NASCAR: Summer of uncertainty for Petty Enterprises
CHARLOTTEó The first step was getting Kyle Petty back into a race, accomplished last weekend when he qualified the No. 45 at Talladega Superspeedway for its first event in nearly a month.
Now Petty Enterprises must build momentum for both that car and “The King’s” entire organization. The team made famous by Richard Petty and his seven NASCAR championships heads into a summer of uncertainty as it attempts to secure a business partner, locate a sponsor for its flagship No. 43 Dodge and convince Bobby Labonte not to leave at the end of this season.
“It’s an exciting time, but we’ve been through a lot of exciting times,” said vice president Robbie Loomis, who began his career with Petty Enterprises, won a championship as Jeff Gordon’s crew chief, then was lured back to Petty in a management role at the end of the 2005 season.
“We just need to roll up our sleeves, every department. And if we do that, usually at the end of the end of the day, you come out further down the road than you started.”
But Loomis is learning it’s a long process for a fabled organization that has fallen far behind NASCAR’s heavyweights. No longer the player it once was, Petty Enterprises is in a slow rebuilding stage that can be uplifting and frustrating at the same time. Whenever improvement is shown in one area, something undeniably goes wrong somewhere else:
– As Labonte and his No. 43 car make gains on the race track, Petty and his No. 45 team hit a slump that resulted in his car failing to make three consecutive races last month.
– With talks progressing on a contract extension for Labonte, sponsor General Mills announced it would leave that car at the end of the season ó forcing Petty Enterprises to search for financial backing for the No. 43 for just the second time since 1972.
– When Loomis decided to replace Petty in the car at Texas with Chad McCumbee, the developmental driver failed to make the race and Petty’s confusing reaction to the driver change indicated a disconnect between Loomis and the son of the team’s founder.
“It was an uncomfortable time,” Loomis acknowledged. “We all want the program to be better, and when we sat down and talked before Texas about it, the hard part was figuring out `What are we doing to make things better?’ and putting Chad in the car was what we were doing. It wasn’t like we were fighting, but we needed to evaluate where we are as a team and let Kyle see it.”
And what they saw wasn’t pretty.
One of the first eye-openers Loomis had when he left Hendrick Motorsports to return to Petty was the team’s shoestring budget. Loomis was used to a four-car operation flush with funding from dozens of corporate sponsors. Petty’s two-car operation lacked the same backing.
“I said ‘Holy cow! We’ve got to race on this?’ ” Loomis remembered.
Budget constraints restricted research and development, slowing Loomis’ plans to rebuild the organization. Small gains were made in luring Labonte, the 2000 Cup champion, from Joe Gibbs Racing to the No. 43 car in 2006. Then Loomis persuaded the Pettys to put the team in play for top mechanics by moving it this season from its longtime home in Randelman into the NASCAR hub of Mooresville.
The next step was persuading Jeff Meendering to leave his car chief job with Gordon to become Labonte’s crew chief. Meendering had been at Hendrick for 13 years ó he started as a high school junior, sweeping floors and emptying trash cans ó but was ready to run a race team. With no crew chief openings at Hendrick, he made the switch and was an immediate positive addition at Petty.
He quickly implemented things he’d learned working on Hendrick’s test teams, and applied his area of expertise ó working on the race cars ó to make sweeping changes in the chassis designs.
“A lot of the big-ticket items were already in place, but a lot of the detail stuff needed to be worked on,” Meendering said. “Being at Hendrick so long, and seeing the amount of change that company had gone through, I knew the kind of changes that helped improve that program.
“So I came here and everybody was real open to making the changes that I saw needed to be made to get the team up to speed.”