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Petty doesn't mind the underdog role

His team dominated NASCAR once, but has struggled for years.

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 15, 2001


His team dominated NASCAR once, but has struggled for years.

Ah, that smile.

Toothy and wide, the infectious grin of Kyle Petty has become the symbol of a family business -- a feel-good logo of hope, determination and enduring spirit.

Petty Enterprises has been frowning too long.

Reeling still from the loss of its fourth-generation future, stock car racing's venerable first family is battling to get back to the elite of Winston Cup racing.

"We're on our game plan," said Kyle, 41-year-old CEO of Petty Enterprises. "Sometimes it's harder to rebuild than just build from scratch, and we're in a major rebuilding process that's going to take four or five years.

"As far back as we've fallen, we've got that underdog monicker that everybody loves. I think a lot of people would like to see us get back to the top."

A business of fathers and sons, Petty Enterprises is NASCAR's oldest and most successful team with 271 victories. Founded in 1949 by patriarch and 55-time winner Lee Petty, it was driven to unprecedented glory in the 1960s and '70s by his son, Richard, whose record seven Winston Cup titles and 200 victories made him "The King."

For more than a decade, however, Petty Enterprises has been off the pace set by Winston Cup racing's newest breed of big-money, multicar owners. It has won three races since Richard retired in 1992.

According to a plan put in motion two years ago, Petty Enterprises was to be resurrected under the guidance of Richard's son, Kyle, and returned to glory by NASCAR's first fourth-generation driver -- Kyle's oldest son, Adam.

When Adam was killed in May 2000 in a Busch Grand National practice at New Hampshire International Speedway, days before his 20th birthday, it was as if someone hooked up a vacuum and sucked everything good out of Petty Enterprises.

"I don't think people understand what a setback it was when they lost Adam," said Robbie Loomis, an 11-year employee who left last season to be Jeff Gordon's crew chief.

"But I always say Winston Cup racing is like the hands on a clock. If you stay in it long enough, you're going to go from the top to the bottom. And if you stay in it longer you're going to cycle back to the top again. They're moving in the right direction."

Kyle's 19-year-old son Austin, who had been content to let Adam carry on the family driving tradition, only recently expressed interest in assuming that role. His driving has been limited to small series around Charlotte. But what continues to drive Petty Enterprises today are the plans Kyle made with Adam.

"Our hopes and dreams were tied together, to build this back so Adam could win races and win championships," Kyle said. "To abandon this and walk away would be like abandoning his dreams."

For the first time, Petty Enterprises is a three-car operation. In addition to his duties as CEO, Kyle drives the No. 45 car in which Adam was to be a Winston Cup rookie this season. Also, Petty Enterprises switched manufacturers from Pontiac to Dodge, which returned to Winston Cup this season after an absence of nearly two decades.

"I would love to have all the authority Kyle has, but I don't want all the headaches he has," said John Andretti, fourth-year driver of the No. 43 car that Richard made famous. "If I don't like what's going on at Petty Enterprises, I can leave it. If he doesn't like it, he's got to change it and fix it."

Though Kyle's work days frequently last from 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. -- one recently stretched into the following morning -- Kyle does not anticipate hanging up his driving helmet. His input as a driver is too valuable to him as the team's money manager.

Kyle recently hired an engineering consultant, Elan Motorsports Technologies Group near Atlanta, to develop scale-model cars for efficient and cost-effective wind tunnel testing. Personnel changes are building depth at Petty Enterprises.

"Most teams that get behind just quit," Kyle said. "You look at Junior Johnson and Bud Moore and the teams that are in our era, once they got behind they just walked away and the new teams took their place. I don't think we're ready to walk away yet."

Progress is evident, Kyle said, everywhere but the track. Andretti is 29th in the standings, Buckshot Jones 40th in the No. 44 car and Kyle 42nd. Among NASCAR's most popular personalities, Kyle's first-year team has failed to qualify for nine races.

Still, his goal is to see Petty Enterprises back among racing's most revered teams.

"I think it's great for the sport to have Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart and Rick Hendrick and Robert Yates, guys like that who have come in the last 10 or 15 years and really moved the sport forward," Kyle said. "But it's good to have that old team come back, too.

"It's good for baseball to have the Yankees be competitive. It's great to have the Red Wings. It's great to go to Augusta. Petty Enterprises racing has been around since Winston Cup racing began, and I think everybody is pulling for us."

Hoping to see that smile.

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