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Monday, January 19, 2009
Updated: January 22, 8:29 PM ET
Relaxed Petty in familiar form

By Ed Hinton
ESPN.com

CONCORD, N.C. -- The famous Petty grin is gone -- the one that for decades seemed forced, posed, strained, too automatic, too locked at the corners of the mouth.

There were moments when you couldn't tell the man Richard Petty from the cardboard cutouts of him you'd see in supermarkets.

In place of the weathered grin Monday, there was an apparition -- an expression even more famous in its day: the broad, warm, relaxed and genuine Richard Petty smile.

Richard Petty
Happy days are here again for NASCAR icon Richard Petty.

I hadn't seen that look on his face in more than 30 years. Not since his prime as a driver, long before he was dubbed the King. (Nobody called him that until his prime was past.)

No sooner had he set foot in a convention center here Monday, for the official announcement that Petty Enterprises has indeed merged with Gillett Evernham Motorsports to become Richard Petty Motorsports, than he exuded, mightily, a single emotion:

Relief.

You know a guy this long, you learn to read him. And so I read him, aloud, to his face.

I asked simply: "Burden lifted?"

"A whole lot," he said. And there it was: the smile, not the grin. It took you aback if you'd known him, because it had been so long since he smiled like that.

For nearly 48 years he had borne the business burdens of Petty Enterprises, all the responsibility for the team and its cars and the very lives and livelihoods of its employees.

No more. Not ever.

"I'm still going to the racetracks, help look after sponsorships, do my appearances and all that stuff," he said -- and then he emphasized: "BUT, I'm not going to have to worry about going to the bank, or having money, and making sure the payroll's taken care of. That's somebody else's responsibility now.

"So that's really a load off of me."

Nobody outside the Petty family will ever know just how many times he went to the bank, how desperately, or how much he worried about paying his people, trying to keep afloat a once-proud operation that had fallen badly behind the newer, high-tech teams.

But I know enough to have a hunch that Richard Petty would just as soon never see the inside of a bank again.

The stone -- the boulder -- that rolled off of his shoulders had been there since 1961, when his father, NASCAR pioneer Lee Petty, was hurt so badly at Daytona, and laid up for so long, that, at 23, young Richard had to become head of Petty Enterprises in a hurry, without so much as a single race car left drivable by their Daytona crashes.

He didn't show the strain in his prime as a driver, winning seven championships (to be equaled only by Dale Earnhardt) and 200 Cup races (likely never to be equaled, or even approached, by anyone).

Still, he paid the price of business worry. In 1976, he underwent surgery to remove 40 percent of his ulcer-ravaged stomach. That year, against doctors' orders, he drove the most famous Daytona 500 ever, dueling with David Pearson and losing as they crashed coming to the checkered flag.

How many businesses operate for 60 years independently? Most any big companies, after a while, they go into a corporation. You get very few individual families who own a business for 60 years.

-- Richard Petty

That was about the time the wide and genuine smile began to freeze, then strain to widen for appearances' sake. By the late '70s he wasn't winning like he used to, and even when he won his sixth and seventh Daytona 500s, and his final championship in 1979, we in the media treated those as breakouts from his chronic slumping.

Thirty years ago this month, his only son, Kyle, climbed into a race car for the first time, at age 18. Another mouth to feed at Petty Enterprises meant another driver to fund, equip and promote, hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in those days, and so the business burden on Richard's shoulders doubled.

About then, he admitted to me that he was in a vortex. He couldn't win, couldn't recover, because he couldn't focus as a driver -- had to spend too much time worrying with the business side. And if he couldn't win, the business side sank irrevocably.

Results were dismal. As a driver, Kyle was star-crossed. And with the death of Kyle's fabulously talented eldest son, Adam, in a crash in 2000, all hope of continuation of the Petty dynasty was destroyed.

Still, Richard went to the bank, admittedly scrounging for money to gamble on the struggle to catch up.

"That's the deal in owning your own business," he said Monday. "You gotta worry about what you're doing, and what all your people are doing, and you've got to be able to generate enough to take care of those people because they're the ones taking care of you.

"And now I'm going to let George [sports entrepreneur George Gillett] and his crowd worry about taking care of that part of it."

Times got so hard that last year Richard had to bring in an outside investor, Boston Ventures, so that Petty Enterprises, for the first time since 1949, was not wholly family owned.

Then the economy came crashing down, piling on.

"It's really been hectic," he said of the past year. "I'd never done it at all [negotiate outside financing], and then we do something [Boston Ventures] and then the economy goes upside down, and now we've got to look at doing it all over again."

Is there sadness at the death of the storied name, Petty Enterprises?

"Not really," he said. "How many businesses operate for 60 years independently? Most any big companies, after a while, they go into a corporation. You get very few individual families who own a business for 60 years.

"That ain't no record, but it's way up there with 'em."

And here you knew beyond a doubt that the genuine Richard Petty of yore was back, because in addition to not forcing the grin he didn't force his grammar. He was back to his own relaxed, butchered grammar of the glory days, before NASCAR went vanilla and politically correct.

He'll be largely a figurehead now -- and I mean that in a positive way. He can walk through the garages as a titan, a living legend, reminiscing, philosophizing on the way things are now. No longer will the finances burden the back of his mind, eat at him internally.

The smile can be genuine again.

"I think I'll be looser," he said, "in being able to talk to you all [in the media] and doing things all around, because I won't have that burden on my mind."

The labored grin is gone, Petty Enterprises is gone, and maybe we can even drop that overworked moniker, "the King."

Current-generation America, all you've ever known was the King. Now we can introduce you to the genuine Richard Petty -- a towering and charismatic figure indeed.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.