HAMPTON, Ga. – NASCAR used to be a sport of millionaires.
Now, they've upped the ante.
Anymore, you need to be a member of the billionaire's club to be competitive, and if you don't have that kind of coin you better know someone who does.
As a result, in the past few years NASCAR has undergone a major change in ownership. The days of the small, independent team owner working out of a modest race shop, fielding one, maybe two cars, has for the most part come to an end.
To be competitive in today's NASCAR environment requires a huge race shop, hundreds of employees and the financial wherewithal to maintain an independence from the ebb and flow of sponsorship, lest you be faced with having to close your doors.
The new economic landscape has forced several teams to disappear, while others have sought wealthy partners in order to maintain their participation in what is arguably the best business platform in the world of auto racing.
And so it should come as no surprise that one of NASCAR's legendary organizations – Petty Enterprises – is the latest to seek outside help.
Y! Sports has learned through two independent sources that Richard Petty will soon announce that he has struck a deal with a major investor that should keep the Petty name in the sport it has been so instrumental in building.
While it's obviously good to keep the Petty name alive in NASCAR, it also signals the beginning of the end of an era.
Wealth, power and diversity
Despite the criticism that NASCAR is a closed club where only a handful of wealthy team owners control the sport, a look at the starting field for Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500 reveals 15 different team owners.
They are a diverse group that includes super-wealthy businessmen, major league sports team owners, a football coach, as well as former drivers and crew chiefs who have successfully transformed themselves into owners.
The diversity is due to the fact that NASCAR is not a sport where you need to gain the approval of the other owners before you can become one. Each team owner maintains his status as an independent contractor doing business with the sanctioning body – NASCAR.
In theory, it's open to anyone, assuming you have enough money in the bank.
The group includes:
• Rick Hendrick and Roger Penske: Both extremely wealthy businessmen who have used their experience and acumen from decades in the auto business to vault them to success in auto racing.
• Joe Gibbs: A former NFL coach whose personality and business style has been able to forge an alliance of partners anchored by mega-sponsors like FedEx, Mars Candy and Home Depot.
• Richard Childress: Childress successfully made the transition from driver to powerful team owner and may have started the trend of outside investors when he brought an investment group into his organization nearly a decade ago. Word is that Childress is working to buy out his partner to regain sole ownership of RCR.
• Jack Roush: Brought in a whole new era of team ownership when he introduced Boston Red Sox team owner John Henry and his powerful Fenway Sports Group into NASCAR and then renamed his organization Roush Fenway Racing.
• Ray Evernham: Following Roush's lead, Evernham partnered with another major league team owner. The former championship winning crew chief (while working for Hendrick) partnered with George Gillett, owner of the Montreal Canadiens and Liverpool Football Club. They have formed Gillett Evernham Motorsports.
• Teresa Earnhardt: Became the owner of the organization that bears her late husband's name, Dale Earnhardt Inc. Although she has kept a low profile, Teresa Earnhardt appears to be taking a more active role in the team. Rumors persist that she will eventually sell DEI to another current team owner.
• Jeff Moorad and Tom Garfinkel: The CEO and COO respectively of the Arizona Diamondbacks acquired controlling interest in Hall of Fame Racing from a group of Texans headed by former NFL players Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman.
• Michael Waltrip: Was the latest to bring aboard an outside investor. The two-time Daytona 500 winner's new partner is New York born (and now living in Europe) investment banker Robert Kaufmann.
• Chip Ganassi: Is another former driver turned team owner whose success in open wheel racing led him to form an alliance with wealthy former NASCAR team owner Felix Sabates. Ganassi's uncanny ability to find and maintain sponsorship is rivaled only by his peers Hendrick and Penske.
• Gene Haas: Built his fortune as the owner of the world's largest machine tool manufacturer. Despite his current personal difficulties – he has transferred control of his team temporarily – will likely stay in the sport. His organization has a partnership with Hendrick.
• Red Bull Racing: Owned by billionaire energy drink magnate Dietrich Mateschitz who lives in Salzburg, Austria. He readily understands the high cost and value of auto racing. He also owns teams in Formula One.
• Doug Yates: Took control of his father's race team last year and sought an alliance with Roush Fenway Racing in order to stay alive. Yates is the managing partner of Roush-Yates Engines, which supplies all the Ford engines for the Cup series.
• Barney Visser: Has used the resources of his chain of Furniture Row stores to maintain a single-car presence in NASCAR. This year, the team hired Joe Nemechek to drive and made an alliance with Hendrick Motorsports for engines that should help them to remain competitive throughout the season.
• Bill Davis: The former trucking magnate is faced with a difficult future in the sport and may be the next team owner forced to seek out a wealthy partner in order to maintain his organization.
• Robby Gordon Motorsports: He's a single-car owner/driver, but don't be fooled – these days Gordon sits under the Gillett Evernham Motorsports umbrella. (Editor's note: RGM was unintentionally omitted in the original version of this story.)
Not in Sunday's field but still active as teams are BAM Racing, owned by Beth Ann and Tony Morgenthau, and the legendary Wood Brothers.
The Wood Brothers are as responsible for building NASCAR as the Pettys. Unfortunately, they failed to keep up with the growth of the sport, and as a result the sport has left this once-great organization in its rearview mirror.
Perhaps they will be able to use their storied and rich history in the sport to their advantage and find a financial partner to help them continue their existence.
Although NASCAR will not publicly acknowledge it, it currently (and has in the past) worked with teams in pursuit of sponsorship.
And while NASCAR will not veto or interfere directly with an owner's choice of partners, NASCAR officials have often been asked to "check out" potential partners by team owners before any deals have been consummated, according to Jim Hunter, NASCAR's vice president of corporate communications.
As it stands, there's no official time frame on when the Petty deal will be announced. But the deal will happen, which in this day and age has become critical, even for the sport's most legendary name.