Icommentary:/I Petty Dynasty At A Crossroads

Fifteen years ago, I was following a story for a newspaper I worked for, and the trail took me within a few miles of Level Cross, N.C.

I called Petty Enterprises and asked if Richard Petty might be available for a few minutes the following afternoon; he was scheduled to be a grand marshal at a parade the following month in my hometown, and I was hoping I could get a quick interview for a story.

That was my pretense, anyway. More than 25 years in journalism has given me the opportunity to meet literally hundreds of famous people. Of those, I think I have asked four for autographs -- John Wayne, Bob Hope, Dave Merrifield, who was a daredevil who hung by his teeth from a helicopter, and Richard Petty.

Richard could not have been more gracious to a reporter he had never heard of, as he flashed those white teeth and as he answered my questions, his eyes hidden by the trademark sunglasses with the tiny STP logo in the bottom corner of one of the lens. A huge glass goblet on his desk held dozens of packets of Goody's headache powder packets, the way some people have a candy dish.

Richard gave me a quick tour of the shop and of the little museum, and I was on my way.

I have seen Richard several times since, and he was invariably gracious. I have watched him sign autographs for hours. How many in his career? A million? Two million? When young drivers would ask me for advice on how to respond to the media, I'd tell them to look at two drivers -- Petty and drag racer Kenny Bernstein -- and just do what they do.

That hasn't changed. Even 15 years ago, though, Petty Enterprises was hardly the dominant team. These past few years -- even before the death of Adam, Richard's grandson, and Lee, Richard's father -- have been grim. John Andretti stumbled into a couple of wins in the number 43 Winston Cup car, and Jimmy Hensley had a bright moment or two in the Petty-owned Craftsman truck.

It has been a long time since Kyle, though, has had much to celebrate on the race track. His first win came in 1986. With Felix Sabates and SABCO, he won six races between 1989 and 1996. Since then, not so good. Just two top-five finishes total for the 1997 and 1998 seasons, driving for pe2, the team he owned with Richard. In 1999, driving for Petty Enterprises proper, no top fives.

This year, in 15 starts (of a possible 19), Kyle has one top-10, and sits 36th in the points. The news is not a lot better for Andretti and the No. 43 team car.

Andretti has made all 19 races, but has only one top-10 and is 23rd in the points. Gone from the lead sponsorship is STP. Ditto Goody's headache powder. Steve Grissom hasn't won a Craftsman truck race yet, which is something of a disappointment, as hopes were high when he took over the ride from Hensley at the start of the season.

The opportunity presented by the move from Pontiac to Dodge for 2001 was a chance to get the Petty program back on track. It is now -- one has to believe -- a distraction. A week ago Kyle announced that he is stepping out of his Winston Cup ride for the rest of the season beginning Sept. 2 to drive Adam's Sprint-sponsored Busch car. Grissom will drive the Winston Cup car.

In the midst of dealing with the change -- both tragedy-related and pre-existing -- Petty Enterprises is charged with maintaining as competitive two Winston Cup cars, a Busch car and a Craftsman truck, while gearing up to field three Dodge Intrepid Cup cars next season.

In the most ideal of circumstances, that is a monumental challenge. If things were absolutely on track at Petty Enterprises -- Kyle and Andretti were running competitively, all required sponsors were on board, Adam was still alive and learning the circuit in preparation for next year's full-time Cup debut, Grissom was fulfilling his promise in the truck series -- preparing for everything the team needs in 2001 would be a massive undertaking.

With things as fragmented as the are, it seems impossible. Even before Adam's death, Kyle seemed so burdened by his duties as chief operating officer of Petty Enterprises -- by any measure, a full-time job in itself. Add in driving duties and sponsor commitments and the multiple charities Kyle is involved in, and you wonder how he drove as well as he did.

Then add in the death of his son, and his grandfather, plus the change to an entirely new car -- well, it seems insurmountable.

I hope it isn't. I don't know anyone who wouldn't like to see Petty Enterprises come out of the gate at Daytona next February on top.

But given how difficult that is for teams with absolutely no distractions, it seems impossible for Petty Enterprises. If it's any consolation, they will have a huge number of supporters pulling for them. Me included. Because I am still every bit as awed by the Petty name as I was 15 years ago, sitting across from one of a handful of genuine heroes.

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