Richard Petty has unfinished business
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The winter storm that hit the Carolinas on Monday had yet to cross the Yadkin River and reach Richard Petty's Randleman office, but the King of NASCAR wasn't concerned.
"We'll worry about it when it gets here," Petty said.
Petty knows how to survive storms. He survived arguably the biggest of his career last season when George Gillett dumped a financially strapped race team on his minority partner with five races remaining in the Sprint Cup season.
It was so dire that Gillett told Petty he wasn't investing any more money in the organization and that he was closing the doors on Richard Petty Motorsports the Monday after the Oct. 16 race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
For the first time since NASCAR became NASCAR in 1948, the sport was faced with the possibility that the Petty name wouldn't be a part of it.
But as Petty did many times before under less visible and scrutinized situations, he held things together. He took money out of his own pocket to make sure the family name and as many of the employees who counted on it as possible remained a viable part of the sport for the rest of the season and into 2011.
He survived, which in this case was as impressive as any of his record 200 wins or seven championships.
"I've been surviving since I got here," said Petty, discussing last season in detail for the first time publicly. "Even at Petty Enterprises, it always looked good on the outside. When you're in the middle it's a day-to-day deal just to keep any business going. We were just doing it with different people and different times and different circumstances.
"Anybody that has a racing organization or any kind of business, they have ups and downs the whole time. A lot of times you look at people and say they have got it made. But if you got in behind closed doors they're struggling like anybody else."
Petty survived by convincing Medallion Financial Group and DGB Investments to purchase from Gillett what assets were left in RPM, by working out a deal that would take him from figurehead back to a decision-making position, by downsizing from a four-car operation to two.
He did this at an age (73) when most aren't thinking about business and with his wife, Lynda, being treated for a cancerous brain tumor.
"I tell people if they could have seen how he was operating and working while his wife was laying there extremely sick, it was inspiring and amazing to me," said Robbie Loomis, RPM's director of competition. "The guy would get up in the morning, come see us at the shop, then run see Lynda, then get on a plane and go talk to potential sponsors, then come back and see Lynda and go back to the shop.
"It was a nonstop roller coaster."
The roller-coaster ride began the Thursday before the second Charlotte race, after Gillett gave Petty word of his intentions to shut down due to financial difficulty after the sale of his Liverpool soccer team.
Nobody could have blamed Petty if he'd thrown up his hands and been done with racing that day. He'd pulled every rabbit out of a hat he could the past few years to keep the company going, from moving out of the longtime Randleman shop and to the Charlotte area to selling interest first to Boston Ventures and then merging with Gillett Evernham Motorsports to create what became RPM.
He'd kept things together longer than most thought possible.
This could have been the final blow.
But Petty didn't become an icon by giving up. He immediately called Loomis, longtime friend and former crew chief Dale Inman and others close to him together in his motor coach to discuss options, none of which included shutting the doors.
"That's what he told us that Thursday night at Charlotte, 'This isn't an option for us. This is all I've ever done. This is all I'll ever do,'" Loomis recalled.
Countless rumors surfaced over the next five weeks, from RPM cars being repossessed by supplier Roush Fenway Racing to haulers being held in Texas to Budweiser pulling its sponsorship on the No. 9 after Kasey Kahne left for Red Bull Racing because payments weren't being made.
Asked how much of what was reported at the time was true, Petty said with a laugh, "Lots of rumors."
So what was true?
"We were running a little late getting to some places, OK," Petty said. "We got there on time. We were just a little late leaving. It basically was that there were still some monies from sponsors and stuff, but not enough to make it work. ... We just kept shuffling around.
"The last five races were touch-and-go until they threw the flag ... just making sure we had payroll covered, we had as many of the vendors as we could covered. It was tough."
In other words, there was some truth to most of the rumors, but the rumors didn't tell the entire story. Yes, vendors were jockeying for position to make sure they were paid. Yes, Petty had to scramble to make payments, and many weren't made until the 11th hour. Yes, Roush Fenway and other vendors lost money when deals had to be reconstructed.
Yes, there were discussions with Budweiser, but most of those centered around renegotiating the deal that enabled Kahne to move on.
"People were getting bits and pieces, and whatever they got they were hanging on the negative side instead of reality," Loomis said.
It would have been easy for Petty to be bitter toward Gillett for putting him in this position, but that never happened. Petty still talks about his former partner with a respect that is hard for most to imagine, particularly those who have watched Gillett do the same thing with other ventures.
Gillett, for the record, did not return phone calls for this column or any others since this saga began.
This is all I've ever done. It's part of life. If I didn't have this I'd have to start another life. Anything else would be confusing to me.” -- Richard Petty
"They were circumstances beyond anybody's control," Petty said. "He didn't dump it on nobody. He just said, 'OK, guys. I've done invested as much as I can invest in this company. This is it.'
"He didn't really have a choice. When the Liverpool deal didn't come down he said, 'Whoa!'"
There has to be some strange irony that the famous Petty name almost was taken under by the financial woes of a soccer team in Liverpool that Gillett co-owned with Tom Hicks.
But Petty didn't look at that situation any different than he did the serious injury to his father at Daytona International Speedway in 1961 that threatened the very existence of the family business. You can't look back, as Petty repeatedly says, just ahead.
And Petty did.
"It was like when Lynda got diagnosed with her troubles," Loomis said. "I remember Richard saying there'll be a lot of good that will come out of this one day -- we just don't know what it is right now."
The good that may come out of this is that RPM appears on sound financial ground to run the 2011 season with AJ Allmendinger in the No. 43 and Marcos Ambrose in the No. 9, and that Petty has more than a courtesy say in what happens moving forward.
"That was one of the main incentives to try to keep it going, was being able to say, 'OK, guys, before if it failed it was up to somebody else. Now it's up to us. If it don't work now it's our fault,'" Petty said. "I just feel better because I've got some decision-making."
In the past, Petty has been reluctant to talk about what it meant to relinquish control of the empire he built. Now that he has it back, he admittedly was "kind of lost."
"I wandered around there for a little while, making comments, but a lot of times it wasn't what somebody else wanted to hear," he said. "I just think we're in better control of our destiny than we have been the last couple of years."
They are in control because Petty took control at a time last season when it appeared his racing days were done. They are in control because NASCAR's King didn't panic when he heard the storm was approaching.
"I look far ahead, but not that far ahead," Petty said. "This is all I've ever done. It's part of life. If I didn't have this I'd have to start another life. Anything else would be confusing to me."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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