NO MONARCH likes to see his kingdom in decline, so the last decade has been hard on Richard Petty. His family business, Petty Enterprises, has been a part of NASCAR since there's been a NASCAR. Petty's cars are so iconic that the shade they were painted is now known simply as Petty Blue.
Petty Enterprises' cars have 268 wins—nearly 100 more than the next closest competitor, Hendrick Motorsports—but none since 1999. "It hurts," says the King, who stopped driving in 1992. "You talk to your people and you scratch your head. Why ain't we doing better? But then you look around and see our circumstances."
The Pettys have become NASCAR's equivalent of a small-market team. For years, Lee, Richard, younger brother Maurice (who built the engines), cousin and crew chief Dale Inman and Richard's son, Kyle, built cars in a small shop in Level Cross, N.C. For years that was more than enough to run with the other mom-and-pop operations—Junior Johnson, the Wood Brothers, Bud Moore. "Every one of them had a shop in their backyard," says Petty. "They worked on their cars and went to their races."
But in the late 1980s, outsiders with deep pockets began putting together huge teams housed in state-of-the-art shops. And before long the little guys were getting blown by. "They turned the operation upside down," says Petty. "Instead of growing from the inside, they grew it from outside. Junior had sense enough to get out, Bud Moore got out. The Wood boys are sort of like us. They're just hanging on." The 21st century has seen even more cash flow into the sport; in 2007, Fenway Sports Group, sister company of the Boston Red Sox, bought a 50% stake in Roush Racing, and that same year Montreal Canadiens and Liverpool FC owner George Gillett bought a majority share in Evernham Motorsports.
Earlier this month Petty had his epiphany. "Eventually it beat me upside the head enough times that I said, We've got to do the same thing." So he sold a controlling interest in the business to Boston Ventures for an undisclosed sum thought to be in the tens of millions. The private equity firm has invested in, among other companies, Motown Records and the National Enquirer. David Zucker, former head of Playboy Enterprises, was installed as CEO, becoming the first non-Petty to run the show. But Richard remains on the board and plans to have a strong say in how the operation is run. At the press conference announcing the deal, Zucker jokingly asked if he could call Richard "the King." Petty's response: "Call me the boss man."
The hard reality is that in the modern NASCAR, one boss man doesn't cut it anymore. "You almost have to have a committee," says Petty. "When I first started, I owned the car, I worked on the car, I helped build the engines, I painted the cars. I was there every day. It grew away from me. This is the next step."
CHARGING ON The King sold control of his operation but vows he's not abdicating.