Medallion was eager to get into the NASCAR game. In 2007, the company spent several months trying to buy Robert Yates Racing and thought they had a deal to do so, only to have Yates walk away at the last minute, as he also did with Robby Gordon.
“Right now, the thing I don't need is money,” Yates told me when the deal tanked. “The thing I need is performance, and I haven't found a person to bring me performance. That's what I'm looking for, just trying to focus on doing what I'm doing.”
Still, the whiff of NASCAR got Medallion hooked on team ownership. The ability to buy out RPM for pennies on the dollar made the team far more attractive from a financial standpoint.
Ford Motor Co. also played a big behind-the-scenes role in salvaging the team, brokering the deal to bring Marcos Ambrose to the team and providing much more technical support. “We at Ford really believe in the new RPM,” says Jamie Allison, Ford's Director of North America Motorsports. “Richard Petty Motorsports is very important to us at Ford Motor Co.”
Pared down from four cars to two for drivers Allmendinger and Ambrose, RPM has benefited tremendously by the improvements the Roush Fenway organization has made. In a nutshell, RPM is financially stable now and its on-track results have been encouraging: Through the first 15 races of the season, Allmendinger was 17th in points, four positions ahead of the Aussie Ambrose (leading his teammate, ABOVE). Twice Allmendinger has qualified on the front row, and Ambrose has three finishes of sixth or better.
If one or both of them can win one or two races, they easily could qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, NASCAR's season-ending, 10-race playoff round. The RPM Fords are unquestionably fast, but what the team must do now is put together the entire package – qualify well to earn a good pit stall and track position, have great pit stops during the race and not make any mistakes. It's harder than it seems – one reason there have been 10 different winners in the first 15 races of the 2011 season.
For Allmendinger, RPM remains very much a work in progress.
“I look at it as we're still building a race team here,” he says. “We show up every race weekend with a plan to try and win. If we didn't do that, we shouldn't be here, but sometimes I look at it as maybe I'm a pessimist or I look at it as a realist. I know where our race team is and I know where we need to get better.”
Ambrose, in his first year with the team, is adjusting to racing Fords for the first time in Sprint Cup, adjusting to a new team and a new crew chief in Todd Parrott, and still trying to build on the talents that made him a two-time V8 Supercar champion in his native Australia.
“I'm really excited that our team is learning,” he says. “They're learning me, I'm learning them and I'm learning how these cars work. We've just had rough luck so far this year – accidents and incidents outside our control that hurt our points standing. We've had some good runs and some bad luck,” says Ambrose. “But I feel really confident that our team is coherent and bound together. Racing's about individuals performing as a team. And I think all the individuals on our team have the passion and desire to go out and win – me included.”
Ambrose says for his first year with the team, he's happy. “We're a new team, we're gelling well,” he says. “As we develop and grow together, it's only going to get better and better.”
As for The King, who is now 73, it's clear he'll be around as long as he's healthy enough to keep going. He's been through plenty of highs and lows in the last 65 years and he's not too fazed about the struggles of the last few seasons.
“Well, you've got to figure that I've been doing this since I was 7 years old and it's all I've ever done and all I've ever really wanted to do,” he says. “Basically now it's my hobby. I don't play golf. I'm not that big a hunter, all this kind of stuff. My hobby is being around the racetrack and seeing people and just doing the things that I'm doing. Sometimes it gets kind of aggravating but overall it's really what I want to do and it's what I've always done. I always feel like as long as I can do it, I want to keep going because if I ever pull over to the side of the road, somebody is going to go by me. And I don't like that part.”
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the August 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.