There are more questions than answers this week surrounding the future of Richard Petty Motorports, after a bizarre week that began with the departure of star driver Kasey Kahne and ended with reports that Richard Petty himself may be preparing a bid to seize control of the team that bears his name.
Kahne departed the team suddenly last week, after blaming flu-like symptoms for his refusal to return to the damaged Budweiser Ford following a crash at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He criticized repeated brake failures on the cars, and claimed a team executive questioned his commitment to the team at Charlotte. The team released Kahne less than 48 hours later, clearing the way for him to join Red Bull Racing for the final five races of this season. Sources say the decision was made – in part – to avoid making the final two payments on Kahne’s 2010 contract. Red Bull will now pay the final two installments of that pact, worth approximately $2M.
The situation deteriorated even further last week, when a number of cars, engines and rear gear assemblies were repossessed from the RPM shops by Roush Fenway Racing and Roush Yates Racing engines, due to lack of payment. Sources said nearly $10 million was owed to RFR and Roush Yates, prompting seizure of equipment RPM had planned to use this weekend at Talladega Superspeedway. The cars were returned to last Thursday after a partial payment was made, but the engines remained in the possession of Roush Yates Racing Engines until Friday, when an additional payment was reportedly made.
“The outlook was pretty bleak, and it’s not much better now,” said a Richard Petty Motorsports employee last weekend at Martinsville Speedway, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Everything’s up in the air. Rumors were flying and nobody was being told anything. A bunch of crew guys left the shop last week with their toolboxes with them.”
The team’s financial struggles reportedly stem from the recent sale of the Liverpool English Premier League Football Club, owned by RPM majority owner George Gillett. The team was sold recently to a group headed by Roush Fenway Racing co-owner John Henry, but for a price far below what Gillett had hoped for. Gillett reportedly planned to use profits from the sale to finance the race team, but instead was left with barely enough money to pay off a note held by his financier, Royal Bank of Scotland. Gillett has threatened to sue Henry’s New England Sport Ventures for approximately $1.6 billion in damages, but that does nothing to ensure the survival of Richard Petty Motorsports, even in the short term.
A series of high-level meetings were held late last week in an attempt to shore-up the team’s status beyond Talladega, but Petty said he will not let Gillett’s financial issues force him out of the sport.
"I've been here since 1949 and I'm going to be here till they run me off," he said. He declined to comment on reports that he is attempting to assemble financial backing to purchase majority interest in the team from Gillett, saying, "I haven't got anything to tell you except speculation… and that ain't going to get anybody anywhere. When we do get all of it together, we'll get it together.” Jack Roush confirmed, however, that Petty is working on a takeover bid.
RPM Director of Competition Robbie Loomis admitted Saturday that “there's been a lot of speculation about a lot of things… but what gives me confidence is that we've always had the ability to move forward." He insisted that the team will compete at Talladega this weekend, and that the team intends to continue in 2011. In his words, "There are a lot of people working collectively together to make this thing more successful as we go forward in the future.”
Driver AJ Allmendinger told Sirius NASCAR Radio’s Sirius Speedway with Dave Moody that while RPM is working to solidify its financial standing, he and his management team have been examining “worst case scenario options” in case the team is unable to continue. "I'm not exactly sure what's happening,” he said. “I don't have any hardcore answers about what's going on inside the team, (and) I'd be lying to you if I said, 'It's all good.’ There are certain people that need to answer those questions, (but) for me, all I can do is focus on driving the race car. I can't fix anything else.”
He said his main concern is for the men and women who work behind the scenes at RPM. “Those are my guys,” he said. “I’m going to be fine at the end of all this, one way or another. But those guys put their heart and soul into this race team every week, six days a week. A lot of them live paycheck to paycheck, and I’ve gone to them and promised them I’ll do whatever I can do help.”
Kahne, meanwhile, began his tenure at Red Bull Racing with a 14th place finish at Martinsville Speedway. He will drive the #83 Toyota in the final five races of the season, with Aric Almirola – who ironically had been slated to drive the car before Kahne’s departure from RPM – taking his place in the #9 Ford. Marcos Ambrose will apparently honor the balance of his contract and finish the season with JTG Daugherty Racing.