Financially Secure, RPM Plans Competition Strides In 2014

Marcos Ambrose has been a part of Richard Petty Motorsports for four years and has earned two victories, both of them at Watkins Glen.

It would appear Richard Petty Motorsports has far fewer concerns now than it has in the past.

For one thing, it, apparently, does not have to worry about money. The team’s major sponsors have returned – a couple for more than one year – and there appears to be more than ample associate support.

“It really shows the direction we’re headed when we bring in partners and continue to retain the partners that we’ve had,” said Brian Moffitt, RPM’s CEO. “We’ve had some success in bringing in WinField, Twisted Tea and others – GoBowling.com – to help us improve our R&D efforts so these guys can go out and compete at the highest level.

“We’re really excited about where we’re at and where we’re headed for the future of the company.”

As Moffitt said, it would appear RPM now has the means to improve competitively, to match its rivals in technology, research and development.

“When Richard, Andy (Murstein) and Doug (Bergeron) got the business back a few years ago, they didn’t want to run at the back of the pack,” Moffitt said. “The winning tradition of the Pettys is to be up front and win races and compete for championships.

“That’s what we’re in this for.”

Aric Almirola, RPM’s other driver, admits he’s optimistic about this season with the addition of a new crew chief and other personnel.

In recent years RPM hasn’t been close to a championship. In 2013, Aric Almirola, driver of the No. 43 Ford and Marcos Ambrose, who drove the No. 9 Ford, finished 18th and 22nd in points, respectively. Collectively, they had 12 top-10 finishes.

It would appear that such results would not be acceptable in 2014.

To be fair, RPM is an organization entering its sixth full year of competition. It arose like a Phoenix from the ashes that were once the vaunted, and legendary, Petty Enterprises.

Petty Enterprises was born at the dawn of NASCAR. It evolved into one of the greatest teams in the sport’s history.

Lee Petty, founder and patriarch, won 54 races and three championships. His son Richard won 198 of 200 races with the team and claimed seven championships.

Father and son are in the NASCAR Hall of Fame as are brother Maurice, the engine builder, and cousin Dale Inman, the crew chief.

However, after Richard’s retirement in 1992 things began to unwind – if very slowly.

Its last victory came in 1998 with driver John Andretti, one of a long list of Petty competitors.

After Kyle Petty’s son, Adam, made his first NASCAR Winston Cup start in 2000, there came hope for a bright future.

But Adam died in an accident at New Hampshire less than two months after his first start.

In mid-season the team lost its long-time iconic sponsor STP. Although it did retain General Mills, it remained mediocre, competition-wise.

By 2008 rumors declared that the struggling team, which had moved from Level Cross, N.C. – its birthplace – to Mooresville, N.C., would cease operations and liquidate its assets since Boston Venture, the majority owner, could not land sponsors for its cars.

In 2009, the Petty team merged with Gillette Evernham Motorsports. That didn’t last. Disaster was averted, however, when Petty teamed with Medallion Financial and DGB Investments to form RPM’s two-car operation in 2010.

Over the years several drivers have been part of the team but it settled into an Almirola-Ambrose association by 2012.

It seems the team is more optimistic now than it has ever been.

“The commitment the sponsors have made to Richard Petty Motorsports and to me is tremendous,” Almirola said. “It’s allowed us to go out and hire more people.

“I’ve got a new crew chief this year in Trent Owens and I feel really lucky to have him because he’s gonna help us a lot.  I’m excited about this year. We’ve got more sponsors and new people with us and it’s just really good.

“We’ve got a lot of momentum on our side.”

Ambrose is the only driver who has won for RPM. He did it twice, in 2011 and 2012, both times on the road course at Watkins Glen – which surprised no one since the Australian native came to the U.S. as an accomplished road racer.

But he fell from 18th to 22nd in points in one season, which is part of the reason he feels there is work to do.

“There’s an awful lot to prove,” said Ambrose, who added that 2013 wasn’t a good effort. “There was an upward trajectory in performance until last season.”
Given the recent developments, Ambrose, like Almirola, is optimistic.

“We’ve created an R&D program,” Ambrose said. “That’s the first time that’s happened since I’ve been at RPM.  I’m excited about the potential of unlocking some more brainpower on our race program.

“We’re thrilled to not only keep what we’ve had since I joined the team, and I joined at a fairly tumultuous time.

“That was a difficult time for Richard and everybody to re-brand the company and actually re-buy the company and take it from the crumbs.

“So I’ve seen it at its darkest days and I’m really looking forward to 2014 because I think it’s the year Richard Petty Motorsports can break out and really show everybody the maturity that it has taken since I’ve been here, over four years now.”

Ambrose may one day return to Australia, but only if his NASCAR career takes a turn for the worse.

“If you make the Chase you can’t go home, can you?” Ambrose asked. “You’re one of the top 16 drivers in this format and you would be mad to give away such an opportunity.

“We’ve got a great opportunity to do just that – and that’s all I am thinking about.”

 

 

 

Aric Almirola, No. 43 On a Hot Streak Going Into Tough Ol’ Darlington

To date, Aric Almirola is having a very productive season with Richard Petty Motorsports. He goes into Darlington with four consecutive top-10 finishes, tops among all competitors.

DARLINGTON, S.C. – There was a time when a blue No. 43 car was one of the most successful, and popular, in NASCAR.

The car was perhaps the most familiar in NASCAR. From the early 1960s through 1992 – when the blue paint scheme was trimmed in red – every stock car racing fan recognized the car immediately.

And, I might add, its driver as well.

Richard Petty, a seven-time champion, has always been associated with the No. 43 – which has become symbolic of his illustrious career.

However, after Petty retired in 1992, the glory that was the No. 43 car began to fade – badly.

The venerated Petty Enterprises organization became a shell of itself. Unlike how it was during Petty’s prime, the team went season after season without a victory.

The last time it won was with John Andretti – one of an assortment of drivers employed over the years – in 1999.

Petty Enterprises ceased to exist after the 2008 season. It was 60 years old.

But Petty the man has never gone away. And today – after many financial struggles and organizational realignments – there exists Richard Petty Motorsports.

And it fields a blue No. 43 car.

Don’t look now, but it appears that No. 43 car has shown at least a flicker of what it used to be.

In 2013 the car has become more competitive than it has in years. And its driver, Aric Almirola, can claim a share of the credit.

Coming into the Southern 500 at Darlington, Almirola and the No. 43 have posted four top-10 finishes in a row.

That hasn’t happened before in the one and one-half seasons Almirola has driven for Petty – not even close.

Presently Almirola is seventh in points. He has never been higher. Fact is, his best effort was 20th in 2012.

Fans have taken notice. And for some of the veterans who cheered Petty during his prime, perhaps there are stirs of hope that, at the very least, the No. 43 will return to respectability.

Almirola said he’s not surprised over the team’s surge in performance.

Almirola, shown here with team owner Richard Petty (left) and entertainer Mario Lopez, hooked up with Petty toward the end of the 2010 season and came back full-time in 2012.

“We sure are on a roll lately,” Almirola said. “I think we are the only people that aren’t surprised we are seventh in points and have the longest current top-10 streak in the series.

“Todd (Parrott, crew chief), the guys and I are really clicking.”

Almirola, 29, has had something of a topsy-turvy NASCAR career. He broke into Sprint Cup competition in 2007 with Joe Gibbs Racing, for which he drove in six races.

In 2008, he competed in 12 races with Dale Earnhardt Inc. and the next season, he entered nine races for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.

He was still a part-timer in 2010. He split time with James Finch and Richard Petty Motorsports, which he joined late in the season.

Almirola did not compete on the Sprint Cup circuit in 2011. Instead he raced on a full Nationwide Series schedule with JR Motorsports.

During his fractured career from 2007-2010, Almirola earned just two top-10 finishes.

But in 2011, with JR Motorsports, he earned 18 top-10 finishes – seven in the top five – and finished a healthy fourth in Nationwide Series points.

That was enough for Richard Petty Motorsports to bring him back in 2012.

And it is paying off.

A year ago, Almirola, who has two victories on the Camping World Truck Series, finished among the top 10 four times and earned his first career Sprint Cup pole position at Charlotte in May.

It has gotten better.

In the 10 races to date in 2013, Almirola earned his consecutive top-10 runs at Texas (seventh), Kansas (ninth), Richmond (eighth) and Talladega (10th).

“We worked hard over the off-season to maintain our momentum that we had going in 2012 and it worked,” Almirola said. “We just need to keep it up and start moving to top-fives and hopefully a win soon.”

If Almirola and Richard Petty Motorsports stay hot past Darlington, it will be a noteworthy accomplishment.

The tough, old track has a way of dousing momentum and breaking hearts.

Almirola made his Darlington debut with the No. 43 last year. He started 13th and finished 19th. He has two Nationwide starts at the track and one in trucks.

“Last year, I felt like I learned a lot during the race and got into a good rhythm by the end,” Almirola said. “We had a decent finish for my first time out and only a few ‘Darlington stripes.’”

Almirola said he would rely on Parrott, a seasoned crew chief with a lot of Darlington experience, to help him have a competitive run.

“Darlington is a long race from daylight to night, so it’s really important to keep up with the track changes and make the right adjustments,” Parrott said. “Our team’s relationship is stronger than ever, which is important here.

“It will be key to have good communication from Aric about what the car is doing, so we can stay ahead of the track with changes.”

If Almirola earns yet another top-10 finish at Darlington, considered NASCAR’s toughest track, even more attention will befall the No. 43 team.

But Almirola is looking for even better things.

“Obviously, our goal is to get another top-10 finish, but we are really eyeing victory lane,” Almirola said. “I think if we can put ourselves in a good position during the majority of the race, we can have a good shot at getting the 43 its first win since 1999.”

 

 

 

Young ‘Phenom’ Jeff Gordon Showed His Worth Early And Often

It wasn't very long after Jeff Gordon made his debut in NASCAR Cup racing that he began to win races and earn a reputation as a young "phenom."

I was watching when a young phenom named Jeff Gordon entered the NASCAR Winston Cup scene. Young, different, polished and mustached, he was far from the good ol’ boys I was introduced to in my first years of watching Cup.

Gordon was, and looked like, a child but he knew how to wrangle a car. His debut came in 1992 in Atlanta, the very last race of the season and the final curtain call for the sport’s most visible star, Richard Petty.

For Gordon, ascension in the sport soon followed. Words like “dominant,” “unbelievable,” “talented” and “upstart” were bandied about constantly.

Gordon won races, collected championships. Then came gossip about, first, a forbidden romance, then a wedding and later a broken marriage.

When the successful duo of crew chief Ray Evernham and driver Gordon parted after three championships there was talk of the end of a short-lived but stellar era.

But Gordon won again. He won races then another championship with crew chief Robbie Loomis. Gordon now had earned four titles.

Being a Dale Earnhardt fan I never, in good conscience, called myself a Gordon fan. But, I did like him. I couldn’t help myself. Not only did the man have enormous talent and parlay that into wins and championships, he was, for what it’s worth, my peer. Gordon is only one year older.

At a time when most of the drivers had a decade or more (a lot more in some cases) on me, it was exciting to see someone with whom I could identify win on the track.

This was a time long before drivers may have started their Cup careers in their late twenties or older – like Joey Logano. This was a time when Harry Gant wowed and thrilled race fans with his can’t-lose string in his fifties, earning the name “Mr. September.” Youth was missing and certainly wasn’t dominating.

But I couldn’t help but be dazzled by Gordon. As the Crown Royal Presents The Curtiss Shaver 400 At The Brickyard 400 Powered By BigMachineRecords.com runs this weekend – hold on, I’m tired from typing all of that – my thoughts do turn to the inaugural race run at Indianapolis back in 1994.

Gordon, as you recall, won the race and solidified his place in the annals of NASCAR’s storied history – at the tender age of 23.

A few years later my father presented my husband a collectible plaque with Gordon’s picture next to a stamp of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, tying the two together. It was a gorgeous piece, but we were Earnhardt fans and found it to be a “dust collector” and sold it at a garage sale years later for a song.

Driving for team owner Rick Hendrick (left), and with Ray Evernham as his crew chief, Gordon went on to win three Sprint Cup championships.

I still kick myself about that. But hindsight is 20/20. At the time I was adamant about Earnhardt as my one and only driver. It was much later in my NASCAR fandom that I grew accepting and respectful of all the drivers in the field.

With four victories to date at Indy, Gordon still holds the record for most wins at the Brickyard 400.

Gordon is sure to be in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. His accomplishments have made me soar. In addition I’ve been pleased for him personally as I watched him fall in love, get married, and create a lovely family.

It’s been difficult to watch him struggle this season. His chances for making the Chase are shrinking. It concerns me that he may not make it or even win a race this year.

Gordon isn’t finished; at least I hope he’s not. There are legions of Gordon fans still waiting to witness the “Drive for Five” so they can celebrate a fifth championship with Gordon. I’ll cheer with all of the rest.

In the meantime, I’ll be cheering loudly for Gordon to revisit victory lane at Indy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Going Into Daytona, Happy 75th Birthday To “King” Richard Petty

Known as stock car racing's "King," Richard Petty is celebrating his 75th birthday and this weekend will be back at Daytona, his favorite track and on which he's accomplished so much.

As the NASCAR Sprint Cup teams roll into Daytona for the Coke Zero 400 on Saturday, stock car racing’s greatest star will have something very special to celebrate at his favorite track.

Richard Petty, who has long since been a Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series team owner, turned 75 years old today.

Rest assured plenty of birthday cake and Paydays (his favorite candy bar) have been consumed at his Level Cross, N.C., home.

Once he gets to Daytona we know there will be more cake and candles because of publicized celebrations.

He’ll also receive many goodwill wishes as he moves through the garage area smiling, waving to fans and signing autographs.

It’s a bit ironic that Petty’s birthday always comes around the week that NASCAR visits DIS for the second time each season. Some of his greatest successes have come on the famed 2.5-mile, high-banked speedway.

Petty raced for 32 years before he retired in November of 1992 following the race at Atlanta.

He won an incredible 200 races, which included seven Daytona 500 victories, more than any other driver in the track’s storied history.

Petty also won three 400-mile races at DIS in the July events of 1975, 1977 and 1984 – the year he won in a photo finish over Cale Yarborough to record his historic 200th victory with President Ronald Regan in attendance.

To go back 53 years, to 1959, when Petty first saw the mammoth 2.5-mile Florida speedway, it was a bit much to take in.

It was an incredible sight for a country boy who had previously raced on a variety of much smaller dirt tracks – and a few paved ones – around the country.

The biggest track raced on up to that point was the 1.3-mile Darlington Raceway. It was NASCAR’s only superspeedway for a decade, before Daytona opened for the inaugural 500 in 1959.

All of the stars of the era, such as Richard’s father Lee, Curtis Turner, Joe Weatherly and Fireball Roberts – to name a few – simply shook their heads at the sight of such a mammoth speedway.

That they had to race their Plymouths, Buicks and Thunderbirds around such an incredible track caused more than one driver to question how they could complete a full 500 miles.

Petty’s first outing was less than remarkable. In the inaugural race he finished 57th in the 59-car field and collected mere $100.

Father Lee was, finally, named the race winner three days later after a controversial photo finish over Johnny Beauchamp. Lee received the winner’s check and trophy in the living room of the small frame house where he and wife Elizabeth raised their sons Richard and Maurice.

Petty ran in the first Daytona 500 in 1959 and has won there several times since, which includes a handful of victories in the July race, upcoming this weekend and known as the Coke Zero 400.

It took five years for Richard to win his first Daytona 500, in 1964. He also won his first of seven career championships that year.

He was to win six more titles, in 1967, ‘71, ‘72, ‘74, ‘75 and ‘79. The only other driver to win seven championships in a career was the late Dale Earnhardt.

In 1966, Petty became the first driver to win the 500 twice. He won his third in 1971 when he beat teammate Buddy Baker.

In 1973 Petty muscled by Baker again to win his fourth 500. A year later, Petty won the race again en route to his fifth championship. It was probably the strongest Daytona outing of his career.

Petty came off major stomach surgery to win his sixth 500 in 1979. He did so only after Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashed on the backstretch on the final lap.

Emotions and angry words into a fistfight among Yarborough, Allison and his brother Bobby – still talked about today.

The unexpected brawl, which was captured on TV, helped NASCAR to become a nationally recognized sport.

In 1981, Petty won because of pit strategy. Crew chief Dale Inman called for fuel only on a late stop. It got Petty off pit road ahead of his closest competition and on to victory lane.

After his retirement 20 years ago, Petty could have elected to wave to the crowd and, many think, disappear.

But NASCAR has been a part of Petty’s life longer than he can remember.

“Racing is all I’ve ever known, you know what I mean?” Petty once said with a broad smile. “OK, the thing is, I really don’t know much about anything else. Racing is all I’ve ever done.

“So when I quit driving I decided to stick around and try to contribute wherever I could. I’ve always enjoyed my friends in the garage area and all the fans I visit with every week.

“Being in the garage area and being at the track is just part of the deal. Racing is something I really enjoy.”

Adds Inman, Petty’s cousin, “Richard has tried to stay home at times but he just doesn’t feel right unless he’s at the race track.

“His entire life has been about NASCAR from the time we were kids racing bicycles, playing football together and turning wrenches on Lee’s race cars. He’s still involved with Richard Petty Motorsports. We did so much together over 60 years of racing.”

Petty has been one of NASCAR’s greatest ambassadors, always touting the sport.

He, along with numerous stars of eras gone by, has worked hard to build interest in the sport, and more.

In recognition of that, we at MotorsportsUnplugged wish a very special 75th Happy Birthday to you, Richard.

You have been, and always will be, NASCAR’s greatest treasure in the hearts and minds of so many.

 

NASCAR Was Indeed Great In The Past And, Yes, It Is Today

In years past, NASCAR racing was good, but over the course of many years there were only a few drivers who won consistently. One of them was, obviously, Richard Petty.

I always find it so interesting when I hear people reminisce about NASCAR’s past. They seem to wear an especially strong style of rose-colored glasses as they romanticize about the time gone by.

I am guilty of the same when I recall favorite races with Dale Earnhardt, but for others, it colors so much of their memories that nothing NASCAR produces is “acceptable” in its current form.

I heartily disagree. The entertainment I get from watching the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season is incomparable.

Certainly I admit that some races of old were extraordinary and some drivers mythological in their skill and prowess. The past holds gems throughout its rich history.

Recently I have been reading my colleagues’, Tom Higgins and Steve Waid, book “Junior Johnson: Brave in Life”. The book is a fascinating account of Robert Glenn Johnson, Jr. – or Junior as he is widely known.

In the myriad stories told, Junior tells of seasons in the early 1980s when Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison swapped wins for seven or more races. For fans of those drivers that was amazing and assuredly fun to watch, but if your driver was not one of the two winning, it must have been a bit dismal.

Looking even further back, when Richard Petty was dicing it up with the likes of David Pearson and others, yet continued to dominate with many wins per season, it must have been a bore to some.

Jimmie Johnson is the most recent dominant star I have experienced in today’s NASCAR. I found it tedious to watch him win so many times during his five championship seasons.

But, now that we’ve had a reprieve, I’m anxious to see how far Johnson can go in his career. I have come full circle and find myself thrilled by the prospect of Johnson winning and possibly setting more records.

In addition, current racing has a depth of competition that is unparalleled in NASCAR. In any given week far more than half the field can win.

For example, in 2011, there were 18 different winners.

In the current season there have already been 10 different winners in 14 races.

Gone are the days when Ned Jarrett won the Southern 500 by 14 laps. Or that Earnhardt won the championship in 1987 by 489 points.

Now we have seasons like 2001 where the championship was determined on the very last lap of the final race of the season.

My point is not to malign, discredit, or undervalue the stars of the past, but to point out that what is perceived by some is more an emotional attachment to the time period than an actual realistic look at the week in and week out racing that was going on.

Another driver who seemed to dominate the competition was the late Dale Earnhardt (left). Today, however, it would appear competition has equalized. It's a given that, more than ever before, more drivers can win races.

Furthermore, I can completely identify with the folks who look to the past and remember it fondly, and hold it as the bar with which to compare all other eras of NASCAR. As I have stated often, I am an Earnhardt fan and recall the years I watched him race as “the best ever.”

Every book I read, however, relates that situations NASCAR is experiencing in 2012 it also did the same in each part of its past.

Accusations of cheating by competitors, criticism of NASCAR’s iron fist and grumblings of its lack of consistency circulated since year one.

Domination of one team stinking up the field of competition until the rest finally caught up with, and eventually surpassed, the so-called “king of the heap du jour”.

Now there is a pervasive feeling that NASCAR is nothing but “corporate image guys” on the track. Names like Jeff Gordon and Johnson are offered up as examples of polished spokesmen who have no relation to racers of old; they lack greasy fingernails and an intimate relationship with every part on the car.

That may be true. But that is the evolution of the sport. Larger purses were always sought to infuse more talent in NASCAR. As the economy waxes and wanes sponsorship money is more difficult to come by – so having a driver who looks good and understands how to hawk for companies is a highly sought after commodity.

Safety concerns have led to a far more technological set up of the car, which in turn has led to college-educated engineers, diagnostic interpreters and other specialized team members to become integral to the race team.

No longer can a driver with a car, a few hardscrabble guys and sponsorship from a couple of Mom and Pop stores make the race on Sunday. It’s sad, yes, but the nature of change.

The bottom line is racing was spectacular in every year of NASCAR in which you were a fan. Each “era” carries great times for the person who remembers them. As history shows, however, the same arguments, conditions and squabbling existed “then” as it does “now”.

Jeff Burton was speaking to the NASCAR media at his test session at the newly reconfigured Bristol track this week. He voiced what has been on my mind for years. Burton said that NASCAR is the only sport that is scrutinized so heavily. He mentions that in the NFL, people may be upset with a referee’s call, but the NFL itself is not slammed.

Burton went on to say that not every race is going to be spectacular. Some will be fantastic while others may be “sleepers.” He continued by saying that not every NBA game is great either. “Some suck,” he said succinctly.

Racing at the Sprint Cup level is inherently flawed yet still vastly entertaining.  Talent runs amok, personalities bubble over (the Busch brothers, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards, among others), and the racing is still drawing crowds.

My feelings are, Sprint Cup racing is still the sport to which I gravitate every weekend for 10 months of every year. I root for different drivers, am awed by talent, captivated by teamwork, and infected by brash behavior. I get my investment back tenfold when I put the time in to watch NASCAR – still.

Of course, I will always miss the best who ever was… Dale Earnhardt.

Excuse me while I take off my rose-colored glasses to wipe away a few tears.

On Easter In 1989, Richard Petty Made Yet Another Impact

In 1971, Richard Petty drove this Plymouth to 21 victories in 46 races and won the first-ever Winston Cup championship.

In a very informative article, NASCAR.com’s Mark Aumann pointed out that since NASCAR’s “modern era” began with the 1972 season, only two Sprint Cup races were held on an Easter weekend.

Both were pushed to the holiday by weather. In 1985 rain forced what was then known as Bristol International Raceway to reschedule its Valleydale 500 to the Saturday before Easter.

In 1989 snow forced Richmond International Raceway to reset its Pontiac Excitement 400, originally scheduled for February, to March 26 – Easter Sunday.

I was at both of them and I can tell you that the 1989 race at Richmond has taken its place in NASCAR lore.

NASCAR legend Richard Petty failed to qualify for the race. It was the first time in 18 years, or 513 races, that the seven-time champion was not part of a starting grid.

Understand the impact of this. The most popular driver in NASCAR, one whose achievements and personality helped power the sport into national attention and who was always a prominent figure at any speedway, was not going to race.

And, even more stunning, the man known as “The King” wasn’t going to be absent because of injury, illness or personal matters. He wasn’t going to race because of his unfathomable failure.

This was hardly the Petty everyone knew. It was so surprising that many fans and media members felt certain NASCAR must have made some kind of timing mistake.

A group of writers went to the NASCAR hauler and essentially asked officials what mistake they had made. Apparently it didn’t occur to them to ask Petty himself what problem had arisen – if any.

They did go to Petty with their tails between their legs after NASCAR unquestionably proved it had not erred.

With which Petty agreed. NASCAR wasn’t involved at all, he said. He just didn’t go fast enough. It was as simple as that.

At the time NASCAR records were not as accurate or easy to obtain as they are now in this era of cyberspace.

So it took a bit of time and research to find out the last time Petty missed a race.

At first some thought it might have been as early as the 1987 season. Petty did not compete in races in Dover and Pocono because he was recuperating from an injury.

Joe Ruttman qualified and drove Petty’s Pontiac in both events. However, Petty was listed as the driver of record because, in each race, he had driven a pace lap before turning his car over to Ruttman.

Finally, after added research, it was determined that the last race in which Petty did not compete was the Georgia 300 at the half-mile Middle Georgia Raceway in Macon, Ga., on Nov. 7, 1971.

Interestingly, Petty did not race because he failed to qualify. He chose not to race. He didn’t even show up at the track.

Along with five other top contenders, Petty elected to ignore the Georgia event because promoter Ralph Brawner refused to pay any appearance money.

That certainly depleted the quality of the competition and it showed as Bobby Allison, driving a Holman-Moody Ford, lapped the field en route to an easy victory.

Brawner said he was very pleased that 7,500 people attended the race. He didn’t know it at the time, but it would be the final NASCAR event held at his track.

Petty could certainly afford to skip a race. His 1971 season remains one of the most remarkable in NASCAR’s history.

The second-generation Petty Enterprises driver won 21 races in 46 starts.

Petty won the 200th, and last, race of his career in Daytona in July of 1984. Afterward he and all the other competitors were joined at lunch by President Ronald Reagan, who attended the race.

He easily won the first Winston Cup championship by nearly 400 points over James Hylton.

Incidentally, as said, the 1972 Winston Cup season marked the beginning of NASCAR’s “modern era.”

It’s called that because it was in ’72 that NASCAR slashed its elite series schedule from as many as 52 races per season to a more workable 31. All the dirt tricks and a vast majority of the half-milers in small markets – including Middle Georgia Raceway – were discarded.

Because Petty chose not to compete in Georgia in ’71 it meant that, as far as anyone could determine, the Richmond race in March of 1989 was the first for which Petty failed to qualify.

Petty could have raced. Rodney Combs and Jim Sauter both offered him their cars to drive in the 300-miler.

Petty refused.

As a reporter, I got lucky. I managed to catch Petty just as he was leaving the track.

I asked him why he didn’t take either offer that would have allowed him to race.

He told me that he didn’t want what he thought to be charity. He didn’t want a handout. If he didn’t earn something he would rather not have it.

He went home, pride intact.

Without Petty in the race it was only natural to speculate how it would affect attendance. It appeared that, without stock car racing’s most recognizable figure in the field, the numbers would drop.

Not so. That Easter Sunday was sunny and warm, with temperatures in the ‘70s. It was estimated that 50,000-60,000 fans turned out for the race, which, for Richmond at that time, was excellent – and profitable.

For some the conclusion was reached that perhaps Petty was no longer the draw he had been. And, in many ways, that was true.

The 1989 season was the first after a massive changing of the guard; a time when so many of the top stars in NASCAR retired and gave way to a newer generation.

At the conclusion of the 1988 season many of the drivers who had dominated NASCAR competition, and headlines, for so many years moved on.

Benny Parsons and Cale Yarborough retired. Buddy Baker had to step aside because of an injury sustained at Charlotte that year. Bobby Allison was forced out of racing following a savage crash at Pocono that nearly took his life.

David Pearson hadn’t driven in a Winston Cup race since 1985. He was offered a return to his seat with the Wood Brothers as a replacement for their injured driver, Neil Bonnett, in the October event at Charlotte.

Pearson practiced in the car but quickly determined he would not be able to complete the full distance. He officially announced his retirement.

This stellar group of drivers compiled more than 134 years of experience. Together they had won 313 Winston Cup races and eight championships.

They were replaced by a surge of newcomers – along with a few established stars like Dale Earnhardt, Bill Elliott and Terry Labonte.

Drivers such as Rusty Wallace, Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, Sterling Marlin, Mark Martin and Dale Jarrett, among others, moved to the forefront.

Of the “old guard,” only Petty remained – perhaps for too long.

Petty had not won a race since 1984, when he captured his historic 200th career victory that July in Daytona.

As revered as he was by 1989 Petty was seldom, if ever, listed as a pre-race favorite.

He stayed active until the end of the 1992 season.

But it was at Richmond in 1989 that, perhaps, he made his final impact on stock car racing.

Because he failed to qualify for that race NASCAR determined that it would only be fitting to make a rule adjustment; one that would recognize and reward significant achievement.

It ruled that any past NASCAR champion would receive a provisional starting position for every race.

It became known as the “Petty Rule.”

Over the years there have been more than a few drivers, and fans, who are thankful it exists to this day.

 

Today’s NASCAR Drivers Not The ‘Real Men’ Of Old

Harry Gant

Harry Gant

What I miss most when I watch driver interviews are real men. When I began watching NASCAR in 1990 the field was still chock full of characters that could only be referred to as “real men.”

The times have changed.

I’m not trying to malign the drivers of today; they are, as the twenty-first century defines, real men, but not in the way the drivers of yesteryear were.

My driver was Dale Earnhardt. No matter what you thought of him then or what you think now, he was indisputably a man. As comfortable with a gun hunting as he was strapped into his race car, Earnhardt could win a 500-mile race on Sunday and work on his farm on Monday.

Strong, imposing and capable, Earnhardt was a man – plain and simple.

Another driver who sticks out as a real man is Harry Gant. I recall watching him race in the early

Terry Labonte

Terry Labonte

1990s and being so impressed with his performance. When he dominated in early fall 1991, earning the nickname “Mr. September” after he won four Cup and two Busch Series races in that month, I was stricken with his matinee idol good looks, his humbleness, and his passion for carpentry.

He was 51, an older racer on the circuit, but was every bit as virile and competitive as his much younger field. Even his sponsor, Skoal, was a man’s product.

“Texas” Terry Labonte was another real man. Steely-eyed, aloof, focused, and taciturn, he was a force with which to be reckoned.

I recall a sense of excitement and pride when Labonte cinched his second championship in 1996, twelve years after his first. It was a wonderful feat that proved the Texan was not just a one-off. Also nicknamed “Ironman,” an incredibly cool moniker, for his “cool” demeanor and his string of 655 consecutive starts

Richard Petty

Richard Petty

that didn’t end until August 2000, Labonte, who still looks amazing, will always rank as a real man to me.

Richard Petty, with his signature festooned cowboy hat and megawatt smile, may have been long and lithe – but he is also a real man.

His career speaks volumes and is unquestionably the reason he is called “King,” but I also admire him for his values, the longevity of his marriage, and his consistency in character.

Our own Junior Johnson may be the pinnacle of real manhood. “The Last American Hero” is a cross

between anti-hero and superhero.

From running moonshine to winning races on the NASCAR circuit as a driver and then as a car owner, and now as an entrepreneur with a willingness to re-enter NASCAR for his son, Johnson is the personification of a real man.

So when I see the likes of pretty boys like Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon I find it difficult to see them

Junior Johnson

in the same light as real men of old.

When Jimmie Johnson wields tools on his Lowe’s Kobalt Tools commercials, I’m apt to think it’s the first time he’s done so. Carl Edwards spends so much time in the gym and at the track I can’t believe he has time to pursue manly obsessions.

Today’s drivers are undoubtedly talented behind the wheel, dedicated to proper nutrition and conditioning, and are polished and savvy about media. But they fall far short in the “real men” category as I personally define it.

It’s not their fault, they can’t help it. The twenty-first century has changed the definition of “real men.”

I accept that. But I’ll stick with the real men of NASCAR as I recall them in their glorious splendor.

NMPA’s Heyday May Have Passed, But Its Importance And Influence Remain

Tony Stewart, the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, was awarded the Richard Petty Driver of the Year award by the National Motorsports Press Association. The NMPA has been around for decades and while not a big as it once was, it is still very relevant to motorsports journalism.

On Jan. 22 at the National Motorsports Press Association’s convention in Concord, N.C., Tony Stewart was named the winner of the NMPA’s Richard Petty Driver of the Year Award.

It came as no surprise, really. Stewart is the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion who earned a series-leading five victories, all during the Chase, and had a season record that included 19 top-10 finishes, nine of them among the top five.

It was the third time the NMPA had named Stewart as the driver of the year, an honor it has bestowed since 1969. He also received the award in 2002 and 2005, which were also championship seasons.

“It’s an honor to have earned the 2011 NMPA Richard Petty Driver of the Year award,” Stewart said in a statement. “Everyone at Stewart-Haas Racing took the opportunity we had of being in the Chase and made the most of it.

“We took each race one at a time and never quit. It made all the difference. The award is theirs as much as mine.”

Those are appropriate sentiments, through which Stewart indicated that a driver wins nothing on his own and that those who help him should be acknowledged.

It would have been very nice if Stewart had been at the convention to deliver them personally. He wasn’t.

He couldn’t make it because of a scheduling conflict.

Now, lest anyone think I am about to chastise Stewart for not spending a little over an hour at the NMPA convention, I most certainly am not.

I have no doubt he had a scheduling conflict. He’s not the first NMPA Driver of the Year to be prevented from receiving his award in person and he certainly won’t be the last.

The NASCAR of today makes more demands on a driver’s time, I think, than ever.

The burgeoning growth of the sport in recent years has brought with it more national attention – media, corporate and otherwise – that the once relatively “free” time competitors had during any offseason was plentiful.

No longer. Drivers have to do everything from shoot television commercials to honor personal appearance commitments – which sometimes means to compete in races of all types – and satisfy the sanctioning body’s promotional requirements.

The NASCAR Preview, held a day before the NMPA convention, which offered thousands of fans to get driver autographs, is a good example of the latter. At least fifty drivers were in attendance.

This is beneficial for the sport, and, yes, the drivers and more importantly, the fans.

So if the man named the NMPA’s Richard Petty Driver of the Year can’t accept the award in person, well, that’s understandable.

However, there was a time when any driver so honored wouldn’t think of not being in attendance, no matter the location of the NMPA’s convention.

I think there are two primary reasons for this.

First, it was a much simpler era. Driver presence wasn’t nearly as highly demanded, so they weren’t pulled in all directions.

Second, the number of honors a driver could receive weren’t as numerous they are today – there is more than one driver of the year award, for example.

The NMPA, which began humbly as the Southern Motorsports Press Association in the 1960’s, was the only organization that selected the top NASCAR driver of the season. And while the award is certainly prestigious today it was more so yesterday, when it stood alone.

It must be said that the NMPA was different, also. In the stock car racing world its influence was greater because it attracted virtually all of the top motorsports journalists, even several well beyond the Mason-Dixon Line, in a smaller NASCAR environment.

An example of this is the convention itself. There was a time when it lasted three days and attendance was huge. It received vast support from companies financially involved in racing. Sponsorships for its functions weren’t difficult to attain.

It was staged in far-flung locales – among them vacation destinations like Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Companies set up vendor booths with, among other things, products that catered to the media.

Those same companies provided the meals and, at times, entertainment. And, if you can believe this, some NASCAR team owners even chipped in.

Here’s a good example of what I’m talking about: In the late 1970’s, the NMPA’s three-day session was held in Myrtle Beach.

A couple of the hotel’s meeting halls were filled with vendors of all sorts. Busch Beer flew Hoyt Axton and his band in from Las Vegas to provide a night’s rowdy entertainment.

Cale Yarborough, named the driver of the year, came to the convention one day before – yes, before – he was to receive the honor and spent time mingling, chatting and laughing with members.

Winston brought drag racing great Kenny Bernstein to the convention, not only to promote its participation in the sport, but also to give Bernstein an idea of what NASCAR was all about.

To this day the now retired Bernstein talks about that visit.

None of this has been part of the NMPA for years. As said, times, and the NASCAR environment, have changed.

Things today may be on a much smaller scale for the NMPA but its importance hasn’t dwindled a bit.

It continues to strive to support NASCAR, its competitors and fans and, most important, to maintain journalistic professionalism.

I think fans should know that.

The NMPA must be doing something right. After all these years, among its members are many, many of the best in the business.

I have no doubt that, although you might not have realized it, over time you have read, heard and seen all of them.

Still More Reflections On Newest HOF Members

Glen Wood (left) the patriarch of Wood Brothers Racing and Dale Inman, Richard Petty's long-time crew chief, were both quiet individuals who did not seek attention. They preferred to do their jobs without notice and produce the best results possible - which they did.

Again, if you will allow me to offer some personal observations and reflections:

At one time during my career as a motorsports journalist, I knew three of the five latest inductees into the NASCAR Hall of Fame more by their professional reputations rather than personally.

Over the years, however, one of those three became a familiar, friendly acquaintance and another a friend.

I was very aware of Richie Evans, the Modified driver. I watched him race, and win, at Martinsville Speedway.

Martinsville routinely had fields composed of the top Modified drivers of the day. Evans was considered the best of them.

Seems he won everywhere and everything. He was used to the media and accommodated them. But since I saw him rarely – the vast majority of Modified races were conducted in the Northeast – we never interacted.

Wish we had. I was always told he was one helluva character. With his longish hair, snarl of a smile and overall rouge-like appearance, he sure looked like one.

Oh, I bet he could tell some tales.

During the first several years I knew him – or better yet, was aware of him – I always suspected Glen Wood could also tell some tales.

But he wasn’t talking.

By the time my career began Wood was already recognized as one of the best team owners in NASCAR; the patriarch of a family organization that was, year after year, one of the most successful.

It was so successful – for example, it won 11 of 18 races in 1973 with driver David Pearson – that many believed Glen & Co. had conjured up technological advantages that made them practically unbeatable.

One thing was obvious: The Wood Brothers had, without a doubt, the fastest pit crew in NASCAR.

To me, the lanky Glen, whose hair turned from dark to rich silver, was almost regal. There were times when I decided that if I was going to approach him I would have to say, “Excuse me, Your Honor….”

He looked like a man with secrets. He walked around with a small, wry smile that led you to believe he knew something you didn’t.

In time he got to know me by sight, if nothing else. I’d smile and nod, and he would return the gestures. Eventually I got brave enough to ask him questions.

Most of them were general. I got polite, but short, answers. And I was never foolish enough to ask why folks thought his team had an advantage.

I can guarantee you no one else asked him that question.

But one day, quite unexpectedly, I got an answer.

I was asked to do a race program piece by Martinsville’s PR Director, the late Dick Thompson. He wanted me to go to the Woods shops in Stuart, Va.

I balked.

“Dick, I’m not too familiar with the Woods,” I said. “This could be a bit difficult.”

Thompson, one of the best in his field, would have none of it. He picked up the phone and called the Woods.

He spoke a while and hung up.

“What did they say?” I asked.

“Well, Glen wanted to know how long it was going to take,” Thompson said. “But you’re in. Be quick.”

This Wood Brothers Mercury Cyclone, driven by David Pearson, was vastly successful as it earned multiple victories. It was so dominant rivals often wondered what mysterious Glen Wood had up his sleeve.

When I arrived at their shop, the Woods were cordial and friendly. We pretty much did the entire interview in one room – reckon they didn’t want me to see too much.

But then something startling happened. We were discussing the rules of the time, part of which required carburetor plates of various sizes decreed by NASCAR.

Leonard Wood, Glen’s younger brother, team crew chief and engine builder (and considered by many the real source of the team’s strength), said to me:

“Let me tell you how crazy this plate stuff is.”

He then picked up a cardboard box and threw the contents on the floor.

There were plates of all sizes. Seems there were hundreds of them.

“This is what we have to do to keep up with everything,” Leonard said. “We make these things, try to make them fit and then see which can give us the most horsepower.

“But, hey, don’t take a picture of this, all right?”

Glen, with his arms crossed, simply smiled and looked at me with the satisfaction of a man who had willingly given up a secret.

I realized then the Woods had no real “secret.” They simply applied their natural talent and mechanical skills to the tasks at hand.

They were not afraid to experiment or take chances. They didn’t back off from applying new ideas. They felt completely free to take what NASCAR gave them and embellish it – to push the envelope.

It was Glen, with Leonard’s help, who fortified this attitude, and directed it, with work, into success.

Glen was never haughty, aloof or cold. Fact is, he had a great sense of humor. He was a team leader who spoke only when he thought it was necessary – and, at the same time, played his cards close to the vest.

In time it got to the point where Glen and I could engage in conversation. He’d even tell me his opinions of the issues of the day. There were always smiles, waves and handshakes.

It was more so with Leonard, by far the more outgoing. But, he, too, only revealed so much.

Oddly, as a good an acquaintance as he became, to this day I can’t help but consider Glen Wood as regal.

Of course, I don’t have to say, “Excuse me, Your Honor….”

I never said that to Dale Inman. But I actually kneeled to him. It sure as hell wasn’t by choice.

When it evolved that he was familiar with me and counted me as a reliable friend, Inman bestowed upon me his most honorable greeting of friendship.

I would reach out to shake his hand. He would grab it, pull me forward and then apply some godawful, Kung-Fu-like pressure on an arm nerve with his finger. It was instant agony.

Dale Inman is Richard Petty's cousin and was quite willing to see Petty get most of the limelight during their long and successful union. Petty was always very quick to credit Inman for much of his success.

“You afraid of me?” he would ask with an evil grin.

“No!” I would answer. The pressure would increase.

“You afraid of me?” he’d ask again.

“Yes!” I would reply – this time on my knees.

Such torture was his way to tell me I was welcome.

For a long time, no one seemed welcome in Inman’s life, especially a member of the media.

He was Richard Petty’s cousin and crew chief, on board from the time Petty made his first NASCAR start.

Petty’s success was almost instantaneous and, as has been well-chronicled, he quickly ascended the throne as NASCAR’s biggest winner and most popular superstar.

Petty said repeatedly he never accomplished anything on his own. He received tremendous assistance from his team, brother Maurice and cousin Inman.

Inman brought no notice to himself. He shunned attention and just did his job – and did it very, very well. Tactics and strategies applied by crew chiefs of today have been traced to Inman’s innovations.

When approached by the media most often Inman would refer them to Petty.

Many years ago, my good buddy Tom Higgins, former motorsports writer for the Charlotte Observer, and I determined that we were going to get an Inman exclusive.

At Martinsville, we implored H. Clay Earles, the late track president, to help us. We knew Earles had his hands on the purse strings.

Earles took us to Inman.

“Now listen,” he said, pointing at Inman, “these two boys aren’t out to hurt anyone. Trust me when I tell you that means you too. So I want you to talk to them.”

Inman did. He told us about his background, how he functioned within the team and how he worked with his cousin.

We didn’t dare ask him to comment on NASCAR or the issues of the day.

Even so, when the innocuous interview was done, Inman said to us: “Now don’t get me in trouble.”

We didn’t and I think Inman knew it, because with each passing week it became easier and easier to speak with him.

It wasn’t very long before Inman and I were having simple conversations – about his beloved Washington Redskins, for example.

In time, it evolved that Inman not only offered his opinions of the issues of the day, he also sought me out to deliver them.

Often his opening line was, “Again, NASCAR’s trying to shovel 10 pounds of manure into a five-pound bag.”

And the conversation would end thusly: “Now don’t get me into trouble.”

I guess I never did, because Inman remained open, friendly and always ready for conversation.

The first time he gave me that death grip with a wide smile, well, I knew I had become accepted.

Again, these personal reflections are just some of the several I’ve made about the five newest members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, intended only to reveal them as the individuals I knew.

I thank you for your indulgence.

Busch’s Talent Should Land Him A Ride, But Will It Be Enough?

Busch

Kurt Busch has had a successful NASCAR career but it has also been highlighted by ill behavior and displays of anger. His tenure with Penske Racing has come to an end and the question now is, will his talent be enough to land him a competitive ride, or will his reputation harm his future?

Much has been said and written about Kurt Busch’s future, which, competitively, has been rumored to be with Richard Petty Motorsports or perhaps elsewhere.

It appears this is a pivotal career point for Busch. He has clearly displayed his talent, but, at the same time, he has shown a penchant for anger and boorish behavior.

So it appears the question is, will his talent override his flaws and gain him yet another opportunity with a quality team, or will his somewhat unsavory reputation as an individual toss him to a lower level?

Right now, your guess is as good as mine.

But I offer some background and thoughts:

When it comes to skill behind the wheel, Busch is a terrific stock car driver.

I don’t see how that can be argued. He started racing when he was 14 years old and he’s been winning ever since.

His list of accomplishments as a youngster is impressive, to say the least. To name a few, he won the Nevada State Dwarf Car championship in 1995, the Hobby Stock Car title at Las Vegas Speedway Park in 1996, and, after earning seven wins in two years on the circuit, he became the youngest driver to win NASCAR Southwest Series championship. He was just 21 years old.

He was the runnerup for the 2000 NASCAR Camping World Truck championship, in which he won four races and was named the rookie of the year.

It was also in 2000 that Busch got his break in Sprint Cup competition, entering seven races for team owner Jack Roush, a man known for his ability to cultivate young talent.

It didn’t take long for Busch to blossom. In 2002, his third season with Roush, the Las Vegas native won four races. He would win 10 more with Roush over the next four seasons.

His crowning achievement came in 2004 – only his fourth full season at NASCAR’s highest level – when he won the Sprint Cup championship.

By this time we had all seen the dark side of Busch’s personality, revealed by multiple physical and verbal confrontations with other drivers, the media and others – and, at times, a very condescending attitude toward those around him.

I think most of us felt that along with his abundance of talent Busch also had a short fuse.

So what? Many of the greatest drivers in NASCAR’s history have been men who have been known to respond harshly to perceived injustice or imperfection.

However it was almost constant with Busch, at least it seemed that way to some, and it came to a head just one year after his championship.

In a well-chronicled incident in Phoenix, Busch, stopped by deputies in Maricopa County near the track for traffic violations, engaged in a pugilistic exchange of words and some antagonistic name-calling

All of which was duly and widely reported and proved to be the last straw for the Roush organization.

Busch was not entered in the final two races of the season. Essentially, he was dismissed.

“We are tired of being Kurt Busch’s apologists,” said Roush President Geoff Smith.

It didn’t take long for Busch to hook up with another high-level team as he joined Penske Racing in 2006.

The six years he has spent with Penske have not been as productive as those with Roush. Still, Busch has won in each season.

This year, even though he won twice, it appeared Busch was simply unsatisfied with the team’s performance.

If we consider his repeated and widely-reported tirades over the radio, some laced with profanity and others harshly critical of team members, that would certainly seem to be the case.

Often Busch expressed his dissatisfaction in the harshest, even crudest, means possible.

It all came to a head with his profane tirade toward television pit reporter Dr. Jerry Punch not long after Busch had fallen out of the Homestead race early.

It was captured on YouTube, which is all it took for the word to see everything.

Penske and Busch thus parted by “mutual agreement.”

Busch turned to the media to make his case. He admitted he had done things wrong, as far as his conduct, and was receiving professional help.

He also said he still had a lot to offer any team.

He’s right.

But will it be enough?

The Petty team’s interest in him as a replacement for A.J. Allmendinger (who had his best season in 2011) is evident.

It wants to keep its sponsor, Best Buy, which it landed just before the 2011 campaign began. Makes sense, given that in these difficult economic times financial backing is difficult to find.

RPM no doubt thinks that it can increase its chances to keep its supporter by offering up a winning, championship driver who is assured a start in every Sprint Cup race in 2012.

That may well be true.

But then, how does the team – and the sponsor – judge Busch the man and his past?

I know full well that RPM is not the family-run operation out of Level Cross, N.C., it once was. It is now a much different corporate entity that does not necessarily reflect the values of what was once Petty Enterprises.

There was a time when the name Petty, so very conscious of the its image and that of its long-standing, legendary driver, did all it could not be associated with anything negative – including a controversial personality, professional confrontations or even a beer sponsorship.

I seriously doubt Busch would ever be considered for employment.

But that was then. This is now.

And, curiously, wonder what the Roush organization, which works in tandem with RPM in technology, would think of Busch in the mix?

In the end the matter is simple, really.

Busch’s talent and record are going to land him a ride – be it with RPM or elsewhere. I really don’t think there is much doubt about that.

But the question is this: Will he become a changed man? Will he be the cooperative, open and even charming man he can be and whom we’ve seen often in the past?

If he does, his future would seem assured.

If not, what happens next, whatever it might be, could be his very last chance.

 

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