Petty bringing race experience to Indianapolis 500

  • By Michael Marot Associated Press
  • Monday, April 6, 2009 4:02pm
  • SportsSports

INDIANAPOLIS — The Richard Petty racing experience is coming to a new venue next month — the Indianapolis 500.

And this is no ride-along, publicity stunt or gimmick.

The King of NASCAR plans to take his first crack at winning IndyCars’ crown jewel by putting one of his former drivers, John Andretti, in the cockpit of an open-wheel car co-owned with Dreyer &Reinbold Racing.

“I’m not here just to be having fun,” Petty said during Monday’s announcement. “I’m serious about this stuff. So we come here for a serious deal.”

To Cup fans, seeing Petty with an IndyCar will be a strange sight.

Petty won seven points titles in NASCAR and retired as the series’ all-time leader in victories (200) and poles (127). He won a record seven Daytona 500s and in 1967 incredibly won 27 races including 10 straight.

Clearly, the 71-year-old North Carolina native is a born-and-bred NASCAR man. His late father, Lee, won three Cup titles. His son, Kyle, was still driving last season, and Petty also gives paying Cup fans thrills with those ride-alongs.

So why is he suddenly getting involved with IndyCars?

After merging his family owned Petty Enterprises with Gillett Evernham Motorsports this season, Richard Petty started looking for new opportunities. Indianapolis, which he always considered hallowed ground, was the top option.

In fact, if Andretti drives well May 24, it might be enough to delay Petty’s arrival at one of the Cup series biggest races — the Coca-Cola 600, which will be run the same day in Charlotte.

“If he (Andretti) is leading the race, I ain’t leaving, OK?” Petty said.

Petty’s new car will have an old look, though.

It features the familiar sleek red-and-light blue paint scheme, his old number, 43, and comes with all the usual trimmings except a roof, the stock-car frame and that famous STP logo.

“I don’t think there were any discussions on the paint scheme,” said Petty, who joked the car’s colors were so bright he needed his trademark sunglasses to see it. “The 43 and the paint scheme were going to be automatic if I was going to be involved.”

The decision means three current NASCAR owners — Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi and Petty — will compete in Indy.

It also gives Petty a chance to reunite with A.J. Foyt, the four-time Indy winner and 1972 Daytona champion. Foyt also owns an IndyCar team.

Now more than four decades and a whole generation of IndyCars after Foyt tried to entice the tall, lanky Petty to get into an open-wheel car, Petty is finally coming to the 2.5-mile oval to compete in the speedway’s signature race.

Indy Racing League fans will embrace Petty’s entry for another reason: They’ll get to see the 46-year-old nephew of 1969 race winner Mario Andretti attempt to make his 10th career Indy start. His best finish, fifth, came in 1991.

And it will turn the month of May into a family reunion.

Mario Andretti’s grandson, 22-year-old Marco, will also try to qualify for the race. He drives for Andretti Green Racing, which is co-owned by Michael Andretti, Marco’s father.

The twin brothers, Mario and Aldo, John’s father, are expected to be here, too.

In fact, it was John Andretti who spent a year trying to get the deal in place. He has already driven for two of the most famous names in Indy circles, Andy Granatelli and Foyt, and drove for Petty’s NASCAR team from 1998 till the middle of the 2003 season.

“For me, driving for two icons and driving for people who have won championships and won races is different than driving for guys who haven’t because they understand the trials,” John Andretti said. “I remember when we were out in Phoenix one time and things weren’t going very well, and Richard came over, patted me on the head and said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s gonna be all right.’ And we went out and won the pole.

“Our goal is going to be to make him late to Charlotte.”

Andretti has been driving for Front Row Motorsports on the Cup circuit, starting the first seven races this season without a top-10 finish. He said that team will need to find a replacement driver for the two points races he expects to miss — Darlington and Charlotte — before returning at Dover.

But if Petty’s first foray into IndyCars delivers a victory, it may not be the last appearance for Petty at an IndyCar event.

“The basic deal right now is that it’s an isolated deal,” he said. “If it was at Homestead or something else, I probably wouldn’t be here. But this is the Indy 500, and the best way to get me involved (in IndyCars) is winning the race. Then I’ll be there.”

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