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Blk3GM's Winston Cup News

K. Petty calls 'em as he sees 'em
May 28, 1999 - By DAVID POOLE, The Charlotte Observer

Kyle Petty came to the media center Thursday morning to announce his family's participation in NASCAR's current obsession -- promoting the sale of die-cast cars by painting up the cars a team drives on the race track.
The Petty Enterprises Winston Cup, Grand National and Truck series cars will all carry special Petty blue paint jobs for the races in their respective series at Indianapolis to mark the family's 50th anniversary in the sport.

It's a better excuse than most people have for hawking their toys. And since Kyle Petty's primary sponsor is Hot Wheels, his team's use of little cars in its promotions is much closer to legitimate than it otherwise might be.

What makes Petty different from many other drivers in the sport, however, is that the occasion didn't muzzle him when he was asked to comment on some of what is going on in the sport that has provided his family with a livelihood for half a century.

``This has become a boring sport,'' Petty said. ``I think anybody who doesn't admit it is lying to themselves. If you talk to fans who have been around for a long time, they'll tell you the sport is boring. The new fans are the ones who are excited about the sport.

``The old fans who have come for so many years and who have seen great races with Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Bill Elliott, Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Buddy Baker and guys like that, they think the sport is boring right now.''

What heresy is this? A Winston Cup driver saying out loud what many fans have been saying for years, instead of reciting the standard lines about how competitive and entertaining ``our sport'' is in this era of good feelings and fat profits?

``It's a homogenized sport,'' Petty said. ``Everybody looks the same, does the same, talks the same and gives the same answers. The bigger it gets it seems to lose a little bit of its character.''

Ah, character. Longtime race fans remember that.

There are hundreds of great stories told every day in the garage area. Unfortunately, almost all of them are told by somebody or about someone who hasn't been inside a race car in 15 years.

These days about the only colorful characters you'll find in the garage area are painted on the hood of Jeff Gordon's special ``Star Wars'' themed car.

``Every time I pick up a paper, I read a different account of how Winston Cup racing was started,'' Petty said. ``I guess we're going to be revisionist about the history of the sport, we're going to say nobody ever did anything wild, nobody ever cheated, nobody ever did any of that stuff and this is not a Southeastern sport. That's going to be our line.''

Petty admires Dale Earnhardt Jr. for his potential as a driver, but he's not buying into a lot of what is being written and said about his Winston Cup debut here this weekend.

``All you guys are writing about the hype,'' Petty said to reporters. ``But who's stirring up all the hype? You guys.

``Pressure? He doesn't have any pressure on him other than what he puts on himself. You go through the garage area and find a driver who has never run a Winston Cup race but who's got a $50 million deal that has him set for the next four years. That's not pressure.''

Petty believes Earnhardt Jr. can provide a great service to the sport if he can do something that Petty and his fellow current Cup drivers haven't been able to do so much lately -- beat Jeff Gordon on a consistent basis.

Fans know what Gordon can do and are getting tired of seeing him do it, Petty said.

``People have always dominated races, but I think the way they dominated and the way they've raced is totally different kind that what Jeff does,'' he said. ``When Jeff dominates, he just dominates. He just kills a race.

``(Dale) Earnhardt would have to race, at some point in time he had to race somebody. He would run them through the grass or they would run him through the grass or he would get into somebody or somebody would get into him. If you go back and look at the number of races Jeff has won, and the number of races he has had to race to win, he has only ever had to race two or three times to win a race. He has just dominated races. Earnhardt had to race his butt off to win a bunch of races.

``There's a difference. Coming down to the checkered flag 25 car lengths ahead of anybody and coming to the checkered flag with somebody in your door is a totally different thing for the fans. They like to see somebody stuck in your door.''

Gordon, of course, is doing precisely what he should do for his team and his sponsors every time he blows the doors off his rivals. He also has helped carry the sport to marketing levels it could only dream of a decade ago, and for that reason Petty said today's sponsors all want their drivers to walk, talk and act like Jeff Gordon.

That's fine for Gordon who, despite what some fans might think, is really pretty close to the image he portrays. But it doesn't work for everybody, Petty said.

``This is just who I am,'' Petty said of his distinctive look. ``I have had sponsors before who have said cut your hair. I said keep your money. That's not who I am and the people up in the grandstand are going to know that. If you want to come along and play with me, you have to take the long hair and the earrings and the motorcycles and all of that stuff because it's just who I am.''

Someday, Petty worries, the price for maintaining that kind of identity might become too high.

``If the marketing angle becomes too much, drivers in the garage area with a lot of talent and not a lot of marketability will be replaced by drivers who look and walk and talk and act like Jeff Gordon, but have a quarter of his talent,'' he said. ``Right now, people who are driving Winston Cup cars are there because of talent, because they worked and struggled to that point.

``If it breaks back to the point where it depends on how good looking a driver is and how much he can walk and talk and say the right things to get a Winston Cup ride, that's when it will be bad for the sport.''

Especially if it means fewer guys like Petty, people who are willing to tell it like it is, are hanging around.

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