Richard Petty calling the shots again
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For the last six weeks of the 2010 season, everyone at Richard Petty Motorsports wondered day by day and even minute by minute if the team would continue.
"People saw from the outside how tough it was," said driver AJ Allmendinger. "But on the inside it was much tougher."
Would they make it to the next race? Would the checks clear? Was this the end for the most famous name in the sport?
"We were lucky to get through last year," Petty said. "We had a pretty rough time. For the last five or six races, they didn't know if they were going to have a job the next week. But they stepped it up, the drivers stepped it up and everybody stayed with us."
Sometimes through adversity we find our way back to where we need to be. The RPM family believes it has found its way to a new beginning and a brighter future.
Petty regained control of the team by finding a new partner in investor Andrew Murstein. RPM has dropped from a four-car team to a two-car operation with Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose.
But for the first time in a long time, RPM is on solid financial footing.
Former majority owner George Gillett's financial meltdown last fall placed RPM in a precarious spot late last season. But Petty and his employees never gave up. In fact, they thrived through the hard times.
Allmendinger posted three top-15s in the last five races, including a fifth-place showing in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"AJ's ability to stay focused through all that really impressed me," said Robbie Loomis, RPM's director of competition. "He led the team and moved it forward.
"I just think the world of the guy. He's got great passion, and sometimes that brings great emotions, so I get both sides of it. But he knows how to deliver on the racetrack."
Allmendinger, 29 and heading into his fourth Cup season, said the people at RPM have never been closer because of what they went through last year.
"What happened showed us how much we wanted to keep this going," he said. "We could have easily fallen apart and everybody look for other jobs. But the cars were well-prepared and always fast.
"That says a lot about this organization. Now it's a new start. Everyone is smiling a lot more."
The RPM gang was smiling last month at Charlotte Motor Speedway during the NASCAR media tour.
And the biggest smiles came from Murstein, president of Medallion Financial. He firmly believes he's made an investment that will pay big dividends.
"All our companies fit the same model we have here -- a great tradition and great integrity," Murstein said. "I promise the fans that we are going to do everything we can to get this great man and this great company back where they belong, in the winner's circle. We promise the best is yet to come at RPM."
Murstein said his company wanted to purchase an NBA franchise, but Petty persuaded him to go a different route.
"Every NBA team told us they would double their attendance and cut their payroll and win the championship," Murstein said. "It doesn't work that way.
"But Richard was very honest with us. Richard said it was going to be tough getting back on our feet. We are going to start small and get larger. That was music to my ears."
A lot of outside investors have joined NASCAR in recent years with high hopes, but many of them left quickly without much success, like the Gillett family.
Jamie Allison, the director of Ford Racing, says people are making a mistake if they view Murstein in the same light as George Gillett.
The way the company came out of the ashes with such commitment is the most amazing thing I've ever seen. It's an incredible story.” -- Marcos Ambrose
"I can assure you that Andy is in it for the long haul," Allison said. "And we at Ford really believe in the new RPM.
"When Richard reached out to us last year, there was not a moment of consideration on our part. Our chairman, Edsel Ford, absolutely felt in his heart that it was the right thing to do, to make sure the legacy of Richard Petty continues. He's called The King for a reason. His connection with the fans is unparalleled."
It's even true for fans who grew up on the other side of the world. Ambrose said Petty was a racing hero for him as a boy in Tasmania.
Ambrose signed with RPM last summer, but later had to wait and see if the organization would survive.
"The way the company came out of the ashes with such commitment is the most amazing thing I've ever seen," Ambrose said. "It's an incredible story. This is the best chance ever in my career. I'm very optimistic about our chances."
Despite the hard times, most of the sponsors stayed with RPM. Budweiser left to join Richard Childress Racing and move to Kevin Harvick's car, but Best Buy is back on the No. 43 Ford for Allmendinger and Stanley Tools returns to sponsor Ambrose in the No. 9 car. DeWalt Tools also is returning to the sport on Ambrose's car.
RPM survived to race another day. Loomis said he never gave up hope.
"I think at the time you're going through it, it seems like it's the worst time of your life," Loomis said. "But I tell people, when you stub your toe it really hurts. But a minute later if you break your arm, you forget your toe is hurting.
"It was a difficult time and a challenging time, but I learned a lot through it."
And the old guy in the feathered cowboy hat and sunglasses is back in charge.
"For the last few years I was pretty much on the sidelines," Petty said. "Now the pressure is back on me because I have a say-so in what's going on. I feel good about that."
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at email@example.com.
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