AJ Allmendinger was seething after he got out of the seat of the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford following his 13th-place finish at Michigan International Speedway in June.
“We have to get better,” said the former open-wheel star who's slowly but surely become a solid stock car driver.
Furious that he ran up front for most of the race but was unable to translate the speed in his car into a victory or even a top-five finish, Allmendinger was clear RPM still has a way to go before it is a serious contender week in and week out.
“We aren't a Chase team right now,” said Allmendinger flatly. “Obviously you want to score every point you can but we need to be better before we worry about making the Chase. Today was a big step. We were never really good here and we were a top-five car all day. So 13th sucks in the end compared to what we had, but I am proud of what we did today instead of the points.”
That Allmendinger could be complaining about a top-15 finish is nothing short of remarkable, given the incessant drama and turmoil RPM has endured in the last four years, a saga as strange and convoluted as any in NASCAR.
It all began back in 2007, when Ray Evernham, the brilliant crew chief and architect of Dodge's Phoenix-like ascension back into the Sprint Cup ranks, sold Evernham Motorsports for an estimated $120 million to entrepreneur George Gillett, then owner of the Montreal Canadiens National Hockey League team and the Liverpool soccer club.
In June of 2008, Richard Petty sold his family's Petty Enterprises to Boston Ventures, a New England investment firm that promised to pump millions of dollars into the team and restore the long-suffering team to its past glory. Boston Ventures reportedly paid “The King” $60 million for his team, but neglected one key aspect of race-team ownership: Without a sponsor, you have nothing. And despite the new investment in the team, they were unable to land sponsors for 2009.
Petty Enterprises, the team Richard's father Lee Petty started in a dirt-floor North Carolina garage in 1949 and built into the winningest team in NASCAR history, suddenly and shockingly closed its doors at the end of 2008, just six months after Boston Ventures bought. No sponsors, no team.
But The King, above all else, is a survivor. In January 2009, Gillett hired Petty to be the frontman for his team, which he renamed Richard Petty Motorsports, and gave Petty a four percent equity stake. When Kasey Kahne won on the Infineon Raceway road course in June 2009 (RIGHT), it looked like Petty was back in a big way. Alas, it was not to be. Despite a switch to Ford for 2010 and another ginned-up “merger” with Doug Yates prior to last season, Gillett's financial house of cards collapsed midway through 2010. Short sales of his soccer and hockey teams left Gillett millions in debt and his absentee ownership drew the ire of fans in all three sports he had invested in.
Gillett had purchased Evernham Motorsports at the absolute top of the market, but manufacturer support dried up when Dodge's parent company Chrysler LLC went bankrupt, and Gillett's other sports investments collapsed, too. He defaulted on a $90 million loan he bought RPM with, and lender Wachovia took over the team last year. By October 2010, it was unclear whether RPM would even be able to finish the season, as it owed a reported $10 million to Roush Fenway Racing, which built its cars and provided powerplants through Roush Yates Engines.
Then…relief at long last. In late November 2010, the bank sold the team to a group of investors led by Petty. The rumored sale price was a mere $15 million, which made the deal considerably more attractive. The big money contributors were Medallion Financial, a multi-billion-dollar New York City outfit that got rich selling taxi licenses, and DGB Investments, which has ties to Silicon Valley and Canada. Lisa Brown was hand-picked by Petty to be the company's CEO, although Petty was given complete control over the racing decisions.
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.