Thirty years ago, no one involved in stock car racing imagined nor predicted the demise of Petty Enterprises. Lee Petty built the ship that has sailed ever since the beginning of NASCAR. Lee Petty won three championships and was arguably the first true superstar of NASCAR. His son Richard came along and inscribed his name all over the NASCAR record books. Countless records set by Richard Petty, widely known as 'The King', may never be broken.
Richard Petty won 200 races and seven championships, and that is not even scratching the surface of all that he has accomplished as a driver and owner. Other than a couple of years in the mid-1980, Richard Petty's entire career was spent with the organization his father built. Petty Enterprises' ascendancy from the early 1950's to the late 1970's may have been even greater than Hendrick Motorsports' and Roush Fenway Racing's in the 2000's.
Third generation driver Kyle Petty emerged in the late 1970's, as the teenager made his first Cup start on NASCAR's longest and what was then the fastest facility, Talladega. However, unlike his father and grandfather, Kyle won his first race while driving for someone other than Petty Enterprises. His first win occurred nearly eight years following his debut, and it was at Richmond with the Wood Brothers, a team that gave the Petty's fits throughout the 1960's and 1970's.
Following his four-year tenure with the Wood Brothers, Kyle Petty joined the Felix Sabates-owned operation in 1988, which is where he enjoyed most of his success. In fact, six of Kyle's eight career wins occurred while driving for Felix Sabates. Petty left Sabates following the 1996 season to return to the family business, and he has not won since. In fact, since Petty's last win in 1984, which was for Mike Curb, the famed number '43' car has three wins, two with Bobby Hamilton, Sr., and one with John Andretti.
In the late 1990's, Kyle's son Adam was developing into a fine young racer. Many in the garage began likening Adam to his grandfather. He was 100 percent dedicated to racing. Sadly, his life ended much too soon in a tragic accident while practicing for a Busch Series race in Loudon, New Hampshire in April of 2000. Nobody saw it at the time, but that was the beginning of the end for Petty Enterprises. Adam provided hope that a Petty would once again rise to the top.
Throughout the 2000's, Petty Enterprises has fallen deeper and deeper in the pack. Just five years ago, Petty Enterprises had three teams, now they only have the '43', and even that is not enough to attract full-time sponsorship.
In 2006, resurgence appeared inevitable for Petty Enterprises, as they signed 2000 champion Bobby Labonte, and rehired Robbie Loomis. However, Labonte has remained in mid-pack.
Petty Enterprises eventually relocated to a shop closer to the Charlotte area, abandoning their long-time home in Level Cross, North Carolina. In 2008, Boston Ventures, and investment firm, purchased controlling interest in Petty Enterprises with hopes of leading the storied organization back to the forefront. Instead, things have only worsened. Kyle Petty was basically kicked to the curb, and a sponsorship deal for the '45' team fell through. That all led us to where we are today...the discussion on the Petty decline.
Ever since the 2008 season concluded at Homestead, the headlines are rarely pertaining to Jimmie Johnson's third consecutive championship. It has been the potential merger between Gillett Evernham Motorsports and Petty Enterprises. The merger would allow the '43' team to be absorbed by Gillett Evernham Motorsports. Meanwhile, the '45' car would be phased out.
Even with the '43' still on the track, it will not be same as when it was Richard's car. It will be a jagged pill to swallow for hardcore Petty fans, as well as traditional fans that hold on to the good old days.
Who would drive the '43' car? Petty Enterprises released veteran Bobby Labonte earlier in the week, so it will likely be an upstart driver such as Reed Sorenson or A.J. Allmendinger. While they are talented young drivers, they certainly have not earned the right to be in union with perhaps the most revered car number in NASCAR history.
Traditionalists were kicked while they were already down, as previously the Wood Brothers operation announced that they will only compete in twelve races in 2009.
The fall of former NASCAR empires is somewhat reminiscent to the 1990's and early 2000's when legendary car owners such as Junior Johnson, Bud Moore, and Junie Donlavey left the sport. Teams owned by Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough could not survive the 1990's.
Today, Petty Enterprises and the Wood Brothers have fallen on hard times. Poor economic conditions forced Dale Earnhardt, Inc. to merge with another team, and now identified as Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. Robert Yates Racing became Yates Racing in 2008, and seems to be under the Roush Fenway Racing umbrella. They have struggled to secure full-time sponsors since M&M's left for Joe Gibbs Racing. While the name 'Yates' is still in the building, and the '28' car is back, it just not feel the same as it did a decade ago.
Let us just hope that when the 43 hits the track in February of 2009, it is still dressed in Petty blue with the same recognizable number font.