January 29, 2008

They once represented NASCAR royalty as the most successful team in big-time stock car racing history. But as with most monarchies, time had passed the Petty Family by.

The impressive lineage of Petty Enterprises traces back over 60 years to Lee Petty, who won 54 races in NASCAR's top division before turning the throne over to his son, who would be known as "the King."

Richard Petty won a record 200 races on what's now called the Sprint Cup Series, including seven series championships and seven victories in the Daytona 500. His son, Kyle, has continued the family legacy long since Richard retired in 1992.

A fourth generation appeared ready to carry forward the Petty name before Kyle's son, Adam, was killed in a crash during practice at Loudon, N.H., on May 12, 2000, sending the family and the team into deep despair.

Time and technology had passed by this once-proud team, and its race shop in Level Cross, N.C., seemed more a museum than active team headquarters.

So as the Pettys try to keep up with the times, they've left their longtime home base and relocated the operation to a modern facility that once housed Robert Yates Racing in the Talbert Pointe Business Park, 72 miles away from its once-mighty kingdom.

"It's not anything new; we've been cussing and discussing this the last four or five years that we might need to do something in this vein," said Richard, who, at 70, still maintains his Doonesbury-like appearance "It was hard for me to make that decision. We were looking at different properties and different things, and when Robert Yates moved out of here it gave us the opportunity to speed things ahead in moving out of Level Cross.

"That's home. It's been there for 60 years and it was really hard to move. But everybody knew we needed to take that gamble. It's all history; we need to move forward. This is the first step in us getting back to where we know we need to be, and that is competitive on an ongoing basis.

"It was hard emotionally but this is what we had to do."

Kyle Petty grew up across the street from his family's garage, where some of the most famous race cars in NASCAR history were built and fine-tuned as his father became the most dominant driver in circuit history. Now, as an owner/driver himself, Kyle admitted it was a difficult and emotional decision but one that was necessary.

"We all felt like we needed to move, that we needed to make a change," Kyle said. "We made a change a couple years ago when we hired Bobby Labonte as a driver and Robbie Loomis to run the team. To change shops, it was a lot more emotional for me than I anticipated."

There are more than memories that existed at Petty Enterprises: there was history.

Four concrete pads have the initials of his late grandfather, Lee, and the date the concrete was poured to lay that portion of the shop. The dates range from 1948 to 1971.

"That was the year we built that part of the building at Petty Enterprises," Kyle recalled. "That was the year Petty Enterprises was successful enough we could expand and move forward.

"The history was written in the concrete, there."

Richard was born in the house next to the shop and Kyle was born in a brick house one house removed. He remembers riding his bicycles and motorcycles on the property as a youngster and when something needed to be fixed, he took it to the race shop.

"That's where I hung out from the time I was seven or eight years old," Kyle said. "I have to admit, I probably pushed him [Richard] and prodded him a long time ago to move and we never moved. To move now, at this point in time in my life, was pretty hard.

"I didn't realize how hard it would be until I walked back through Petty Enterprises and saw that place with no race cars sitting in it; with no people working on race cars, because that's how it's been for the last 60 years. For 'The King' and for myself, the move is a lot deeper than that."

When Labonte moved from Texas to North Carolina in 1979, he lived about one mile from Kyle's house and has only moved three miles away since then. He realizes that change is sometimes hard but believes the commitment to moving into a new facility will only help the overall effort.

"The past 60 years are behind us and the next 60 years are in front of us," said Labonte, the 2000 NASCAR Cup champion. "The commitment level they made is awesome. I'm very appreciative of what they have done. It will help the performance of the team to have this beautiful facility."

Loomis believed the move was essential to elevate the team in 2008.

"This place is family, home, and it's about Petty Enterprises," Loomis said. "This was a unique opportunity that came up for us and Robert Yates was gracious enough to work with us on a lot of equipment that made this seamless.

"This is just a building in a different location. It's the people in this building that are going to help us win races. When we made this move we were blessed that a tremendous amount of our employees followed us here. We want to bust into Victory Lane."

With Labonte driving the No. 43 Dodge Charger and Kyle in the No. 45 Dodge, it would take a lot to beat the stronger teams at Hendrick, Roush Fenway, Gibbs and Childress. But the team is determined to remain a viable part of the sport.

And as the Daytona 500 celebrates its 50th anniversary with this year's running, much of the storied race's history was written by a driver named Petty: from Lee's controversial victory in the inaugural 1959 event to Richard's unprecedented seven wins from 1964 through 1981.

"For us to go down there over the period of years until the early 1980s to be one of the dominant cars and win a lot of races is great," Richard said. "They are all fond memories. But the ones I lost I probably remember more than the ones I won."

To ease the strain on the crew members at the shop that continue to live near Level Cross, Petty Enterprises has three vans that transport 40-45 team members back and forth to the new shop.

For Richard, Kyle and Loomis, however, they wear out the North Carolina blacktop to get to the new shop from their homes.

"It's a great time to do a lot of phone calls and gives me a chance to unwind," Loomis said. "We'll talk a lot of times on the phone during the commute."

Richard Petty is as much a source of pride for the people of North Carolina as Grandfather Mountain in the west of Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks to the east. Now, he's wearing out N.C. Highway 150 as he drives to work every day.

"Every once in a while, I go Highway 152 just to break up the monotony," Richard quipped.

As the Pettys attempt to move forward, Level Cross will never be in their rear-view mirror: it will always be the foundation of one of the greatest teams in NASCAR history.

"No matter where we go or what we do, Level Cross is still the heart and soul of where Petty Enterprises is," Kyle said. "We may be here and race in California, but our roots run deep in Level Cross because that's where the championships were and that's where our history was.

"That's behind us. We've closed that chapter and moved forward.

"Hopefully, someday we'll look at this place the same way."

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