Ambrose victory validates investment into RPM

Posted Aug. 16, 2011, at 6:51 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 16, 2011, at 9:41 p.m.

Finances were so bad at Richard Petty Motorsports last season that the organization was operating on a week-to-week basis with no guarantee it could make it to the next NASCAR race.

It was a heartbreaking saga for one of NASCAR’s most storied franchises, which somehow made it to the season finale despite the money woes created by its outgoing owner. The day after the season ended, a sale of assets was announced that gave control of RPM to an investment group hoping to eventually turn a profit on a cheap acquisition.

Just under nine months later, the team is not only making money but celebrating from Victory Lane.

Marcos Ambrose gave RPM its first Sprint Cup Series victory in 68 races and first since it was rescued by Medallion Financial Corp. and DGP Investments in late November. The road-course win in Monday’s rain-postponed race was validation in the investment, said Medallion president Andrew Murstein.

“The company was obviously off to a good start anyway, and the two drivers have been performing better in their career this season than ever before,” Murstein, the listed owner of RPM, said Tuesday. “But until you get to the finish line first, there are always some lingering doubts.”

Overall performance at RPM has indeed improved this season. Ambrose’s win, his first at the elite Cup level, moved him up one spot in the standings to 22nd and his seven top-10 finishes equals his career best. AJ Allmendinger, meanwhile, is tied for 15th in the standings and could make a run for a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship over the next month.

Part of the improvement comes from RPM scaling down from four teams to two this season. By dropping two teams, money isn’t spread so thin and resources are applied correctly. But Murstein and DGP chairman Douglas Bergeron have provided a stability not seen in the organization for years.

Seven-time NASCAR champion Richard Petty gave up majority control in the team his family had owned since 1949 to investment firm Boston Ventures in 2008, but the organization was forced six months later to merge with Gillett-Evernham Motorsports to stay afloat after the economic collapse.

New owner George Gillett Jr. was plagued with his own financial difficulties a year later, which almost led to the demise of RPM.

“There’s a peace of mind now,” Murstein said. “The drivers know their paychecks are steady. They have deep-pocketed owners. And the sponsors are now comfortable. A lot of them were on the fence. If any one of them had walked, this team would have gone under. So there’s stability now that was lacking before.”

There’s also an increased interest in the organization.

A day after Ambrose’s win, Murstein said he received calls from the representatives of three drivers inquiring about driving for RPM, and two potential sponsors. Murstein also said he’s been in talks with two new potential investors, with the understanding between himself, Petty and Bergeron that all new money will go into the organization and not in the pockets of ownership.

It’s a remarkable turnaround for a team that seemed doomed not long ago but is now operating in the black. Murstein credited the timing of the investment — he believes the market had bottomed out at the time they bought RPM, so sponsorship opportunities could only improve — and a new approach to courting partners has been the key.

He recently opened a New York City office and is certain the presence has helped business relationships with potential sponsors and existing partners: Murstein said he entertained executives from STP, a longtime Petty sponsor, at a New York Yankees game last week.

“I’d like to think we’re a breath of fresh air, and I’m pretty surprised more teams don’t have New York offices,” Murstein said by telephone from his own office on Madison Ave.

The investment into a NASCAR team has also paid off for Murstein’s other interests, including Medallion Bank in Utah, where earnings are up 37 percent, he believes, because NASCAR fans are loyal and support a company associated with a race team.

Aside from the financial end of it, though, is the sense Murstein and Bergeron are helping Petty restore his race team.

“This is not only an investment, it was helping to save the Petty legacy,” Murstein said. “This legacy should be returned to its grandeur.”

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