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Auto Racing

Pettys Finally Get Up To Speed

Staff
Published:   |   Updated: June 2, 2013 at 04:59 AM

LEVEL CROSS, N.C. - Richard Petty figures he knows what his father would have said about Petty Enterprises needing to relocate closer to the rest of the stock car racing industry.

"I don't think he would have let us move," the "King" said reflectively. "He would have went down fightin' in Level Cross."

Richard, too, resisted for a long time. But after nearly 60 years in tiny, out-of-the-way Level Cross, Petty Enterprises has bolted from the antiquated white buildings that housed the greatest team in NASCAR history. A few months ago, the team moved into a spacious, modern facility in Mooresville, N.C.

Left behind was the shop that began as a dirt-floor garage when the late Lee Petty founded "Petty Engineering" in 1949. With Richard leading the way, Petty Enterprises has won 268 races, 10 championships and nine Daytona 500s.

But the Pettys have been living in the past so long their legacy looks like an aged photograph. The team has won only three races since 1983, none since driver John Andretti at Martinsville in 1999.

In 2006, the team hired former Cup champion crew chief Robbie Loomis as vice president of racing operations and former Cup champion Bobby Labonte to drive the famed No. 43 car. But results lagged.

The next logical step was to move operations so the team could better compete for the sport's best engineers, mechanics and pit crew members and have easier access to competitive necessities such as a wind tunnel and seven-post shaker rig.

"I know in the past when someone was let go from, say, Hendrick Motorsports or wanted to leave, the Pettys might be their fourth or fifth stop," Loomis said recently. "Since we've been here, we're usually the first stop. It's a big difference when a guy has to travel 15 or 20 minutes to work versus an hour."

Expecting Victory

Level Cross is 90 miles northeast of Charlotte. Mooresville, or "Race City USA!" as it calls itself, is 10 minutes north of Charlotte and home to several NASCAR teams, technical facilities and vendors.

The Pettys went from 60,000 square feet in space to a bright and open 115,000 square feet. They eliminated a commute to the building where their cars are built and cut down the drive to Gillett Evernham Motorsports, which supplies their engines and engineering support.

Richard Petty said if the move turns out as well as he thinks it might, "I'm going to kick myself for not doing it sooner." Loomis, an Orlando native who won the 2001 championship with Jeff Gordon, goes so far as to predict Labonte will win within the first eight races this season.

Relocating likely helped the Pettys land Jeff Meendering, the car chief on Gordon's 2007 runner-up team, as Labonte's crew chief this season.

"There are a lot of people who want to work for Petty Enterprises," said Bill Wilburn, veteran crew chief for Kyle Petty's No. 45 car. "We've already seen some positions on the 43 team and my 45 team where we've improved because we've made the move."

Loomis pressed for the move, and the Pettys agreed at the start of the 2007 season. When team owner Robert Yates decided to retire late last season and his son, Doug Yates, aligned the team with Roush Fenway Racing, an ideal complex became available.

The Pettys signed a two-year lease and have plans to buy or build their own place. They have not decided what to do with the Level Cross buildings, but will not close them down. There is talk the state of North Carolina is looking at recognizing the shop as a historic site.

Memories Everywhere

Four generations of Pettys raced out of the original shop. Lee won three championships, 54 races and the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959. Richard won seven championships and 198 of 200 victories with the family team. Kyle has driven for the team for most of his 28 years in NASCAR, though his eight victories came with the Wood Brothers and Felix Sabates. Kyle's son, Adam, was a promising fourth-generation star in the former Busch Series when he died in a crash during practice at New Hampshire in 2000.

Richard Petty, who conducts much of his business out of the old shop and commutes between the two, admits he is still adjusting.

"Every time I go in there, you dream," Richard said of the team's old shop. "You dream about seeing all the cars in there, about seeing my dad's car in there or seeing Kyle's car or Adam's car.

"It is reality, and you have to accept reality."

Richard was born in the house adjacent to the race shop; Kyle was born in a house up a hill from there. Kyle learned to ride motorcycles in the fields around the houses. When he wrecked one, he took it to the race shop for repairs.

"I have to admit, moving was a lot more emotional for me than what I anticipated," Kyle said. "I didn't realize how hard it was going to be until I walked back through Petty Enterprises and saw that place with no race cars sitting there, with no people working on them for the first time in 60 years."

He referenced a scene in Petty Enterprises' season preview video showing four pieces of concrete with Lee Petty's initials and the years the concrete was poured embedded in them.

"Each one of those represents the year Petty Enterprises was successful enough that we could expand and move forward," he said.

"So that's history written in that concrete there."

Loomis said Petty Enterprises isn't the concrete or the walls or the white buildings of the old race shop, but the people who worked in those buildings.

"I think of it like a church. If a church burns down, it's still about the people in the church," he said. "We had a few people working in the new shop in December, and in January, when we got everybody in here, that Petty feel came back."

Reporter Tony Fabrizio can be reached at (813) 259-7994 or


afabrizio@tampatrib.com.

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