Last Wednesday I attended a press conference that was the middle stanza of an unexpectedly depressing week, a seven-day stretch so bummed out that not even wins by golden boys Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Junior could wash the blahs away. The Petty family gathered the media to announce that they had sold a majority stake in their team to a group of thousand-dollar suit-wearing capitalists known as Boston Ventures.
Two days earlier, former NASCAR tech inspector Mauricia Grant filed a $225 million harassment lawsuit, a document that contains more racy—and racial—content than a Tarantino movie. Two days later, NASCAR president Mike Helton held a "come to Jesus" meeting (NASCAR's words, not mine) with drivers to tell them to tone down their whining. One day after that league chairman Brian France showed up to blast Grant publicly.
Have I mentioned sagging ticket sales and Aaron Fike?
At last week's uncomfortable presser, Kyle Petty smiled and hammed his way through his emcee duties, dressed in a Petty blue blazer with his trademark pony tail braided down his back. New Petty Enterprises chief executive Jeff Zucker (one of the founding fathers of ESPN2) smiled and told us all tales of how he's loved the Pettys since watching Richard and David Pearson duke it out in the 1976 Daytona 500. Boston Ventures managing director Andrew Davis grinned incessantly through the entire proceeding, repeatedly exclaiming his excitement over the deal. Even France, who showed up to support the Petty family but declined to talk to about Grant, managed to squeeze out a couple of uncharacteristic chuckles.
But my eyes were focused on one man the entire time—The King. And his look said a lot about the mood around our beloved sport these days.
He never smiled.
When's the last time you heard of Richard Petty not smiling?
He played with his Dasani bottle and leaned away from the new business partners sitting to his right like they might give him fleas. Despite being the tallest man at the table, he was slumped so low he looked like my three-year old daughter trying to see over the kitchen counter. He cracked one weak joke at Zucker's expense ("Richard, can I call you The King now?" "No, you call me Boss Man."), and another at his own.
But the most memorable crack wasn't funny at all. It was when his voice began to crack when asked about the emotions of selling off the team his father founded six decades ago.
Everyone in attendance was careful not to use the phrase "sell out," but that's exactly what this deal feels like. And I'm not the only one who came away thinking so.
"The price of being successful is that sometimes you are forced to maybe do something you don't really want to do," Dale Inman told me immediately following the presser. Inman was crew chief for nearly all of The King's 200 Cup wins, called the shots for all seven of Petty's Cup titles and currently serves as a special consultant to Robbie Loomis, The King's last crew chief and now executive VP of the race team. Inman is also Petty's cousin. "We were so good for so long that we forgot to build for the future while times were so good. When everything went bad, we didn't know how to fix it, so we put band-aids on everything. That just ends up doing more damage in the long run."
Inman could just have easily been talking about NASCAR as he was his own team. Then again, he's a pretty smart man, so maybe he was.
The promise of Boston Venture's cash infusion has already been enough to convince Bobby Labonte to stay on board for at least four more years, hopeful that outside investors would bring the kind of stability that they have to Roush Fenway, Gillett-Evernham and Richard Childress Racing. But even Childress admits that while the outside aid has helped, it's the kind of move that "makes this whole deal feel a lot more like work than fun … and I'm pretty sure we all got into racing to have some fun."
Kyle Petty, who stepped down as Petty Enterprises CEO as part of the deal, did nothing to hide the fact that he was not having fun, repeatedly answering all questions with, "I can't answer that anymore, I'm just a driver now."
As his father walked by me, I asked The King if this felt a little like selling his soul. He just looked at me over his trademark shades and kept walking.
He never smiled.