NASCAR: Pettys willing to adapt to new times
By Mike Mulhern
LEVEL CROSS — Richard Petty has been around stock-car racing for so long, you’d think he was present at its creation. Actually he was, as a teenager. And the old Petty homestead here is part of NASCAR’s history — since 1949 it has been home to Petty Enterprises, the family business.
But in the next year or so, they’re going to button up this place, turn it into a museum and open a new Petty Enterprises near Charlotte, where most stock-car crewmen live and play.
Making an hour-plus commute from Lake Norman to here and then back at the end of the day isn’t something a lot of crewmen want to do. So the Pettys are going to move.
And it will certainly be a wistful moment when they turn out the lights.
“A lot of you have been here and a lot of you haven’t,” Petty said slowly. “But when you come through that gate, there have been 265 or 266 Cup wins come out of this shop. We’re pretty proud of that.
“You come by the house up there — that white house. That’s where I was born. I’ve been all over the world, but I always come back home, and this is home.”
But the wins have been fewer and further apart recently.
Last year, Robbie Loomis returned to the team, after six years with Jeff Gordon. And the Pettys persuaded Bobby Labonte to join them, too. Then Bill Wilburn, an old Rusty Wallace hand, came over to take over Kyle Petty’s team, and Paul Andrews is now running Labonte’s half.
“We were in a building stage last year, and we’re still building,” Richard said. “We went from 35th to 25th or 20th or whatever in the points. We have been going in the right direction. And we feel that will continue this year.”
During “The King’s” years in the sport, Petty has seen plenty of changes, so even though 2007 is shaping up as a momentous season, he’s able to keep it all in perspective.
“I’m OK with that. I have to be,” Petty said with a grin. “It just shows how much NASCAR has grown all over the world.
“People from all over the world come to drive the cars, getting other car manufacturers to come in. Everybody don’t drive an American car. This helps create new interest in NASCAR, and new interest for fans to come. It’s the best thing that can happen to us in the long run.
“It’s going to be hard to swallow to begin with, because we’ve got so many people, so many places, and all of a sudden we’ve got a bunch of new cars and teams thrown in. But it makes the competition that much more for the spectators.”
But he does have some worries about the speed with which NASCAR is expanding.
“I hope it’s not moving too fast,” he said. “I know it’s moving far away (to Mexico City and Montreal). But when I came along, things were a little bit slower in technology and everything else. As NASCAR goes forward, some people my age, they’re not here anymore. So we have to create new fans. In order to create new fans, we have to do the job a little bit different.
“We have to listen to the heartbeat of America to find out where we really need to go.
“You hear the deal, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ It ain’t broke completely, but it’s not growing either, if we don’t make changes.
“That’s the new society, that’s the new generation.”
And Petty knows something about NASCAR’s generations.
“When my dad came along, he thought one way,” Petty said. “I came along, and things changed. I changed the business, or I changed with the business. Kyle comes along, and he’s got a whole new set of ways he looks at things.
“Then comes the next generation with a bunch of new drivers and new stuff now, and they’re looking at NASCAR a little different.
“When you talk to me you’re talking to history. I’ve been here since 1949 going to the races. I’ve seen all the changes. Some of them have been good, some of them have been bad. No matter what NASCAR throws at us, from an owner’s standpoint or a driver’s standpoint, we cope with it.
“We as owners make NASCAR look good.”