King Petty's new backer has big plans (cont.)
This deal becomes the fourth investor/merger in as many years for Petty as Murstein and co-investor Douglas Bergeron, CEO of VeriFone, try to help the King begin again. That type of turnover would make any outsider nervous, but in this group everyone insists they'll be around to see this rebuilding process through.
"I met with Andy down in Florida and I can assure you that Andy is in it for the long haul," Ford Motorsports Director Jamie Allison said last month. "It's in the heart and there's a family approach to it."
"No Murstein man has ever been divorced," joked Murstein. "Once we commit to something, we stick with it. I don't know if we're good at marriage, or we're just OK with having our wives say the last two words of every argument, which is 'Yes, Dear.'"
But when it comes to the sport he's entered into, the man turns deadly serious about ideas and initiatives that aren't just wants but needs for the sport to enter the next chapter of its existence. The list of owners dwindling, and the ones left growing older (Rick Hendrick, Richard Childress, Roger Penske, Jack Roush and Joe Gibbs are all over 60), Murstein knows the key to the sport's future is getting others to recognize the value of NASCAR versus other sports, attracting investors as the price lowers to more reasonable levels during an economic and attendance decline.
"What I appreciate with the athletes in NASCAR is there's only one athlete per team," he explains, trying to justify the frugality versus, say, owning an NFL franchise. "It's hard to say this as a team owner, but I think they're underpaid. If you look at athletes in other sports -- take the NBA -- you have a 10th man on the bench, a guy who doesn't even see playing time, earning $5 million dollars a year. In NASCAR, only historic drivers are getting close to that amount, so you can be one of the top drivers in the world and your salary is only in that range. On the business side, that was one thing that attracted us most: the low payroll to go out and operate."
Of course, cheap drivers are only worth it if the fans pay to see them. To win them back, the owner believes in the "Have At It, Boys" philosophy established by NASCAR officials last year, taking the sport to a level of emotional bonding it once had.
"I think every sport needs to change," he said. "I think NASCAR needs some rivalries; boxing had Frazier/Ali; in the old days of NASCAR you had [David] Pearson and Petty. You don't have that today. So you can't create that; I think that's something that just will come, and I'm no expert by any means on NASCAR, but to me the reign of Jimmie Johnson -- he's a great guy, but I think that's all about to change in the next year or two. I think some new drivers are going to step up and win the Cup, take the title away from them."
Over time, Murstein hopes Cup titles will be earned by A.J. Allmendinger, the lone remnant of RPM's past, and Marcos Ambrose, Ford's brightest Australian hope. Can the two take that next step?
"Part of what's interesting about this sport and sports in general is you can go from the basement to the penthouse in the blink of an eye," Murstein said. "A.J.'s a star, I've seen his numbers get better and better every year. And Marcos, if he has some money behind him -- like he does now with us -- there's no telling how well he can do. My hope is that one of them makes the Chase this year, and that they're in the Winner's Circle at least once."
"Part of why we're going after a third or a fourth driver, though [in the future] is to stoke a friendly rivalry between them; subconsciously, I said that because I want the two of them to be on their toes and know we're not going to rest on our history at Petty, that we're going to go from two cars to four cars and get the best drivers that are out there."
Expansion is already on RPM's plate for 2012, Murstein looking towards growth to help boost a program whose No. 43 car hasn't won since Spring 1999 at Martinsville. Here's the catch: in a world full of 2012 free agents, where Carl Edwards, Brian Vickers, and Greg Biffle top the list of possibilities, this car owner is looking to break the mold by picking an unproven driver -- but not just any rookie.
"If there was one driver that was out there, I would go for something new and different," he says. "I think that's what the sport's lacking. There's no perfect answer for that, but a woman driver would be a terrific accomplishment for us. Whether it's someone like Danica [Patrick], or it's someone like Johanna Long. If there was an up-and-coming African-American driver, that would be my focal point. I want to make a game-changing decision in this sport to try to bring it to another level."
Perhaps that's where Murstein turns boldest, his business expertise leading him to believe it's possible to bring a track to New York City.
"It's beyond my control," he said. "And it's a bold statement, but I'd be able to deliver a track in the New York City area. I've had conversations with state officials, and they're going to be very open-minded about it because it's different today than it was years ago in Staten Island. They need more jobs, they need to hire people, get the tax rolls up, so there's plenty of sites."
"Like Aqueduct. There's a racetrack there that's not doing well. It's a lot of land, it's zoned for motor sports. That would be a good spot. Number two, next to Citi Field there's a whole area there where they have auto body shops, it's perfect for a NASCAR racetrack. The city's owned that land for many years, it's a blight in many people's lives in the neighborhood. It's right next to Citi Field, you could use the parking there, you could use the public transportation there, it's right near the airport. A terrific location -- that would work very well also. But it's not my decision."
For all his bravado, however, Murstein has yet to speak with NASCAR officials about his plans. CEO Brian France hasn't spoken to him since the purchase of the team, and president Mike Helton has engaged in just a "handful" of conversations with the new ownership group. But that doesn't bother a man whose biggest hope is that NASCAR doesn't meddle in the affairs of a rebuilding program.
"I look at it as you're always investing in the CEO of the company," he said of France. "It's them who takes you to another level. They'll take your investment from X dollars to Y dollars. So that's a big part of it here. There's no commissioner of the sport like there is in other sports, which is even better. Because commissioners of sports don't have any direct relationship to the bottom line; if a team does not do well, it doesn't really affect them. These commissioners make lots of money regardless of the profitability of the teams. NASCAR is different. NASCAR, for the most part, is family-owned, and therefore they make decisions for the sport that is best for the business of the sport and that is a good thing to know."
The entrance of Murstein alone can't automatically save Petty Enterprises. Between Bobby Ginn, J.D. Stacy or even Boston Ventures, the first of many suitors to try to save the King, millionaires with big dreams have entered the sport only to leave it with broken hearts, unpaid bills, and the stench of outright failure. The money, for now might be good, but the room at the top? It's smaller than ever in NASCAR these days, an elite group of four to five owners seemingly controlling everything within the sport.
"It is not like the Medallion Group came along and all those guys came in and we thought we were saved," claims A.J. Allmendinger, the lone remaining driver from 2010, who remains the realist of the group. "It is a steppingstone. You have to keep building... we aren't out of the woods. Everything isn't rainbows and blue skies."
Whether they'll get there? That now belongs in the hands of Murstein, the latest businessman trying to convince a world of Fortune 500 companies about the plus side of getting involved in the sport. It's NASCAR, in 2011, and the Southern stereotype now lands in the hands of Wall Street types like him, men in suits with big ideas who could ultimately determine NASCAR's upward mobility.