2008 saw the passing of another star, a star that shone brightly since 1949 and one that, very likely, most people who do not follow motorsports will not know or care about. The star I refer to is Petty Enterprises. Lee Petty started the company in 1949-when is was called Lee Petty Engineering. Lee Petty went on to win three national championships. Son Richard, better known in NASCAR as the King, took over the company and went on to win a record 200 races and 7 national championships. Only one other driver has won 7 national titles: Dale Earnhardt (whose father, Ralph, drove for Petty Enterprises.)
Richard Petty ran the company for years, but did not drive for Petty Enterprises all of the time. In 1970, he drove two races-and won them both-for Don Robinson and he drove the 1984 and 85 seasons for Mike Curb. Petty won race number 200 in 1984.
Petty Enterprises won a total of 268 races in it’s 2,882 starts. It’s placed a car in the top ten about 44 percent of the time and has both an average start and finish position of 15.7. Since 1949, there has been a 43 car run every year but 1993 when Petty Enterprises fielded the number 44 for Richard’s replacement driver-Rick Wilson.
Numbers aside, just the name Petty stirs up memories, emotion and, until the last few years, it meant success. Unfortunately, time has not been kind to the organization. Petty Enterprises has had a difficult time adjusting to the new realities of modern NASCAR. It’s last win was by another great name in motorsports: an Andretti, John Andretti. Bobby Labonte, the last driver to run in a Petty Enterprises stockcar, had moments of greatness in the 43 over the last three years, but did not pull off a win. Inevitably, Labonte would suffer a mechanical failure or that monster of NASCAR: being in the wrong place at the wrong time and getting caught up in a wreck. Such was the history of Petty Enterprises since 1983, when Richard won his last race in a Petty Enterprises stockcar (his 84 win was in Mike Curb’s #43.)
Last season, General Mills announced that it was leaving the #43 for Richard Childress Racing. While Petty resigned Labonte, the team was faced with the prospect of not have sponsorship for the storied 43 car for the first time. In June, Richard sold majority interest in the company to Boston Ventures. One of the first things to happen was the announcement that Kyle Petty would have very few rides in his #45 stockcar.
Kyle drove on and off for Petty Enterprises, becoming a full time PE driver in 1997. Kyle had driven for the Wood Brothers and for Felix Sabates, where he won most of his eight wins. Kyle finished in the top 5 in points two years in a row. Sadly, that was the extent of his racing success. Oh, he had his moments afterwards, but he would not win again in NASCAR. His last win was in Dover of 1995. Kyle’s son, though, had lots of promise.
Adam Petty was a star in the making. He showed great promise and landed a nice sponsorship deal with Sprint. In 2000, Adam entered his first Cup level race. It would be his last. Tragically, Adam was killed in an accident while practicing for what was called the Busch Series in New Hampshire. Adam, who always had a smile, had visited a Paul Newman camp for ill children. He got the idea that he and his family should run a similar camp. After Adam’s death, Kyle and his wife, Patti, decided to fulfill Adam’s wish. Victory Junction Gang Camp opened in 2004. It is truly heart warming to visit the camp and see the joy on the faces of not only the campers, but the staff as well. And Richard. And Patti. And Kyle. Especially Kyle. I had the honor of talking, ever so briefly, with Kyle and, while thanking him for giving my son the opportunity to go to camp-something that, at the time, would have otherwise not happened-he stopped me mid sentence. He looked at me, with his grin, and thanked ME for letting HIM and the camp, share my child. I was blown away.
With the sale of the company in June of 2008, Petty Enterprises ceased to exist-at least the Petty Enterprises that I and every other fan knew. There was hope. This new company would bring much needed resources. Labonte had re-signed. Sponsor’s were rumored-briefly-to be a pen stroke away. Somehow, though, it all fell apart in December. Seemingly, anyway. Labonte was released. Merger rumors abound. Rumors that, on the surface, had some truth. As of this writing, the news is that PE is merging with Gillette-Evernham Racing. The merged company would be known as Richard Petty Racing, even though he will have very little to do with the new company. Reed Sorenson is supposedly the new driver of the 43.
For those of us who are long time fans of NASCAR, this is indeed a sad turn of events. A once mighty and proud organization reduced to a car number. Not even the name will live on.
I will always be a Petty fan. The Petty’s have been among the most kind and generous family in any sport, racing or otherwise. They have touched me and my family personally. I will miss their participation in my favorite sport.