Commentary

An alliance more sad than fascinating

Updated: April 9, 2009, 1:27 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

This is about the confluence of three sad sagas: Richard Petty, the Indianapolis 500 and the hard-knocks branch of the Andretti family.

All three having fallen on tough times, they have bonded what is left of their "brands," as marketing moguls call household names nowadays.

Petty is the official entrant of a car to be driven by John Andretti in this year's 500.

With verbal sleight of hand, publicists have tried to leave the impression that Petty is more than a figurehead, saying he "joins" Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi in fielding entries for both the 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, May 24.

[+] EnlargeRichard Petty
AP Photo/Michael ConroyJohn Andretti, left, will pilot Richard Petty's familiar red and blue No. 43 at the 2009 Indy 500.

But Penske and Ganassi have been deeply invested and involved for many years in Indy car racing. This is, as they say in NASCAR, but "a one-race deal."

I asked Petty whether he is the owner of the Dallara Honda that will be prepared and crewed by the journeyman Dreyer & Reinbold Racing team of Indianapolis.

"We are vested in what's going on, OK?" Petty said. "I'll put it that way."

On that sparsely attended teleconference, you could hear the tension in the King's voice.

"It's not just a publicity stunt," he said -- it was his term, not mine.

"We're up here [in Indianapolis, for Monday's announcement], we're serious with this deal, we've got a good car, we've got a good crew, I think, that is capable of doing what we need to do with it."

But he admitted that he knows virtually nothing about Indy cars -- "I'm just here to observe and learn."

This was the same Richard Petty who, 30-something years ago, stood in A.J. Foyt's pits on a practice day at Indy and told me why he would never drive Indy cars, though Foyt had offered him at least a test ride.

"There's baseball, football and basketball," said Petty in his prime. "They're all played with a ball. And there the similarities end.

"Stock cars and these cars," he said, gesturing down at Foyt's Coyote Ford, "both have four wheels and an engine. And there the similarities end."

Petty used to visit Indy on practice days every May, guest of his sponsor at the time, STP, which also had a major presence at Indy. Had he announced any sort of venture into Indy cars at the time, he'd have made national headlines -- and an alliance of the Petty and Andretti families would have made sports news around the world.

You can only wish the sum of these household names meant more now.

And you can only wish they could win. Nobody could use a win more than Richard Petty, unless it is John Andretti. And no entity could use a Petty-Andretti win quite like the Indy 500 itself.

But Dreyer & Reinbold has fielded 19 Indy 500 entries without a win. John Andretti has made nine starts in the 500 without a win. They can run decently, but their chances of winning are slim to none.

It's not just a publicity stunt. ... We're up here [in Indianapolis], we're serious with this deal, we've got a good car, we've got a good crew, I think, that is capable of doing what we need to do with it.

-- Richard Petty

So this alliance is more sad than fascinating.

Richard Petty Motorsports, the product of a NASCAR merger between struggling Petty Enterprises and struggling Gillett Evernham Motorsports, is still struggling.

Petty lends his name, his once-glorious racing colors of red and blue, and his storied number, 43, to the entry. The car is sponsored by a North Carolina-based company, Window World.

The primary beneficiary of this alliance is the Indy 500 itself, its prestige gutted by the CART-IRL split of 1996 and still enfeebled, a mere shell of what was the greatest race in the world.

The once-grand event has come to this: Ninety percent of its publicity rests on the diminutive shoulders of a woman who has never won it, Danica Patrick, and the rest on a bunch of imported personalities who stir interest in the race in Brazil and Australia and New Zealand, but not where it matters so crucially, the United States.

And so Indy can use the Petty name, and all the Andrettis it can get.

Petty acknowledged he was approached by Andretti with the idea. Mainly, it helped Andretti get a ride. The Petty family has long thought an awful lot of John Andretti, the last driver to win a NASCAR Cup race in the No. 43, at Martinsville, Va., in 1999.

And so the King is largely doing a kindness here.

John is from the tough-luck side of the family. Few among modern-day racing enthusiasts realize that Mario Andretti has a twin brother, Aldo. Mario has told me for decades that he always thought Aldo would have been the greater racer, because he was more aggressive.

The twins' paths diverged forever on a dirt track in Hatfield, Pa., 50 years ago. Aldo was critically injured in a stock car crash at age 19, and lay in a coma for weeks. Forever after, he stayed in the small time of racing while Mario drove off to glory, his success always haunted by the misfortune of his twin. Another bad crash, in a sprint car at Des Moines in 1969, ended Aldo's driving career.

So Aldo's son John never had the clout of his father's dazzling résumé behind him, as cousin Michael had with Mario's Formula One championship in 1978, to go with his wins in the Daytona 500 of '67 and Indy 500 of '69.

John always got the leftover rides. Even when he drove for the King in NASCAR, Petty Enterprises was deep into its twilight.

John is 46 now, the King is 71, and hallowed Indianapolis Motor Speedway is 100. (Opened in 1909, the Speedway didn't host the first 500 until 1911.)

They all need each other now. They have huddled together to try to create some interest.

It should be fun for them, and sell a few tickets. But it will not return the Indy 500 or the Petty dynasty or the hard-knocks branch of the Andretti family from twilight.

It is mainly an alliance of three struggles.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.

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