America is obsessed with constructing its best athletes into larger-than-life figures, including NASCAR's King, Richard Petty, who is worshipped because of record-setting accomplishments. But make no mistake, celebrated sports figures like Petty, Brett Favre, Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan are humans, too, flawed and fighting a losing battle with age that can't be wished away by adoring fans. The refusal to surrender to Father Time often comes with a price: an ugly, depressing final chapter for not knowing when to walk away.
That's where we find Petty now: twisting in the wind, yet feverishly fighting while the vultures circle around an organization that's his in name only. Richard Petty Motorsports, in reality, has been driven into the ground by George Gillett, or more specifically, the banks from which he defaulted on a $90 million loan earlier this year. Those lenders can only wait so long before foreclosing on a lost cause, and desperation checks from sympathetic onlookers are only enough to keep this team alive week-to-week while a permanent investor is sought. Each week, "RPM Deathwatch" takes a dramatic turn, with haulers and cars trapped in limbo through Tuesday or Wednesday until a last-ditch deposit allows them to keep from being repossessed.
Through it all, Gillett stays silent, hidden in the background while the King faces questions he simply can't answer. A man who never met a fan he didn't sign an autograph for now can't put his signature on what he wants the most: a piece of paper that brings another group of investors into the fold.
Yet while answering the questions of his team's impending death, the winningest driver and car owner in the sport is spared from detailing one of the most significant blows to his organization. That actually came a decade earlier, on May 12, 2000, when Adam Petty hit the Turn 3 wall at New Hampshire and the death of a promising fourth-generation driver ripped the heart and soul from racing's first family. Future plans were crushed, a seemingly untouchable legend weighed down by the sobering reality of losing a grandchild.
Through the grief and sorrow, the beauty of Adam's spirit has shined through in Victory Junction Gang Camps, an organization inspired by the fallen driver and managed by the Pettys as a haven for seriously ill young children. It's an unexpected life twist in which they've added to their long list of gifts to this country, becoming role models far beyond the race track and confirming what any Southerner will tell you, that the Pettys are simply "good people."
But through success pops up a damaging flaw: the passion of racers whose lives headed in a different direction, but whose patriarch still can't let the competitive side of him go. For eight years, Petty Enterprises pressed on as Adam would have wanted, just without the direction, foresight and technology needed for success as multicar giants with millions towered around them. After nine winless years and with pressure mounting, the King was forced to reach out to others to save his throne, acquiring the help of investment group Boston Ventures for a much-needed cash injection in June 2008. Its first act was to kick out aging son Kyle from the driver's seat, putting forth a plan that never came to fruition while sending a wrecking ball through a family image that embodies the soul of this sport. Father and son have recovered from the rift that developed, but Kyle doesn't deny the truth, recognizing the true end of PE as the day investors made it their own.
Six months later, those same men gave up, forcing Petty to partner with Gillett in a last-ditch effort to save what little remained of a racing operation that had 268 victories. Gillett's bone came in the form of minority ownership, changing the name of the company while creating the illusion Petty remained in day-to-day control. Unlike the biggest rival of his generation, David Pearson, who chose to walk away from NASCAR when it was time, Petty refused to be pushed out by partnering with an impulsive billionaire.
Now, Gillett's bad financial decisions have brought down everyone. The motorsports operation is the least of his problems in a business life that could end in bankruptcy. Only the 73-year-old Petty is left to fight, as he toys with taking on men and manufacturers to whom he'd normally, never give a second look. Petty in a Toyota? For most, that's blasphemy. But for the King, saving the throne means doing whatever it takes in a world where that kingdom is threatened.
This latest round of adversity has elicited sympathy from around the racing community. Former crew chiefs, drivers, anyone whose life Petty has touched -- a number inside the garage that easily reaches four digits -- have pledged their help to keep the man afloat. Hope exists this week in a FoxSports.com report that says Petty is talking to Andrew Murstein, of taxi medallion fame, in an effort to bring an investment group together.
But when you're talking millions in a sport where Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart struggled to find sponsorship, most options in this financial desert turn into a mirage. I spent Wednesday talking with a racing source who dealt with Murstein in a racing deal a few years ago, when investors were all the rage and Medallion was looking for a potential partnership with, well, anyone. The source described Murstein as a "pseudo-Mark Cuban," a man with great dreams, but few acted out on in reality. A flirtation to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins and San Antonio Spurs, among countless other potential deals, dot his résumé, all of which wound up falling through. In mid-2008, it was reported he turned down a deal to invest in Petty Enterprises because the deal "wasn't big enough"; to swallow his pride and do so in 2010, with a higher price tag and a smaller financial return, would be a tough sell.
Through it all, it's fair to stop and ask Petty a simple question: "Why?" A lifetime ambassador to the sport, this man has nothing left to prove to anyone, least of all himself. With a wife battling cancer, he shouldn't have to spend these days in the uncomfortable confines of a lending office trading in that cowboy hat and jeans for a suit and a business plan. NASCAR's leading Hall of Famer deserves better, the chance to move on, retire and be revered for accomplishments in a career whose final chapter was written years ago.
I just wish someone would tell him the book is already finished.