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Richard Petty Motorsports hanging on by a thread

George Gillett is symbolic of a new breed attracted to big time racing several years ago when the sport was flying high. NASCAR had signed an eight-year $4.8 billion TV package with FOX, ESPN/ABC, Speed and TNT.

Fortune 500 company executives who wouldn’t know a fuel injector from a carburetor, began pouring sponsorship

money by the truckloads into race teams.

The George Gilletts of the world may not know anything about auto racing, but they have one common trait. They can sure smell the scent of money, and if there was one thing NASCAR was wallowing in as the sport moved into the 21st century, it was money. It was inevitable Gillett’s crowd would descend upon the Carolinas for a piece of the action.

It’s a sad story as old as time. A hard-working group or individual, by dint of their imagination, talent and hard work, build the better mouse trap, only to be overwhelmed by the fast talking slickster. From that day on a sad ending for our hero is pre-ordained. It’s not a matter of will they fall, it’s when.

The classic, almost cartoonish example, is the self-destructive tale of a young Elvis Presley, overwhelmed by the fast-talking carnival barker Col. Tom Parker. The initial pot of gold, soon turned into the young talent’s worst nightmare when it became apparent that the Svengali who was to lead the talented youngster cared nothing about the quality of the product, but only the all-mighty dollar. Anything that would generate more checks was fair game. Quality be damned, just keep the checks coming.

Ray Everham started out as a small-time racer from New Jersey. Through hard work, managerial talent, and mechanical ability, he eventually landed a crew chief’s job with a youngster from California named Jeff Gordon just before he exploded onto the national scene. When Gordon hit it big with Hendrick Motorsports, he took Everham with him and the two re-wrote the sports record book. Everham eventually got a mega-bucks contract from Chrysler Corporation to spearhead Dodge’s return to NASCAR’s Cup series.

When George Gillett and his checkbook moved in on Everham Motorsports, the writing was on the wall. Ray Everham, a car-guy racer his entire life, was out and the money man from Canada was in charge.

Gillett, an outsider and definitely not a racer, needed entry into the inner workings of the sport. Enter Richard Petty. For a minority stake in the company and a check, Richard Petty made his deal with the devil. Presto: The unknown George Gillett race team became Richard Petty Motorsports.

Near as I can tell, the company had two meaningful assets: Richard Petty’s good name and reputation and a contract with Kasey Kahne. When Kahne won a couple of races, the media was all over themselves touting the return of Richard Petty to victory lane, as if this figurehead position had any comparison to a real life product of Petty Enterprises from Level Cross. N.C. It was sad to see Richard gamely smiling and playing the game.

Like many money people with business interests in many pies around the world, the last few years have not been kind to George Gillett. The forced sale of a world-class soccer team he owned in Great Britain has cost him a ton. His other enterprises are having tough sledding.

Wells Fargo Bank is said to hold a note for $70 million to $90 million on RPM. It was reported that Roush Fenway Racing, that builds cars for Richard Petty Motorsports, repossessed the team’s Talladega cars a couple of weeks ago and returned them only after receiving a past due payment. Kasey Khane left the team prior to the Martinsville Race.

Budweiser announced their contract with RPM called for Kahne to be behind the wheel of the Budweiser sponsored car and they would make no further payments to RPM. With even the top tier teams scrambling to line up sponsors for 2011, it’s hard to imagine a savior appearing on the horizon to bail out Gillett’s team.

I have no feelings at all for the George Gilletts of the world; they’ll simply fold their tents and look for the next big thing. My heart goes out to Richard Petty, who has devoted his life to the sport of stock car racing and its fans. At age 73, himself a cancer survivor, and wife Lynda presently fighting brain cancer, it’s a sad way for a legend to go out.

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