Commentary

You kiddin' me? Petty and Newman in the same room?

What happened when Richard Petty walked into a room and started talking racin' with Paul Newman? Magic, writes Marty Smith.

Updated: October 9, 2008, 11:26 AM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

Oftentimes during my youth, my daddy would say to me, "Boy [he never called me by name -- Southern thing], shut up and listen. You'll learn something."

And he was right, per usual. There's too much blabbering and not enough listening these days. Everyone wants the last and loudest word, when a lot of times we should muzzle ourselves and contemplate alternate points of view. Or, more importantly, experience.

We as a society come by it honestly, really. We learn it by viewing political analysis programming and sports analysis programming and by listening to bickering radio hosts. Admittedly, I'm as guilty as anyone. On both counts.

That's one reason this story is special to me …

When the doors to the elevator opened, and Richard Petty stood there sans sunglasses -- no lie -- flashing that world-famous 10-zillion-gigawatt smile, and asked me what I was doing just then, I was speechless.

The answer was simple: "Whatever you want to do, sir."

It was the night of the "Cars" movie premiere at Lowe's Motor Speedway, a soggy summer evening as humid as a sauna, and I was looking for a dry spot to watch the movie.

Petty had climbed to the suite level for a meeting. His grandson, Austin, was alongside him. All the King said to me was, "C'mon, this will be cool."

Yes, sir. Absolutely, sir.

We moseyed through the concourse as he greeted fans thoughtfully, yet hastily. I walked behind him. Walking beside him wouldn't be right. I still had no clue where we were going; didn't rightly care.

Then we reached the target, a suite overlooking the racetrack. It may have been track owner Bruton Smith's suite, but I honestly don't recall. The square footage was that of a fine starter home.

The door opened and the King slid his long, lean frame through. Austin followed, then me. It was dark, and I couldn't see much other than a small scrum of people in the foyer. When the King walked in they parted, revealing a legendary racer with his hand extended.

Paul Newman.

Whoa.

Petty and Newman both voiced characters in "Cars." Petty played himself, sort of, and Newman portrayed the part of the old crusty Piston Cup champion "Doc Hudson," who knew a thing or two about young hotshots who weren't so hot, and how fleeting the limelight is. They'd known each other through the Victory Junction connection, too. Newman had helped Kyle and Pattie get started through his Hole in the Wall Camp model.

Two legendary Americans, standing there together, face to face. They stood and chatted for 15 minutes, maybe. It was utterly surreal. I looked around at the others. Mesmerized faces and awestruck, maybe awkward, smiles.

The movie wasn't mentioned. It was all racing, their shared passion.

And I didn't know this until this week, but it may have been the only time they ever really talked racing.

"When [Newman] would come around the camp, they'd never talk about racing together," Austin Petty said. "He'd come up to camp and talk about the camp, or branching out or something. I'd never seen them chat about old racing stories until then. And I remember [Newman] was talking about running the Grand Am Series, and the King said, 'No, I always raced ovals,' and all that jazz. That was cool to see."

Uh. Yeah.

I wanted to jump in head-first and conduct an interview for the ages. So much excellence. So much knowledge. So much insight.

And ohhhh baby, the stories they could tell.

But I flinched, thought better of it.

I heard my daddy, loud and clear, as if he were standing right beside me.

Shut up and listen, boy. You'll learn something.

Indeed.

Richard Petty and Paul NewmanAP Photo/Chuck BurtonPaul Newman, middle, joined Richard Petty, far right, Pattie and Kyle Petty, from left, and young fan Haleigh Epperson for a 2002 Victory Junction ceremony in Randleman, N.C.

Now, The Six …

Marty,

Am I the only one who gained a new appreciation for Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson after the Kansas race? I have never rooted for either one of them. They could have sat back and just let the race end, but they both threw points racing out the window on that last lap and went for the win. Seeing Greg Biffle and Jeff Gordon do serious battle for THIRD place was almost as fun! To all the other chasers: THAT IS HOW TO RACE!

-- Sue Bilger, Seattle

No way, Sue. Millions of fans shared that same excitement and appreciation -- me included. I was at home watching with my buddies, and we were screaming like 10-year-old girls and spilling beer like frat boys.

So much for the notion that Chasers points-race, play it safe in the name of conservation. Edwards' banzai move into Turn 3 was exhilarating. For two straight weeks, Chasers made it about seizing the moment -- the big picture be damned. Johnson and Matt Kenseth did the same last fall at Texas, too.

As a fan, it's nice to see. Because if you really think about it, that's what fans pay for. Fans pay for the moment -- the opportunity to see their driver win on that very Sunday, on that very track. The big picture is icing. Watching drivers seize the moment like that reaffirms why you're a fan in the first place.

And right now, drivers are delivering.

That was the best finish I've seen in quite a while.

And for the record, I said the same thing last week.

Marty the Party,

It's about time you mentioned a song that's worth listening to (Skid Row's "I'll Remember You"). If you had said "18 and Life" I would be able to forgive your enormous butt-kissing of one Kenny Chesney all together. Between your bromances with Chesney and Dale Jr., it's a wonder you have time for your old lady. Take this insult like a man and put me back in The Six!

-- JB, Columbus, Ohio

You made the cut based solely on the term "bromance." It made me laugh out loud.

Song of the week: "The Highwayman." The Highwaymen -- Willie and Waylon, Cash and Kris. This is Legends Week, man. Petty. Newman. The Highwaymen.

Virginia Marty,

I figured an e-mail to you would get my simple question answered: How was it decided to have 43 cars in the starting field?

-- Dustin, Maineville, Ohio

NASCAR tells me it's nothing more than evolution, Dustin. According to NASCAR, it wasn't until the past champion's provisional was added in 1998 was there a uniform mandated number of cars for the starting field.

Why 43? No one can tell me. I'm assured it's not about Richard Petty, even though the champion's provisional was created to ensure that he made the show each week. He was the biggest draw.

Sorry, man. I was expecting Angelina and got Roseanne.

Marty,

Rick Hendrick, Joe Gibbs, Richard Childress, etc., had to build their empires from the ground up when they first started, so how come up-and-coming and struggling teams today complain they do not have any sponsors?

Do what those guys did. Go out and find sponsors. Don't sit back waiting for the money to come to you. It seems to me that these struggling teams are just ran by lazy owners.

-- Touchdown Irish, Indianapolis

First of all, Gipper, there's no comparison between then and now. This answer is a rambling mess. Bear with me.

Comparing NASCAR 1985 and NASCAR 2008 is like comparing Daisy Duke characters. The original Daisy, Catherine Bach, was raw, real, unrefined. And to devoted fans (like me), she was the hottest thing on Earth. Same for mid-80s NASCAR. It was raw, real, unrefined, and the best thing going for devoted fans.

Twenty years later, Jessica Simpson's Daisy Duke is flashier, more commercial, and to new Dukes fans is the hottest thing going.

Door-To-Door
with Marty Smith
Do you have a question for ESPN NASCAR analyst Marty Smith? Go to Smith's SportsNation page to submit your question or comment for Marty, and check back regularly for the column in which he will provide the answers.
Ask Marty

Old fans see a phony. The converts never saw the original, they say.

In NASCAR, Gipper, the greatest of many differences between 1985 and 2008 is dollars. Like 20 million of them. Per team. Back then, Mom & Pop's Thrift Mart could take $250,000 and sponsor a Winston Cup car. These days that gets you a sticker the size of a urinal puck. A hood costs you 60 times that, minimum. That, in turn, has fostered a flashier NASCAR, with big corporate sponsors and good-lookin', sweet-talkin' boys from the Midwest and the Left Coast behind the wheel.

Old fans see a phony. The converts never saw the original, they say.

The new stuff just can't compare to the real deal. Doesn't have as much substance.

It's not fair to assess either that way. It's evolution. You can like the old one better, but you may have delusions of grandeur. (Not me. The original Daisy Duke is incomparable.)

Fact is, in this economy it's damn difficult for race teams to go out and find new money.

Even the big boys are feeling the pinch. And it's not that they aren't trying. They're not sitting around on their keisters waiting for money to fall in their lap. Far from it.

This isn't about finding the best sponsor. This is about survival. Seriously.

Joe Gibbs Racing is wildly successful. It is also a family business. If Gibbs' race team fails to maintain sponsorship, he loses it all. He once had football funding to fall back on. He doesn't anymore. M&Ms, Home Depot and FedEx are his lifeblood.

Without them he either coaxes another big-time company to fork over nearly $30 million, entices two or more big-time companies to offer anywhere from $10 million to $15 million apiece, or he gets 20 cents on the dollar for all those sway bars and rocker arms and wing nuts.

Same for Chip Ganassi and Richard Childress. Both men became wealthy because of race cars. Both could just as easily go broke because of them. Unlike Hendrick or Roger Penske, there are no car dealerships or trucking companies to lean on.

Childress' new business development group was able to find money for his teams, but that money was not new to the industry. CAT came from Bill Davis to sponsor Jeff Burton's No. 31. General Mills came from Petty to sponsor Clint Bowyer's No. 33.

Great for Childress. But where's that leave Davis and Petty? Do you think the Pettys didn't build from the ground up, Gip? Do you think they're sitting around waiting on sponsors to knock on the door? No.

I'll take my own advice and stop blabbering after this:

Right now, only about half the teams in the field have secured full sponsorship for 2009.

That is scary.

Marty,

I read that Goodyear will be conducting some tire tests at Daytona and Indianapolis this month using a couple of Cup teams. So I wondered, does Goodyear pick up the entire tab for something like that? Do they pay the travel, hotels and per diem of the race teams? How about the fuel for the haulers?

And are the teams able to take advantage of the track time and do any of their own testing during those sessions? Just curious, thanks.

-- Drew Hierwarter, Kingsport, Tenn.

I checked with Goodyear on this one for you, Drew, and here's what I'm told: The team pays to get its people and equipment to and from the racetrack, and Goodyear foots the bill for everything else. That, they say, includes transporting tires to the track, covering the tire distributor expenses required to attend the test to mount and balance the test tires, track rental fee, medical team and firemen, and any gasoline used during the test session.

The primary reason teams are invited to tire tests is to help Goodyear try different tire combinations and gather data. According to Goodyear, this often requires all available track time, so it is rare that one team finishes early and has time to try something on their own.

However, crew chiefs tell me once the agenda set forth by Goodyear is completed, teams are given a reasonable amount of time to test as they wish.

Marty,

Why doesn't NASCAR drag rows of chained-up tires around the track to dry it off anymore? The tracks would dry faster and rubber would be laid down on a "green" track. Maybe some fuel would be saved, too. I still feel that NASCAR doesn't do it that way due to appearance purposes. C'mon, dude … I was hoping to make The Six. Crap!

-- YAR8PACK, hometown unknown

Here's what I got for you, Cale -- NASCAR tells me the reason they no longer utilize this practice is simply because jet dryers are more effective. They tell me tires not only leave rubber on the track but debris -- i.e. steel belts, etc. -- that can cause trouble. Bottom line, they say, is jet-dryer technology is more efficient.

That's my time this week. See y'all on Talladega Boulevard.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.

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