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NASCAR Notebook for December 16th

by Dave Grayson
Tuesday, December 16, 2008

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The famous #43 Petty Car cannot save the team from oblivion
When the green flag falls on the Daytona 500 next February there is a distinct possibility that NASCAR racing fans may witness something that will be both unthinkable and unacceptable: the absence of Petty Enterprises and the famous #43. The need to find primary sponsorship, as well a merger agreement with another team, combined with last week's departure of driver Bobby Labonte has left one of NASCAR's most historically significant teams in a complete state of disarray and its future is extremely questionable.

WHERE IS BOSTON VENTURES AND THEIR PROMISE OF A RETURN TO PETTY GLORY?

Boston Ventures, a well known investment corporation, purchased majority interest in Petty Enterprises this past June. David Zucker was installed as the new CEO of Petty Enterprises and issued a series of glitzy press releases that made the following claims:

1. The company name will remain as Petty Enterprises in order to take advantage of the family's prominence in NASCAR racing as well as the abundance of endorsement possibilities.
2  The investment company was going to provide Petty Enterprises with an influx of operating capital that will provide them the top of the line equipment the team needed as well as an increased budget for testing along with a research and development program.
3. Petty Enterprises was set to expand to three teams with full sponsorship for each ride.
4. All of the above was going to elevate Petty Enterprises back to its former glory.

That was the story we were told back in June. Now here's the story we're getting six months later:

1.  Petty Enterprises has been reduced to a single car operation that has neither a sponsor or a driver.
2.  Over the past several weeks they have announced two rounds of employee layoffs that impacted approximately 70 jobs.
3.  The entire future of the organization literally hinges on a merger with Gillett Evernham Motorsports that is currently being negotiated

THE SPONSOR LOSS WAS THE FIRST MAJOR BLOW

The celebration of the Boston Ventures agreement barely had time to subside before Petty Enterprises learned that General Mills was not going to renew their sponsor contract with the #43 team that spanned eight years. General Mills opted to sign with Richard Childress Racing and driver Clint Bowyer. In total honesty one has to understand that decision. General Mills is spending a lot of money, during these harsh economic times, and they need to be with a team that can generate on track performance and excitement. Childress and Bowyer certainly are capable of giving them a good return on their investment.

In mid November a variety of racing Internet sites started quoting Petty Enterprises Chief Marketing Officer Mike Bartelli  as saying that he had no fewer than six corporations who were willing to put up enough part time sponsorship money, for Bobby Labonte and the 43 team, to cover the expenses for 22 of the 36 races next year. Bartelli also reportedly said that he was confident that the team would be able to secure enough revenue to fund the entire 2009 schedule. By now it's become apparent that these deals have fallen by the wayside due to the current economic climate.

It's the same situation for the #44 Dodge that Petty Enterprises planned to field for their young development driver Chad McCumbee. Marathon Oil was supposed to back the driver's rookie season next year but it's now believed that this deal fell through in recent weeks. McCumbee's future plans are now reported to in a complete state of limbo and he may have to consider a full time return to the Camping World Truck Series next year.

Secure in the knowledge that his #45 Dodge will not be on the track next year, Kyle Petty is reportedly very serious about racing a Daytona Prototype car in the Grand American Rolex Series. Last month the third generation Petty driver tested the #45 Orbit Racing InterMedia BMW Riley at the Palm Beach International Raceway and said he was getting closer to working out the details towards a full time move to sports car racing.

BOBBY LABONTE'S DEPARTURE WAS ANOTHER MAJOR SETBACK

The next big blow for Petty Enterprises and Boston Ventures came on Thursday of last week when Bobby Labonte announced plans to leave the organization. He described it as a mutual decision as well as a very difficult one. The financial status of the team left him no choice but to consider what was best for his future. Make no mistake about it, Bobby Labonte is a class act who spent three seasons giving the Petty's one hundred percent plus effort. He kept the team in NASCAR's top 35 owner's points standings and he turned in some highly respectable finishes in a car that was often outclassed by his competitors in the horsepower department.

When Boston Ventures took over Petty Enterprises last summer Labonte truly believed in them and had faith that they would make good on their plans for the organization's future. It was that belief that led him to sign a four year contract extension that would kept in the #43 car through 2012. Partial team ownership was also rumored to be part of that deal.   

Labonte has been rumored to be talking to the recently formed Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, EGR, about taking over their #41 ride which has full sponsorship from Target Stores. Labonte would make a great fit for EGR and Target as well. He's a good driver with a lot of good years left. He also has a reputation for driving clean and not tearing up his equipment. The fact that he's a former champion, which comes with the past champion's provisional, is also a major consideration.

IT COULD ALL COME DOWN TO A MERGER.

Merger is a word that was mentioned frequently especially during the last half of NASCAR's 2008 season. Many of the teams were looking to combine resources in the name of financial survival. In recent weeks there were rumors of merger negotiations between Petty Enterprises and Gillett Evernham Motorsports, GEM. This rumor turned into reality last week when Tom Redding, GEM CEO, said "we can confirm that we are in exclusive negotiations with Petty Enterprises. Gillett Evernham Motorsports has a very solid foundation. This is an exciting opportunity to build on that foundation with one of the greatest names in motorsports history. We will work diligently over the next several weeks and make further comment at the appropriate time."

Zucker echoed those sentiments last week and said "Gillett Evernham Motorsports is a first class team with great drivers, sponsors and management. We look forward to improved performance and maintaining the Richard Petty legacy with the King front and center."

There are reports that state this merger could be completed by Thursday, December 18th, although executives from both organizations are saying they have no plans to make a formal announcement on that particular date. If the merger is approved the following is expected to happen:

1.  The GEM teams will remain intact. That includes Kasey Kahne in the #9, Elliot Sadler in the #19 and new team driver Reed Sorenson in the #10.
2.  The #43 from Petty Enterprises will become the fourth team with a driver and sponsor to be named soon.
3.  The other two Petty teams, the #44 and #45, will be shut down.
4.  There is a possibility that GEM could also have some form of participation in the racing school known as the Richard Petty Driving Experience.

BUT WHAT IF THE MERGER FALLS THROUGH?

The least case scenario will likely have Petty Enterprises enduring a temporary shut down while Boston Ventures resolves the financial crisis. The worst case scenario will mean the total demise of the organization. Zucker has denied both of these scenarios and said "if the merger doesn't work out then we will run the #43 as a single car team." It can only be assumed that Boston Ventures will have to cover the expenses out of their own pocket until suitable sponsorship can be found.

This financial crisis is of course centered around the harsh economics that is currently crippling corporate America. But that point aside one can't help but wonder if it's possible that Boston Ventures bit off a little more than they can chew. All of those glitzy announcements last June created a lot of excitement among Petty fans. What they're seeing right now is a complete letdown. That point was emphasized last October by Kyle Petty himself. In an eyebrow raising comment made during an interview on the Speed Channel, Petty said "right now I can't honestly name one thing that Boston Ventures has done for Petty Enterprises."

In the meantime Petty Enterprises will have to play the waiting game. King Richard Petty will have to wait and see if his family's racing legacy, started in 1949, will have a future. Their employees will have to wait and see what the status of their jobs are. The legions of Petty fans will have to wait and see if the #43 Dodge makes it to the Daytona 500 when the new season starts in February.

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