News & Media

King reveals how close RPM came to closing its doors

January 28, 2011, Joe Menzer,

CONCORD, N.C. -- The King reveals how close RPM came to closing its doors only to be saved

It was the Thursday before last October's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway when some sudden, startling news began rippling through the garage.

It seemed Richard Petty's long, lifetime involvement in the sport he loves might be coming to an unforeseen and premature end.

"If you're going to be involved, you want to be heard. The last couple of years, a lot of suggestions I threw out there were strictly suggestions. Now when I throw something out there, there is much greater chance I'll be heard a little bit stronger."


And Petty just could not let that happen.

So the seven-time driving champion of NASCAR's top national touring series took the news that the race team bearing his name was out of money with unusual calm and did what he always has done throughout his racing life. He went to work with a champion's resolve.

Petty recalled earlier this week during the Sprint Media Tour how representatives from the family of George Gillett, then the majority owner of Richard Petty Motorsports, came to him that day at CMS and said that they planned to close the RPM shop almost as soon as the checkered flag waved at conclusion of that Saturday night's race.

"It was the Thursday afternoon before the race in Charlotte," Petty said. "[The Gilletts] came to us and said, 'The doors are going to close next Wednesday.' We were like, 'Oh my God!'

"We knew that things were going to be tough to get through to the end of the year. But we had been promised time after time after time that we had enough resources and stuff to get through the very last race at Homestead. All of a sudden, five races before Homestead, they were saying, 'We're not going to put any more money into it.' "

The cash-strapped, debt-ridden sports empire of George Gillett was in serious trouble, and the expected windfall from the troubled sale of the professional soccer team he owned in Liverpool, England, had failed to materialize.

"It left them with a bunch of checks and nothin' to put on 'em," Petty said in the simple yet direct manner that has earned him a loyal and large following through the years.

It also left Petty motivated to save and right the ship, even if he only had a handful of days left to do it. Long-time Petty team executive Robbie Loomis said the general consensus was that they simply had to find a way to finish last season -- and to do so on a strong note -- or they never would have been able to find a way to re-open the doors again this season, and perhaps never again at all.

"I think the time that you're going through it, you think it's the worst thing you've ever gone through in your life," Loomis said. "But I tell people all the time, if you stub your toe and you're really in pain over that and then all of a sudden you break your arm, you forget your toe is hurting."

Petty added: "I don't get scared about nothin.' But I do get concerned. And I was very concerned from the Charlotte race on last year. We just needed to get through it.

"So I won't say I was scared. But I was very concerned. I spent a lot of waking hours working with people, trying to get it all worked out."

His first order of business was to call long-time associates such as Loomis, Dale Inman and a handful of others to his motorcoach to explain what was happening. Together, he said, they quickly developed what would be more accurately described as a two-minute drill to drive for the game-tying touchdown to force overtime than an entire game plan. The larger game plan for the future could come at a more leisurely pace, like over the last five weeks of the 2010 season.

"It was the kind of a deal where it wasn't just a Richard Petty problem," Petty said. "So we sort of got a little team there -- Robbie and Dale and Brian [Moffitt] and some of the guys who have been with us all this time, guys who have traveled with me and went through thick and thin with all the different owners. I pulled all of them together and said, 'OK, guys, here are the circumstances. How do we get out of it?'

"So everybody got on board, and everybody worked their side of the street. Everybody talked to people they knew, or might have any influence with. Again, we were fortunate it wasn't just a one-man show. If it had just been me putting it together, or if it had just been Robbie trying to put it together, it wouldn't have gotten done. It took all of us working together."

Eventually they entered into a promising partnership with two deep-pocketed investors who run multi-billion dollar businesses -- Andrew Murstein, whose Medallion Financial Corp. has grown from the New York taxi business; and Doug Bergeron, a Canadian who runs DGB Investments, a firm based in San Jose, Calif.

Together they worked an agreement which cleared them of the heavy debt load left by the Gilletts. They also pared what was a four-car operation last season to a two-car team for this season -- with A.J. Allmendinger behind the wheel in the car bearing the No. 43 made famous by Petty during his driving days, and the No. 9 Ford being driven by Marcos Ambrose.

Now they figure they have an organization that is leaner, meaner and ready to roll through the races faster with Petty back in position to have a larger say in running the race team. A series of mergers over the past several years had gradually reduced Petty's role within the company that bore his name, and he said he will be glad to reverse that trend this season.

"If you're going to be involved, you want to be heard," Petty said. "The last couple of years, a lot of suggestions I threw out there were strictly suggestions. Now when I throw something out there, there is much greater chance I'll be heard a little bit stronger.

"I want to be involved. It's the kind of deal where the Petty name has always been involved with NASCAR, but now we'll have a little bit more of a say-so about what's going on."

Ambrose admitted he had no idea what was going on last October at Martinsville Speedway, when rumors were flying -- one week after the race in Charlotte -- that he might not have a ride in 2011. He earlier had announced his decision to leave his ride at JTG/Daugherty Racing to drive for RPM, and was having more than second thoughts. He was having thoughts that his career in NASCAR might be over, and that he might have to head back to his native Australia at season's end.

"That weekend in Martinsville, there was so much turmoil. I didn't know what was happening; no one was answering my phone calls," Ambrose said. "It was like at the height of what was going to happen, and all these questions were being asked but no one seemed to be offering any answers.

"I went out there and qualified front row, led a lot of laps in the first 150 ... and I was just thinking at the time, 'Here I am leading laps at Martinsville, the place that I thought that I would never lead a lap. I've just passed Denny Hamlin, which it was his [favorite] track. And now I might not have a team to drive for in 2011.' It was one of those moments I reflect on and think about a lot -- because it went through my head a lot even as I led that race. I was thinking, 'Is this it? Is this as far as I go? Is this the end of the road?'

"But that moment passed very quickly because Richard Petty took the leadership to drive this company, to save it, to restructure it, to rebuild it to what it is today."

Petty said he never doubted that RPM would somehow survive. He insisted again that he could not have done it without the help of many others around him, but it was his single-minded resolve that set the process in motion to make it happen.

"I'm a hardhead, you know that. But racing is my life. Other people can go do something else. I've never wanted anything else but to be around racing in my life," Petty said. "If I had to change my lifestyle at 73 years old, I don't think I could do it.

"It was like getting a lap behind late in a race. You've got to work real hard to get that lap back. We just looked at it as another challenge -- a different challenge than anything else we had ever been through, but something that we could get through."

Ambrose came away impressed -- and motivated to prove this season that all the hard work to save the race team was well worth it.

"It's a very incredible story. I've been humbled by it," Ambrose said. "To be on the inside and see it happening, it was just incredible. To see a man of Richard's stature be able to save this company, and to witness first-hand the loyalty behind him, it was an inspiration to me.

"I feel like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I feel the pressure of wanting to perform for Richard and the whole RPM team and everyone else who stands behind this company, but now it's a good pressure. It's been an incredible story and Richard is an amazing person. I don't think anyone else could have saved this company."