Abandoning the shop that daddy Lee built in Level Cross, N.C., was not an easy decision for Richard Petty. But it was necessary, writes David Newton.

Updated: January 11, 2008, 4:54 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

Richard PettyChris Gardner/US PresswireRichard Petty won seven championships and 200 races, winning at least two races a season from 1960 to 1979.

MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Jerry Freeze's voice reverberated through the walls of the showroom, once filled with the No. 88 and 38 show cars of Robert Yates Racing, now barren except for a Coke machine in the corner.

"Step into the other room where you can hear me without the echoes," Freeze, the team manager at Petty Enterprises, said last week.

Freeze has been coordinating the move of NASCAR's most storied organization from remote Level Cross, N.C., to the former RYR facility in Mooresville since the end of last season.

By the look of the showroom and main shop, little appeared to have been done a week ago. The cabinets painted in the familiar Petty Blue were bare. So were the mats where cars of Kyle Petty and Bobby Labonte will be assembled and set up.

[+] EnlargePetty Enterprises
Courtesy MCG SportsRoom at the inn: Petty Enterprises' new Mooresville shop offers 88,000 square feet of real estate.

Only a handful of employees were visible and most of them were in an adjacent room where the car bodies are hung.

Even the sign out front still read RYR until late Thursday afternoon.

But rest assured a lot has been accomplished over the last month and a half. Two large trailers make the 75-minute trip from Level Cross every day, hauling equipment from the shop in which team owner Richard Petty won 200 races and seven championships.

On Monday, all of Labonte's cars for the February opener at Daytona, as well as the personnel and equipment it took to build them, were in this 88,000-square-foot facility.

Kyle Petty's No. 45 team and cars arrived late this week after completing a Monday-Wednesday test at Daytona International Speedway.

By the end of the month Freeze hopes everything, down to a new cover for a Coke machine on which former RYR employees drew a mustache and beard on the face of Dale Jarrett after he bolted for Michael Waltrip Racing, will be in place.

"We could have moved and been ready to go on Dec. 15 with no problem," he said of the first available date after RYR moved its operation next to new partner Roush Fenway Racing a half-hour away.

"But the one thing Richard said through this whole move, and he hasn't given us a whole lot of marching orders, was he wanted all the Daytona cars built in Level Cross. He didn't want to move half-built cars."

[+] EnlargePetty Family
AP PhotoGranddaddy Lee, left, and daddy Richard, right, help Kyle Petty celebrate his first race win in 1979.

The Level Cross shop was one of the last great links to the NASCAR of old. Opened in 1949 by Petty's father, Lee, the 65,000-square-foot facility was an odd mix of buildings connected to buildings with more twists and turns than the road courses at Watkins Glen and Sonoma combined.

Rooms were cramped and some ceilings were barely high enough for "King" Richard to walk while wearing his signature cowboy hat. As for the old building's fate, plans call for turning it into a shop to house the team's Nationwide Series operation.

"Level Cross was so disjointed," Freeze said as he looked around the spacious new building big enough to host Arena Football.

But the antiquated facility wasn't what made Petty uproot the family business that sits adjacent to the house in which he was raised to move to the heart of NASCAR. He still doesn't believe a big, shiny building will make a difference in how his cars perform.

What forced this split with tradition was the need to attract talented individuals who weren't willing to move to an area seemingly far from the civilized world, the need to keep sponsors from going to teams that offer the big, shiny buildings such as nearby Joe Gibbs Racing.

"We all seem to be chasing the same sponsors and employees," Freeze said. "Whoever we talked to they were off to talk to DEI or Gibbs or wherever. They would tour those places and then come to Level Cross and we'd be preaching the tradition and history.

"You're talking to some 35-year-old guy with an MBA that could care less how many races Richard Petty won. They would go through the Gibbs' showcase and we'd just look like backwoods guys."

Wanted: Best of the best
Freeze stood in the doorway across the hall from the shock room when a short, stocky man holding a rolled-up résumé approached him.

"Hunting a job?" Freeze asked.

"Yeah, I'm trying to get back in," the man replied.

Freeze smiled.

"That's the way it's been since I got here," he said. We've been bombarded with résumés and people coming through here. It seems like these people know when I walk through the door.

"In Level Cross, we couldn't get anybody with any credentials to pop in. It's blown me away that guys with 10 and 15 years in the sport have come in."

Many have come from RYR, which Freeze says kept only 30 of 150 employees when it moved to Concord, N.C., as part of its partnership with Roush. Many with jobs on existing teams have shown interest.

But what really blows Freeze away is the number of employees who stuck with Petty Enterprises despite the long drive, which has been made easier -- and less expensive with gas prices -- with a pair of vans purchased to form a car pool.

"Only about four have said they aren't coming," Freeze said. "I really haven't had the opportunity to bring on a lot of people. But to be in a modern facility, to help my job of bringing people in and upgrading the talent pool, this is what we needed."

Last holdout
The telephone in Freeze's office rang last week with an unexpected voice on the other end.

It was Kyle Petty, saying he'd made his first trip to check out the new facility he calls "Petty Enterprises West."

"That was encouraging for me," Freeze said.

It was encouraging because Petty had been against the move more than anybody, including his father, even though he was behind talks to build a new facility in Salisbury by 2009 or 2010.

"Not to say he was fighting it," Freeze said. "He just wasn't jumping up and down like Robbie Loomis [vice president of racing operations] and I were.

"It's funny. Richard, once he made his mind up to move, he wanted to get it done. Kyle was the one that was like, 'Hold on. Do we need to do it?' It was very odd the way Kyle's whole reaction to it was, but he's embracing it now."

Well, not totally.

"I have to admit I was a little bit more nostalgic about it, a little bit more resistant emotionally to turn loose," said Kyle, who felt the move should have happened eight to 10 years ago. "And I'm still not turned loose of it to be honest with you."

Petty can't help but look around Petty Enterprises and be reminded of the building his grandfather started building in 1947, or the addition that came in 1966 and 1970.

"And it's sad to think you're not going to go back there to work," he said. "It's like the house you grew up in, the house you raised your kids in. It's like going to your grandmother's house, your house, everything all rolled into one and now all of a sudden you're abandoning it and walking away."

That so few employees walked away when the move was announced eased Petty's anxiety.

"He believed there was going to be a big employee turnover, that there would be 30 or 40 people that decided they couldn't move," Freeze said of Kyle. "I knew he would make it over here at some point.

"But you know Kyle. He kind of walks to his own tune. That was his way. He was going to pop in when he was ready."

Never too old to change
Richie Barsz donned a pair of blue jean overalls, looking just as he has working all but one year at Petty Enterprises since 1970.

"The only complaint is I can't see daylight," the 65-year-old master fabricator said as he looked around the room with no windows.

[+] EnlargePetty Enterprises
Courtesy MCG SportsPetty Enterprises hopes a state-of-the-art facility close to Charlotte will attract talented employees.

In Level Cross, Barsz worked in a small, somewhat dark room in the back of Petty Enterprises. The walls were covered with old signs, such as the original STP logo Richard ran under, which made it seem more like a museum than a work place.

Barsz had a window, too.

"It's different," he said of the new shop. "It's a change. But I'm 65. I'm ready for a change. The history we made at Level Cross, it's still there. You can't take it away. It's like the pyramids."

Barsz helped Richard Petty collect 126 of his 200 wins. He worked side by side with some of the best in the business, including former RYR owner Robert Yates when both were at Holman Moody Racing.

While he's not convinced Petty Enterprises had to move to recapture the glory it hasn't seen in decades, he does believe the change could help.

"I don't have a view of the big picture," Barsz said. "I just know that back when we did it we could beat anybody with 35 people and run two cars.

"But if management felt we needed a change, yeah, change."

Opening new doors
Freeze pulled out a mechanism that unlocked an electronic key pad to a side door.

"Didn't have that at Level Cross," he said with a smile. "Level Cross was as low security as it could get. Eight-hundred doors [a slight exaggeration]. It's impossible to get them all locked."

Freeze continued this tour to a back room big enough to hold two haulers. At Level Cross, the haulers parked outside the main shop. Drinks and food were stored in a back corner about as far from the entrance as possible, which made restocking somewhat of a chore for the crew.

Now they can wash, load and unload the hauler without being exposed to long walks or the elements.

"Our truck drivers are getting spoiled to death in this place," Freeze said.

There have been many other spoils. Yates left behind a lot of parts, pieces and equipment that the Pettys were able to buy or lease because Roush wouldn't purchase them. The trim on the walls is close enough to Petty Blue that a new paint job wasn't required.

But what Freeze and company most want is to restore the winning tradition that all the tradition in Level Cross couldn't create.

On that, Kyle is behind the move.

"We'd made our base stronger," he said. "We'd made our team stronger. But we needed to do something to create more excitement internally and externally. So moving says, if Richard Petty is willing to move this shop after 60 years, these guys are serious about what they're doing."

For Freeze, the move was a no-brainer. He and Loomis wasted little time convincing the Pettys that leaving Level Cross now instead of waiting to build in Salisbury was the right thing to do after Yates offered a three-year lease in October.

Only time, and wins, will tell.

"Our goal as of today is still to move to Salisbury," Freeze said. "Now when we get in here, if we enjoy it and it's paying off and we're growing -- and we've got more than enough room to expand -- we've got an option to buy the place.

"We all felt like we could do everything necessary to win out of Level Cross, but it's hard to convince the sponsors and talent that. By making the move into this building, it's going to help us in that regard so we don't look maybe as backwoodsy as we did."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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