Tuesday, September 18, 2007
GEM actively pursuing merger with Petty Enterprises
By David Newton
STATESVILLE, N.C. -- George Gillett Jr., the majority owner of Gillett Evernham Motorsports, has been a big fan of seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Richard Petty for more than 30 years.
Now he wants to be business partners.
Gillett is actively pursuing a merger that would make Petty Enterprises and GEM a four-car team.
Sources close to the situation say the merger likely would happen before the start of the 2008 Sprint Cup season, with Petty likely moving his two-car operation of Bobby Labonte and Kyle Petty to GEM's Statesville facility.
Gillett, at GEM on Tuesday to announce that Budweiser will begin sponsoring Kasey Kahne next season, would only confirm that there have been discussions.
"He's a man of great integrity, honesty," Gillett said of Petty. "His values are something like I've never seen. ... I'd love to figure out a way to be associated with him.
"I'm not prepared to say any more than that today. Richard and I are good friends."
GEM minority owner Ray Evernham said such a deal would make both organizations stronger. He would love the opportunity to work again with Robbie Loomis, the vice president of racing operations at Petty.
The two worked together at Hendrick Motorsports, where Loomis replaced Evernham as the crew chief for Jeff Gordon.
"From my point of view, I would like to see that happen," Evernham said of the merger. "For me, the sooner the better."
Evernham has been looking to expand to four teams. The difference here, he said, is he would have four good teams that are solidly in the top 35 for next season.
He said four good teams are essential to keep up with the Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racings of the world.
"Absolutely," he said. "But it's not so much the Hendricks and Roushes. With the money Toyota has given to Gibbs [Racing], there's a lot of things going on."
Evernham said three of his pit crew members agreed this week to work for Toyota in 2008.
"They're picking people off left and right, doubling salaries, and that's tough to deal with," he said.
Gillett said expansion is the only way to keep up, and not just in terms of teams. He is looking to build a large shop in the Charlotte area that will become a destination for racing fans.
"Ray Evernham has every bit of technical skill and genius as the best of any one of those programs," he said of Evernham, who won three Cup titles as Gordon's crew chief. "So we will deploy ourselves in a way that gives us as much competitive strength as is possible to do within the rules."
To stay within those rules, specifically NASCAR's four-car limit, GEM would have to lose one of its three teams to merge with Petty. The No. 10 driven by Scott Riggs is the likely target.
Riggs is 37th in points, well behind Kahne in 22nd and Elliott Sadler in 25th.
Asked who might be in the No. 10 next year, Gillett jokingly asked a reporter, "Got your helmet?"
Gillett acknowledged that he would like to get more seat time for Patrick Carpentier, who finished 22nd when he replaced Riggs at the Watkins Glen road course last month.
"We had our first test with him yesterday on an oval," he said. "We're going over the data. ... I can tell you he looked very good and very comfortable on the track. He was competitive. It doesn't appear there will be any significant learning curve."
Regardless, to merge with Petty Enterprises there would be no room for Carpentier in a Cup car.
"It's all about the number of cars," Gillett said. "We would have to get rid of one of the cars here. Whether 'get rid of' means mothball or have it aligned with another team ... there are a number of teams out there that don't have four cars, several of whom we already have relationships with."
GEM and Petty, which would remain under the Petty Enterprises umbrella, potentially could have the knowledge of six to eight cars under that scenario as Roush Fenway Racing plans to do under its partnership with Yates Racing.
"As you can see, we've got technical excellence, a commitment to technology and upstanding people," Gillett said. "We need to exploit that. That can be exploited in any number of ways."
David Newton covers motorsports for ESPN.com.