King Without a Crown

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Is it "game over" for Richard Petty Motorsports?

Is it "game over" for Richard Petty Motorsports?

by Vito Pugliese

It’s late October, and the cold and flu season is starting to fire up. A friend of mine on a business trip to Las Vegas had to come home early last week after she came down with strep throat. Last Saturday night in Charlotte, Kasey Kahne apparently was feeling ill, getting sick in his racecar before crashing it.

After an accident on lap 125 where Kahne collected Sam Hornish Jr., Kahne’s mangled machine was brought to the garage area. Once his car was made drivable again, Kahne refused to get back in, citing sickness, including having vomited inside the car. During the event Kahne was critical of the car’s poor handling, low power and, for the second time in three weeks, lack of brakes — not exactly comforting while entering Turn 1 at 195 mph.

When Kahne made clear his decision to not play the role of crash test dummy, he was approached by an unnamed crewman on the team, imploring him to ìstart pulling his weightî and get back out on the track. Kahne, who had likely tired of not being able to slow down reliably while at a high rate of speed, refused, and J.J. Yeley was summoned to complete the race, ending the night 120 laps down in the 38th position.

On Wednesday, Richard Petty Motorsports announced that Kahne had been released of his driving duties of the No. 9 Budweiser Ford. Several mechanics who had planned to follow Kahne to Red Bull Racing in 2011 were also summarily dismissed. Kahne had driven the No. 9 car since he came to the Cup Series in 2004, driving for then owner Ray Evernham.

On Thursday, it became apparent that there was bigger trouble within the walls of RPM, extending far beyond just firing the star driver and loss of mega-million dollar sponsor Budweiser. Such as been the plight of RPM the last couple of years. From not being able to pay drivers A.J. Allmendinger or Reed Sorensen last year, to questions surrounding the financial viability of the organization before the 2009 season even began, the Jenga stack upon which this team was built has continued to have key cogs slide out one by one every few months.

The events of the past two weeks are far removed from a year ago, when Kahne’s team won races in Sonoma and Atlanta and qualified for the Chase for the Championship — albeit in what were truly Gillett-Evernham Dodges, with the King’s familiar silhouette adorning the cars and war wagon.

So how have all the King’s horses and all the King’s men gotten to this point?

Primarily due to the actions of the Humpty to their Dumpty, owner George Gillett and his son, Foster. As a major player in returning Chrysler back into NASCAR competition, Evernham sold his Evernham Motorsports operation to businessman George Gillett halfway through the 2007 season. Evernham had distanced himself a bit from the team while tending to issues in his personal life. Some may recall former driver Jeremy Mayfield calling attention to these publicly, which eventually cost him his ride, and likely led him down the path that has seen him embroiled in a legal battle with NASCAR for over a year now.

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Startling developments at Richard Petty Motorsports have NASCAR Nation wondering if all the king's men can put a once-proud organization back together again.

Gillett’s purchase of the team added to his portfolio of sports franchises at the time, included the Montreal Canadiens NHL team, as well as the Liverpool Football Club of the English Premier League. Gillett has been ensconced in a court fight over the soccer team, claiming conspiracy in a forced sale by the Royal Bank of Scotland at nearly half of its estimated $940 million for $470 million to New England Sports Ventures. A key member of that group happens to be John Henry, co-owner of Roush Fenway Racing, which just so happens to share a strategic alliance with RPM, supplying of cars, engines, and technical support.

Earlier this week RPM’s restrictor plate cars for Talladega were effectively repossessed by Roush, only to be returned on Thursday — sans engines — due to partial payment to Roush Fenway Racing. The Roush-Yates engines that are supplied to RPM were all notably down on power last Saturday night, drawing jeers and groans from every driver in that camp, not just Kahne.

I would go out on a limb here and suggest that perhaps maybe these cars didn’t have the latest and greatest power plants available to the Ford teams.

Word came late Thursday night from Dave Moody of Sirius NASCAR Radio’s Sirius Speedway with Dave Moody that RPM had fallen behind on payments to Roush Fenway Racing to the tune of about $10 million for cars, engines, and other components. Roush said on Friday that a payment system had been worked out that would allow RPM to continue its work on the Talladega cars. Kahne himself was also said to have been stiffed by the team, although he claimed they were settled up on the salary issue when asked about it on Friday. However, the buyout of his contract with RPM may have been what settled that dispute. So in addition to being asked to return to a car that may or may not be able to stop at speeds approaching 200 mph, Kahne was being asked to do so Ö for free? No wonder he threw up.

Floating around in this whirling dervish of chaos remain two very important unanswered questions:

First, what now for Richard Petty? After Petty Enterprises scuttled its operations in Level Cross, N.C., which once was the Promised Land for Plymouths and Pontiacs, his name was hung on the front door of Gillet-Evernham Motorsports as part of a ìmergerî with hopes of attracting sponsors and talent to the fledgling Ford organization. After all, better for Evernham to associate himself with the greatest driver in the history of the sport rather than a businessman who appears to be in dire straits on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

For The King to have no involvement in the sport, as well as the potential for the No. 43 car to be absent from the track for the first time in 51 years, should serve as a stark reminder and omen of how NASCAR is currently walking a tight rope over the abyss. Harsh economic realties coupled with declining ratings and the possibility of the racing’s most iconic figure potentially vanishing from the scene permanently are all signs that perhaps the formula of the past few years is broken, and needs immediate attention beyond rear spoilers and 1:00 pm EST start times.

Secondly, what of Ford Motor Company? One of the few success stories of the last three years has been the resurgence of the lone American auto manufacturer which was able to rebound on the strength of superior products and innovation, while not bowing to temptation and accepting an offer from Uncle Sam that it couldn’t refuse. Ford has recently begun to once again quietly pump more funding into their NASCAR efforts, and can ill-afford to lose four cars in the most prominent racing series in North America — let alone the group that, ironically, is the reason why Ford has gotten back up to speed in Sprint Cup by developing the front-end suspension geometry that resurrected the Roush Fenway teams this summer.

Beyond the four established Roush Fenway teams, who else does Ford have to help compete against a plethora of Chevrolets, Camrys, and a couple of Penske Dodges? The Wood Brothers run half the season with 55-year old Bill Elliott, and the Bob Jenkins Front Row (pause for laughter) Motorsports outfit has had its own issues with not paying drivers this season as well — just ask Boris Said.

If RPM is to have any chance at surviving, it just may be the Blue Oval proving substantial backing for the two RPM cars that were slated to run in 2011.

Speaking of 2011, there is that other little issue of what becomes of the drivers and teams that were slated to run next season. AJ Allmendinger has been a bit of a success story the last few months, and with backing from Best Buy, Valvoline and Wix Filters, appears to have sponsorship locked up for next year. Fan favorite Marcos Ambrose and Stanley Tools were to be in- and on-board the No. 9 next season. Are they going to end up as collateral damage from the casualties of the Gillett management?

Also lost in all of this are the mechanics and crewmen at RPM. They too have been told they can expect a paycheck this week, but beyond that, things are up in the air. No official word has become available yet from the senior leadership at RPM, with the principles George and Foster Gillett remaining mum on the situation. The more the story unfolds, the more unfortunate and desperate things appear.

There really is no positive side to this tale yet, with the exception of Kahne getting a head start on 2011 with Red Bull Racing and Aric Almirola piloting the No. 9 this weekend at Martinsville. Hopefully, for Almirola’s sake, the No. 9 team has enough parts left to put some decent brakes on the car this weekend. After all, Martinsville is the most brake-intensive track on the circuit.

He might want to think about calling in sick, too.