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Taking Blame for Team Woes, King Richard Gears for Reverse

NASCAR: When Petty quit driving (in 1992), he 'got away from the mechanical part . . . we did not keep up with the times.' He's now joined a handful of teams in Dodge's return to Winston Cup racing.

March 25, 2001|JENNA FRYER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Huddled in the back of a hauler, Richard Petty listened as his three drivers compared notes.

Practice ended hours earlier, but Petty wanted each driver and crew chief to explain to the others exactly how their car was running.

The required meeting is a new twist this year, part of the long-term plan to turn Petty Enterprises back into a championship team.

"We've revamped our company, redone the way we do everything," Petty said. "We're working toward a baseline of getting everyone running consistent. Once we do that, we can build toward a future."

No one is expecting it to happen any time soon. After all, it took 20 years for Petty Enterprises to hit rock bottom.

"Once upon a time we were the greatest Winston Cup team," said Kyle Petty, Richard's son and one of his three drivers.

Great indeed.

"50 years . . . 273 wins . . . Four Generations . . . " says the team's Web site message.

"In a lot of ways, I compare this organization to the Green Bay Packers of the mid '60s--they just dominated football--and that's what Richard Petty and Petty Enterprises did," Kyle said. "Then, somewhere down the line, we got complacent, maybe lackadaisical. We just fell off the bandwagon, and now it's incredibly hard to catch up."

For 30 years, beginning with patriarch Lee Petty, the team had one of the cars to beat week in and week out. Lee won three NASCAR championships and Richard seven more.

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But life as a car owner wasn't quite the same as being a driver for The King, and the team went into decline in the early '80s. Petty-owned cars have won only three times since 1983, and John Andretti, Buckshot Jones and Kyle range from 25th to 43rd in the Winston Cup standings.

Richard doesn't have to look far to place the blame for this or any of the recent failures.

"It was one of those deals where my daddy and some other folks built it up from nothing into what it was, then I took over and the whole thing went on a downslide," he said. "That can only be my fault."

Petty said the downfall began when he had to worry more about sponsorship money than he did about the race cars. He had to devote more of his time to business and promotional appearances.

"The latter part of my career, I was more interested in getting money to make the deal," said Petty, who retired as a driver after the 1992 season. "When I quit driving, I got away from the mechanical part of it even more.

"We did not keep up with the times as far as machinery and new ideas. Instead we said, 'It worked last year, why won't it work this year?' "

So Petty has set out to reverse the team's fortunes. He ended his longtime association with Pontiac this season to join a handful of teams in Dodge's return to Winston Cup racing.

And he went ahead with plans to add a third team even after grandson Adam--considered the future star of Petty Enterprises--was killed in May while practicing for a Busch Series race. Jones was hired to replace Adam, who would have been a Winston Cup rookie.

Richard also made a decision to operate his three teams collectively.

Back at the shop, one crew builds cars while another does the engines. No one knows in advance which car gets which engine. At the track, the teams share all information in an effort to make the cars equal.

"You can tell because we don't have one good car and two bad cars," Kyle said. "We're normally collectively slow and not very good, or collectively we make the field with very similar qualifying efforts."

This season, the efforts have been closer to slow than anything else. All three cars made the Daytona 500, but Kyle failed to qualify for the next two races. Jones needed provisionals to make those fields.

They've rebounded the past two weeks, when all three cars made the field. But their finishes haven't been so great, and they've struggled to match the success of the other Dodge programs.

Although Andretti had a season-high sixth-place finish last week in Darlington, S.C., Petty wound up 35th and Jones 41st.

"If you look at the teams that switched to Dodge, we have to be honest and say we were probably the worst team," Kyle said. "We're working hard just to get back to ground level. We know it's not about this season, it's about the 2004 season and the 2005 season--that's when we think we can be running for championships."

That plan is fine for Kyle, who will take over the family business when his father steps aside. And it's fine for Jones, who had failed in a bid to run a full Winston Cup season before he joined Petty Enterprises.

It's a little more difficult for Andretti.

"It's hard to keep looking for the rainbow when it's always raining," he said.

But Andretti is in it for the long haul.

"I'm fine with the big picture as long as I'm in it," he said. "This is a great organization, and I fully believe one day it will again be among the best in the sport."

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On the net: Petty Enterprises: http://www.pettyracing.com; NASCAR: http://www.nascar.com

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