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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

How the mighty have fallen

Of all the major sports in America, NASCAR is arguably the one that most cherishes its heroes and past greats. It is risky to your health to speak ill of legends like Dale Earnhardt while out at the track. Richard Petty and David Pearson’s legendary battles from 30-plus years ago are forever burned in the minds of longtime fans, and those who have seen the tapes replayed endlessly on cable television.

But while those memories will always remain, a sad truth has come to be a reality in the new, big business world of NASCAR. Great teams of the past -- such as Petty Enterprises, Wood Brothers Racing, and Yates Racing -- have long been passed by the superteams of Roush and Hendrick, and are struggling just to exist at this point. The day may come when one or more of these teams ceases to exist, and that would be a sad day for NASCAR, as these teams have all contributed much to the sport’s rich history.

Wood Brothers Racing has been in the sport since 1950, shortly after NASCAR was officially formed. The family-owned operation has had tremendous success. The team’s success level has been up and down, but they were usually contenders. The team has almost 100 victories and more than 100 poles. Legends such as Donnie Allison, A.J. Foyt, Curtis Turner, Fireball Roberts, Junior Johnson and of course David Pearson have driven for the team. The No. 21 is an icon in NASCAR, known mostly for its phenomenal success in the 1970s with Pearson at the wheel, when he and Petty waged one of the best rivalries NASCAR has ever seen. But times have changed. This year has seen the once-mighty team struggle to even qualify for races. Once they get in the show, the results can usually be predicted, and they’re not pretty. Seeing that No. 21 get lapped week in and week out is a sad sight.

As far as Petty Enterprises, I don’t even have to give you the numbers. From Lee Petty’s domination in the first decade of NASCAR to The King's never-to-be-beaten 200 wins record, this team was the face of NASCAR for most of its existence, until a guy named Earnhardt showed up to take some of the spotlight. Bobby Labonte’s doing an amazing job this year of finishing will with the equipment he’s being given, but I suspect he might bolt for RCR’s fourth team next season. His sponsor is already going there, so it makes sense. At that point, the Pettys are basically left for dead, lacking in both sponsors and talented drivers. Kyle, who lately can’t even qualify for races, probably will not be driving next year, and anyone they get to drive the cars is going to have an uphill battle, and that‘s being kind. The high standards set by the bigger teams have left Petty so far behind, it will take a miracle to get this historically great team back on the right track.

Yates Racing rose to fame on the success of a young Davey Allison, who thrilled NASCAR fans for several years before his tragic death in a helicopter crash at Talladega. After his death, the team continued to succeed with Ernie Irvan, Dale Jarrett, Ricky Rudd and others, even winning a championship with Jarrett. It’s gotten so bad this year that the cars are bare, with “” on the hood. It’s almost painful to see them beg like that, but that’s what it’s come to. While not as historically significant at the Woods or Pettys, Yates is a great organization that deserves more than its current situation.

Here’s hoping these legendary NASCAR teams can come out of the comas they are in and magically turn a corner somehow, whether it be through an investor or some other method, because at the current rate they could all be closing up shop in the next few years.


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