Loomis working on reviving Petty into contender

Published 1:12 pm Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Changing a team from an also-ran to a serious contender can be an agonizingly slow and difficult feat.

Nobody knows that better than Robbie Loomis, executive vice president of operations for Petty Enterprises.

The Petty team, one of NASCAR’s pioneer organizations and long one of its most successful, is in the midst of an extensive overhaul intended to get back to the top nearly 30 years after Richard Petty won the last of his seven championships.

The team, which has 268 victories in its storied history, has won only three times since 1984, the last by John Andretti in 1999.

But Richard Petty and son Kyle are determined to turn things around. Hiring Loomis, who began his career with the Pettys and later became a championship crew chief with Jeff Gordon at Hendrick Motorsports in 2001, was the first big step in that direction.

The face of the team has changed considerably since Loomis came on board in late 2005.

Bobby Labonte, a former Cup champion, is now the lead driver and recently signed a contract extension. Loomis also hired Jeff Meendering, a former car chief for Gordon at Hendrick, to be Labonte’s crew chief.

Earlier this year, the team moved 70 miles from its longtime home in Level Cross, N.C., to Mooresville, a suburb of Charlotte, the hub of stock car racing. And, in June, the Pettys sold majority interest in the family team, started in 1949 by Richard’s father, Lee, to Boston Ventures, a private equity firm.

Outwardly, little has changed.

Labonte, now 44, is 20th in the season points, while 48-year-old Kyle Petty, drives only part time, sharing his team’s second Dodge with 22-year-old Chad McCumbee, road racing ace Boris Said and two-time Cup champion Terry Labonte, Bobby’s older and semiretired older brother.

But Loomis said the changes are working.

“Jeff Meendering and Bobby Labonte have been doing a great job,” Loomis said. “Everyone on the (No.) 43 car and at Petty Enterprises have been testing a lot. With the start of this season, we were behind the eight ball because we didn’t spend the money doing the necessary stuff to come out of the box like we needed to at the beginning of the year.”

Loomis said his drivers paid the price for that in the early going, but that things have been looking up.

“When we went to Loudon (last week), we felt like we had the best weekend for all of our practices,” he said. “We were in the top five in all the practices and really good in … lap times. We felt good about the progress that we made.”

But Labonte finished 13th and McCumbee crashed out in 42nd place in Sunday’s race at the New Hampshire track.

“Thirteenth isn’t what we want,” Loomis said. “We’re not going to quit until we find Victory Lane.”

Giving up control of the family team couldn’t have been easy for the Pettys. But Loomis, who convinced them that an outside investor was necessary, said the new majority ownership is doing all the right things, even if it’s not yet obvious to everyone outside the Petty race shop.

“We’re trying to keep the same culture we’ve always had at Petty Enterprises,” Loomis said. “There’s no secret what great people the Pettys are. It really starts with the business side and trying to take that to another level. They’re holding a lot of accountability from me to the drivers and all the way through (the organization). They definitely want to take this thing to new heights. We’re putting the pieces in place to do that.”

Over the next 30 days, the team will be working on its plans for 2009, which will include the possibility of running a third car part time, if sponsorship can be found.

“We’ve had a lot of discussion on that in staff meetings each week,” Loomis said. “Dave Zucker, our CEO, is trying to put a lot of things together on the sponsorship front and that’s one of the avenues that we’ve talked about. If we could run a third car on a limited schedule — even if it is a minimum of five to seven races — it does help us prepare and get a little bit of information in our circle and also prepare an easier transition when we go to three cars in 2010 when everyone gets this economy rolling again.”

Those plans are likely to include McCumbee, a regular in the Craftsman Truck Series, who has run just four Cup races.

“It’s obvious that we want to bring in a young guy (to go) with Bobby Labonte’s experience and try to build from there,” said Loomis, adding that McCumbee will likely drive the No. 45 in five more Cup races this season.

Meanwhile, everyone on the team is feeling a lot more comfortable about the move from its longtime home after a rough start.

“We hired … people from other race teams and, for so long, we had so many people that had only been (in Level Cross) and worked on the cars one way, with one approach,” Loomis said. “All of a sudden, being in the Charlotte area, we mixed a lot of different approaches working on the cars while still trying to keep the ‘Petty feeling’ throughout it all. That’s been our biggest challenge.

“Around July, things really started to settle in and we started hitting our stride. I think it will start to show in our performance the last eight or 10 races in terms of having a little calmness with having the move behind us now.”