King Petty's new backer has big plans for both RPM and NASCAR
With Richard Petty's future in NASCAR in doubt, Andrew Murstein stepped in
The New York businessman has designs on returning RPM to prominence
Among Murstein's goals are expanding RPM's lineup and bringing a track to NYC
Last October, Richard Petty stood on the brink of NASCAR extinction. After his company's two mergers, multiple investors and changing manufacturers, a mountain of debt and poor performances signaled that, at 73, the King's reign of involvement in the sport was reaching a frustrating, financially disastrous end. The legend who had signed every autograph, took every picture for fans he came in contact with suddenly needed a hero of his own.
At the eleventh hour, that knight in shining armor arrived ... in a taxi. And now, the very future of not only the sport's most well-known name, but also its sense of direction could lie in how this rescuer handles his special passenger.
At first glance, NASCAR's newest power player doesn't seem like the type of man who'd step out and salvage the sport's cowboy-hat toting, country-loving, stereotypical Southern God. Long Island-born and raised around the streets of New York City, Andrew Murstein carries the accent well, a 46-year-old Yankees fan whose life revolves around boardrooms and baseball and men in suits talking money, not mechanics.
But dig a little deeper and you realize the man whose profile may define the next generation of NASCAR owners shares some striking similarities with the legend he saved. Both born into family businesses, their careers were outlined at an early age; they are two car nuts of a different color. While Petty drove the blue No. 43 to a record 200 race wins, Murstein was helping manage his company's flourishing taxi medallion business (think: permission to drive and own one) around New York City.
"My grandfather started by driving a cab back in 1937," Murstein explained. "We've always been in the industry. We own limousine companies, do a lot of financing, transportation."
It was a basic background on wheels, but for years that's all she wrote as Murstein focused on other aspects of a growing company. In 1994, he started the modern-day advertising on top of taxicabs you see in Manhattan today, which made him more relatable to the NASCAR marketing world than most. There was just one problem: the man in charge had no idea what he was missing, that his talents could be used in another world in which drivers also yell at each other, go around in circles and struggle with their sense of direction at times.
One passing comment changed all that.
"We were sold out on top of all the cabs that we had, so I went to the mayor of New York [Michael Bloomberg], and I said, "Mr. Mayor, we've sold all of the taxi tops, I want to bring additional revenue into the city and pay more taxes -- 'cause it's also good for us. If we're paying more taxes, we're making more money -- where else can I advertise on the taxi? Can I advertise on the hood, can I do the trunk, can I do it on the doors, and he shook his head and he said, 'Murstein, what do you think this is? NASCAR?'"
"It actually got me thinking: we're actually pretty good at bringing sponsorships to moving vehicles, and that, in a way [is] what part of NASCAR is -- selling advertising and sponsorships [on] cars."
So the idea clicked in his head, slowly cultivating as the fortune blossomed into a sum that Murstein could spend on a second love: sports. Invited by Petty to see a race in 2006, he and NASCAR legend had several flirtations toward a deal that proved two years in the making. By then, the taxi man had raised a reported $200 million-plus with a special interest acquisition company (SPAC) whose intended goal was entering the stick 'n' ball world. Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron was among those listed on the board of directors. At the same time, Petty Enterprises' revenue was crumbling as longtime sponsor General Mills aligned with rival Richard Childress while Kyle Petty was nearing the end of his driving career. Desperate for money, Petty reached out to Murstein to finally close the deal.
He closed the door.
"I'd like to think of ourselves as buying low and selling high, realizing when values are at a frothy level," says Murstein. "In 2008 -- and time will show you that we were right -- the ad market was so robust, NASCAR was coming along and it was doing so well for so many years, and we took a step back and said, 'Are we buying at the top of the market?' And I thought the answer was 'yes,' so we took a step back and decided not to do it. In retrospect, obviously we were dead on."
There's likely some truth in that, as well as the reality of not accomplishing a lifetime goal: by the end of that '08 season, after flirtations with the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins, a handful of NBA teams and even baseball's Chicago Cubs, Murstein came up empty-handed. The experience left him disappointed, but in looking back on the differences in each negotiation the NASCAR one stood out as perhaps the lone conversation that didn't end with that bitter taste of being fooled.
"If a pro owner is trying to sell his team, and it's an NHL team, say -- the NHL owner would tell you how wonderful his business is, how things are only going to get better and better in the sport and how the team is worth 10 times what he paid for it," he explained. "NASCAR was not like that. Richard and the Yates family basically said to me, this is a tough sport, you live sometimes hand-to-mouth. You lose a sponsor, and it sets you back years. And I appreciated that, that they were very honest people, and told you what they really felt and were not trying to sell us anything. Even though they were trying to sell us our companies, their reputations came first before their pocketbooks."
"That was a great thing to walk away from. There was always a connection with us, with NASCAR, and I was glad that opportunity came back."
The second chance surfaced in October 2010, when Petty seemed on the verge of losing his place in the sport. Former partner George Gillett, having sold his interest in the Liverpool soccer team, was still soaked in red ink, to the point chassis and engine provider Jack Roush was among several who hadn't been paid in months. Finally the Ford people had enough, a month's worth of public humiliation ensuing as Roush Fenway Racing would refuse to let Richard Petty Motorsports work on cars or let haulers leave until a day or two before races began, when either a small down payment or a promise for more would keep the lifeline open. But at the end of the season, the ultimatum was clear: pay up or pay the price.
It's unclear how much of the debt Murstein cleaned up to make the purchase, but it's certain the "buy low, sell high" mentality rang through in buying a company without much appreciable assets. All we know is the new company will cut from four cars to two while Petty gets directly involved for the first time in several years. It's a 50/50 working relationship, at least in public, as both parties emphasize commitment toward working together from the ground up.
"The last couple of years I've sort of been sitting on the sidelines without having much say-so in the business deal," says Petty. "And now they've put the pressure back on me. They've put me out front and I've got a little bit of say-so on what's going on -- I feel better about that."