Petty Enterprises pushing on despite merger talk

Published 1:08 pm Wednesday, October 22, 2008

When Robbie Loomis took over as the executive vice president of racing operations at Petty Enterprises two years ago, the former crew chief had to do something he never allowed himself during his days atop the pit box: stay patient.

Loomis had a plan for one of NASCAR’s most iconic teams, one that would require years — not weeks — of planning, hard work and a little luck.

“When I was a crew chief, at the end of the day I didn’t sleep at all if there wasn’t performance,” Loomis said. “When I came into this job at Petty Enterprises, we looked at performance, but there are a lot of big-picture things we have to get in place.”

Namely, sponsorship, sound leadership and a definitive course on how to make Petty Enterprises relevant again.

While the company isn’t quite ready to return to its glory days, Loomis thinks there have been signs of progress. The team has consolidated its shop, moved it to Charlotte and sold a majority interest in the team to Boston Ventures to help take some of the sting out of the cost of doing business in Sprint Cup these days.

“It has been a real transition,” he said.

That goes for life on the track too, where Petty Enterprises has seemed to steady itself after years of decline. Bobby Labonte, driver of the No. 43 car, is 20th in the Sprint Cup standings and picked up his second top-10 of the season with a sixth-place finish at Talladega earlier this month.

Things haven’t gone quite so well for the No. 45 car, which has seen a revolving door behind the wheel. Kyle Petty, Terry Labonte, Boris Said and rookie Chad McCumbee have all taken turns, making it difficult for the team to develop cohesion. The team is 40th in the owner standings heading into this weekend’s race at Atlanta.

Still, Loomis is optimistic about next year thanks in part to the surprising McCumbee, who managed a 25th-place finish in his first Cup start at Martinsville last weekend, better than stars Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Burton did in their first Cup races at one of NASCAR’s most demanding tracks.

McCumbee, a regular on the Craftsman Truck Series, said the race “helped his learning curve” and hopes to bring some momentum to Atlanta. Loomis, for one, is happy crew chief Stewart Cooper doesn’t have to slap a “Hi, my name is” tag on the driver this week.

“We’re real excited to get a little continuity here at the end of the year in getting them to run together,” Loomis said. “We really haven’t had a base of notes, a good notebook on that car.”

McCumbee’s enthusiasm has re-energized Loomis, and the young driver’s reputation of being able to do more with less means he could be plenty busy next year.

“Chad is the youngest I’ve ever worked with and it’s exciting,” Loomis said. “He brings a lot of youth. You’ll hear him say something about his race car that you’ve never heard before.”

Loomis hopes next year he can hear McCumbee say “Rookie of the Year.”

Just who he’ll be saying it for remains to be seen. For all their success with the 43, the car still lacks a sponsor for next year. Same goes for the 45 and whatever car McCumbee ends up driving in the future. All the work Petty Enterprises has done on the track over the last two years won’t mean a thing if it doesn’t have the money to keep it going.

Rumors of a merger continue to swirl. Loomis admitted “everybody is talking to everyone about our merger,” but wouldn’t get specific about future plans, saying only that Petty Enterprises remains “very committed” to Dodge.

“I think that we’ve got to be smart about what we do from the competition standpoint because the only thing that will keep our brand healthy and keep our brand out front, our Petty brand, is our competition and getting our cars back to the forefront and winning races like the Hendrick Motorsports crowd is doing today,” Loomis said.

Loomis would know. He spent several years as Jeff Gordon’s crew chief watching team owner Rick Hendrick help his team become one of the sport’s most dominant racing franchises.

“Rick is doing a great job of making wise decisions along the way and putting the right people in the right place,” he said. “That’s why Hendrick Motorsports has the success today. That’s our vision for Petty Enterprises. Rick has set the current model in the 1990s and 2000s. We’ve got to be smart enough to pay attention and make sure we’re doing the right things along the way.”