Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Controversy, A Shutdown, and Rebirth—Petty Enterprises in the mid-1980’s (PART 3)


Imagine a team winning ten championships, then sliding a bit down the Nascar totem pole but still winning races.  Imagine this team making driver and manufacturer changes, then shutting down due to a lack of sponsorship.  Then imagine this team simply starting up again a year later.
Well, that was Petty Enterprises in the mid-1980’s, as Nascar’s most-fabled team dealt with change, controversy, and closing down, only to restart again a year later.



The King's homecoming car

1986—HOMECOMING
Unsurprisingly, Richard Petty was looking to leave the unreliable Curb team, feeling he still had good years left in him.  Surprisingly, he would wind up where it all started—back at Petty Enterprises.  Richard himself would help lead a revival of his family-founded team, bringing back his famed #43 and, more-importantly, lucrative sponsorship from STP.  Furthermore, Petty Enterprises would return to fielding Pontiacs, ending their brief, unsuccessful flirtation with the Ford Thunderbird.  But that’s not all.
Dale Inman had won a record-settling eighth championship as a crew chief for Terry Labonte in 1984, but couldn’t resist a chance to, like his cousin Richard, come back to where it all started.  So in 1986 Inman returned to the pit box at Petty Enterprises, also taking on an increased leadership role with the team.  With Maurice and Lee taking reduced roles with the team, Richard Petty and Dale Inman were now in control at Petty Enterprises.
Funnily enough, Richard would finish the same spot in drivers’ points that he did the year before with Curb—14th.

1987-1992—A SLOW SLIDE
Richard Petty's final car
The reformed Petty Enterprises had one last hurrah in 1987, posting nine top-five race finishes, good enough for an 8th-place finish in the final season points standings.  However, issues with Pontiac’s ever-changing body types, Richard’s advancing age, and (ironically) the encroaching preponderance of multi-car “mega-teams” would see Petty Enterprises fade into mediocrity.  1988 would see Richard post his last top-five race finish of his career, while 1989 would see him fail to qualify for four races, leading to Nascar implementing the “Past Champion’s Provisional”.  By The King’s final season as a driver in 1992, it appeared that Richard had held onto the steering wheel for too long.

1993-2008—CHANGE, TRAGEDY, AND THE END (FOR NOW)
Once Richard Petty stepped out of the driver’s seat, there was some hope that new blood could return Petty Enterprises to its former glory.  However, while drivers like Bobby Hamilton and John Andretti would return the 43 to victory lane, the team was a shadow of its former self.
Meanwhile, new hope sprang up with two more family-developments in the late-1990’s.  Kyle Petty merged his Petty-allied team fully into Petty Enterprises, taking on a bigger leadership role with years of seasoning under his belt.  Furthermore, Kyle’s son (and Richard’s grandson) Adam Petty was developing into a promising future star, using his on-track talent, family name, and sponsorship appeal to bring much-needed money and exposure to the team.  With a manufacturer change to a returning Dodge on the horizon, the future, for the first time in decades, looked bright.
One of Kyle Petty--and Petty Enterprises'
--final cars
However, 2000 would see tragedy strike the team.  Lee, the team’s founder, passed away from natural causes.  Then, shortly after making his Cup debut in anticipation of a full-time run in 2001, Adam was killed in a practice crash at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.  The death of such a young, promising racer shook the team to its very core.  Kyle’s plans to ease into driving retirement were put on hold, and the team’s switch to Dodge in 2001 would fail to net positive results.
Thad Moffitt--the next generation of Petty
In the mid-2000s Richard would take one last gamble on the team’s success, signing former champion Bobby Labonte to team with Kyle in the drivers’ seats.  However, it still wasn’t enough, and an ownership stake was sold in 2008 to investment firm Boston Ventures.  When sponsor General Mills (STP’s replacement) announced their departure from the team, Boston Ventures essentially shuttered Petty Enterprises as a racing operation.  A period of uneasiness between Richard and Kyle followed over the way things ended at Petty Enterprises, notably Kyle’s decision to run a partial schedule in order to pursue a broadcasting career.  Richard, for his part, continued the Petty legacy by taking his famed #43 to what would become Richard Petty Motorsports, a team he still co-owns today.
As for Petty Enterprises, it has reinvented itself as Petty’s Garage, making performance vehicles for everyday drivers.  Occupying the same hallowed Level Cross ground as the race team before it, Petty’s Garage shares space with the Richard Petty Museum, which shows the history of the team’s former glory.
While the Petty Enterprises story seems to have a firm “The End” on it, there’s always the chance—however small—that a younger member of the Petty clan could restart the team in the future.  After all, when you were in business for fifty years and have already come back from a one year break, what’s one decade off?