O Opinions & Commentary

The Petty brand lives on – but what about Kyle?

The venerable Petty Enterprises, which traces its history back to Lee Petty whose first NASCAR race was in 1949, finally closed its doors for good this month. Yes they ‘merged’ with Gillett Evernham Motorsports and changed the name to Richard Petty Motorsports, but there’s not much except the Petty name in the newly reformulated team. Richard Petty is still there but his role is basically like the figurehead the iconic Colonel Saunders became after he sold his eponymous fried-chicken company along with the Colonel Saunders brand name.

As for Richard’s son Kyle, he’s out in the cold. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to him; by all appearances Kyle has seldom been treated as a valuable and respected member of the business despite his CEO title of recent years. In reality, since the ill-fated Boston Ventures takeover last year, Kyle had gone from CEO to mere employee with dwindling driving duties. It must be hard to be the son of an icon and Kyle’s relationship with his father has to have been difficult for him all these years.

In a way, Kyle’s situation in the shadow of his larger-than-life father reminds me of the relationship between Henry Ford and his son Edsel. Today Edsel is mostly remembered in terms of the ill-fated 1950s car brand, but that was just one final indignity on top of all those he had suffered at the hands of his father during his lifetime. Henry Ford revolutionized the auto industry with his Model T, but, in his autocratic style, he refused to move with the times and he stubbornly persisted with the manufacture of the old-style T while his rivals were beating him with more modern designs. In 1919 Henry made Edsel president of the company in a ploy many thought was designed to devalue the stock and enable him to regain ownership control of the company. In reality Henry never gave up control to Edsel and he resisted any attempts to introduce innovations like hydraulic brakes or independent suspension - or even standard business accounting practices. Edsel was ignored and mocked by his father. Inevitably this broke down his health and he died in 1943 at the age of 49.

Old Henry resumed the title of president and the company continued to lurch ahead without any real business-like management. When Henry died in 1947, Edsel’s son, Henry II, was in control and he pulled the company back from the brink and rebuilt it into a vigorous operation by the mid-fifties.

As for Kyle, like Edsel, he was part of the family business from his boyhood. In 1978, at the age of 18, he made his racing debut. Soon he was part of a two-car STP-sponsored team alongside his father. But, despite all the glory years of the ‘60s and the ‘70s, Petty enterprises was now in serious decline – perhaps like Henry Ford’s reluctance to modernize, Richard was content to continue with the old ways, operating out of a few sheds on the home property up in Level Cross. And the Dodge brand, which had been so much a part of the Petty legacy was unable to provide stock car models that were competitive (back in the days when the race cars bore some resemblance to actual production models). Richard was to score only eight more wins with Petty Enterprises after 1979, his last win coming in 1983.

In 1984, Richard abandoned Petty Enterprises to drive for Mike Curb and took the STP sponsorship with him. The 23-year-old Kyle was left to run the struggling Petty Enterprises. He drove a PE-entered car most of that season but legend has it that he kept the operation afloat by selling off parcels of land from some real estate he owned. In 1985 Kyle signed on with the Woods Brothers and Petty Enterprises became essentially dormant. Richard Petty returned to Petty Enterprises in 1986 while Kyle remained with the Woods Brothers. Richard had won twice for Curb in 1984 but, although he continued to compete until 1992, he never won another Winston Cup race after that.

Meanwhile Kyle continued with the Woods Brothers until he switched to Felix Sabates in 1989. Given his experience when dad had walked away and dumped him with the burden of running Petty Enterprises in 1984, I believed that Kyle would never agree to work with his father again. Kyle seemed to have a good relationship with Sabates and he stayed with him right through to 1996.

In 1997, Kyle left the sometimes mercurial Sabates to start his own team, naming it PE2. Although that name suggested that it was a part of the storied Petty Enterprises, this was a separate operation housed in a modern facility near the Charlotte epicentre of stock car racing. This continued through 1998. By now, Kyle’s son, Adam was progressing from his apprenticeship in karts into real stock cars – ARCA and the Busch Series.

Even though, to all appearances, Petty Enterprises was still struggling to catch up with the modern teams, Kyle agree to fold his PE2 operation into the Level Cross family business – confounding my expectation that there would never be a business reconciliation between father
and son. And (like Edsel Ford?) Kyle was named CEO of the merged operation.

By now, Kyle was seldom producing results in the top half of the field. All eyes were turned on the fourth-generation Adam who was expected to continue to legacy of Richard. In the spring of 2000, Kyle had a long conversation with the media in the press room at Talladega. Adam had made his Winston Cup debut two weeks before at Texas. Kyle characterized his situation as being the CEO of the company and that he was still racing to keep the Petty name alive until Adam could take on that role. According to Kyle, Richard was spending most his time in a condo in Colorado and – while he needed to get Richard to sign off on decisions – Kyle was essentially running the show. He seemed to be looking forward to getting out of the driver’s seat at the end of the year and letting Adam carry on the family name behind the wheel.

That Talladega interview was in April. Less than a month later, Adam was dead, killed in a crash at New Hampshire. Plans for any succession were gone; Kyle adopted Adam’s No. 45 and has been racing it ever since. In 2007, he sat out a few races to work as a television commentator. He continued to hold the title of CEO, but his influence seemed to be growing less and less and his charismatic father seemed to hog the limelight even more as time went on. Over the winter, somebody made the decision that the team would move to Charlotte and they abandoned the old Lee Petty-era shops and moved into the former Yates facility (Note that this had become available because Yates had moved to a more modern plant next door to Roush). About the same time, the investment firm, Boston Ventures, bought in and Kyle was no longer part of the management. (I hope that he had an ownership stake and that they bought him out for a fair price.). Later that year, Kyle again took a hiatus from driving mid-season only to be informed that his services were no longer required.

So when Petty Enterprises collapsed over the winter, Kyle no longer had much of a stake in the company. It was no surprise that he was left out on his own while Richard took his only modern-day asset, his name, and joined up with Gillett’s GEM.

That’s good for Richard. Here’s a driver whose glory days were a long, long time ago and whose last real achievement was his 200th win in 1984, but who – since his retirement as driver in 1992 – has rebuilt the legend of his persona and his name – and who has been able to parlay that Petty brand into a new relationship with the new Richard Petty Motorsports.

Meanwhile, Kyle is left out in the cold. From my perspective, he’s better off that way. He can go forward and forge his own independent path with no expectations of support or consideration from his father. Since Adam’s death, Kyle has dedicated himself to the Victory Junction Camp, the embodiment of Adam’s memory. That’s a noble effort, but I hope that Kyle, at the age of 48, is able to move on an build a new career for himself as well. This year he’s going to race some in the Grand-Am sports car series. He’s going to continue to do television – probably even more now than before.

Edsel Ford never managed to escape out from under his father’s domineering, belittling control. Now Kyle is on his own again for the second time. The last few years, it seemed as if Kyle was like a tightly wound spring, ready to explode at the slightest provocation. Hopefully now he can ‘stop and smell the roses’ and mellow out a bit. He’s got a good 15 years or more to do his own thing now. I believe that Kyle Petty’s best days are ahead of him.

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