Friday, October 22, 2010

It was sad

It was sad,….
A lot more was lost this week than just a race team. In a time long, long ago, in a place that now seems far, far away, 1958, Richard Petty began his racing career.

Years ago a popular "gather-'round-the-campfire" song for children at summer camp was a tune which had a chorus of,…

It was sad (…oh, it was sad)

It was sad (…it was sad)

Oh, it was sad when the great ship went down,…

An oddly haunting refrain about the sinking of the Titanic.

A great ship went down this week, Richard Petty Motorsports, RPM. Only a couple of years more than a decade ago companies stood in line, literally, to pay (a lot) to have a little decal on the B pillar of the 43 car. But times change and somehow RPM didn't, they stayed in Level Cross when all the other teams set up shop in the Concord-Mooresville area. NASCAR entered the engineering era, driven in no small part by Hendrick who hired Gary Eaker from the GM wind tunnel to run their aerodynamics program--with Ray Evernham who obsessed about data for an up-start kid named Jeff Gordon; the age of specialization produced a string of championships.

The change was so dramatic that by 1994 Earnhardt Sr. remarked "there ain't gonna be no more Alan Kulwicki's."  As prophetic as the grammar was bad, the age of the lone owner, builder, crew chief, driver was over.

Where RPM had been fast on the track they were now slow on the learning curve. By the time RPM did move to Concord it was too little too late. Like watching a Greek tragedy unfold, this day of final doom seemed inevitable when RPM merged with GEM, Gillett-Evernham Motorsports, the sorry remnants of what had been Evernham Racing. GEM was anything but a gem, as Gillett seems to have gone from junk bond scandal to hockey to football teams in England (otherwise called soccer) to NASCAR, each step along the way building a larger house of cards on ever larger amounts of debt.

The sad part is that by the time RPM tried to join the modern era the choices were so slim it made the GEM deal seem like a good idea, or the grasp of a drowning operation clutching at anything still afloat.

It is impossible to imagine that Jack Roush ever wanted to beat Richard Petty as a car owner this way--on the track, yes, every week--by scheming mortgage deals: never.

NASCAR has become a "product," fueled entirely by sponsor dollars, defined by marketing, the great ship of racing has slipped beneath the sea,…

It was sad (…oh, it was sad)

It was sad (…it was sad)

Oh, it was sad when the great ship went down