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Petree Is Living Large During A Third Career

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, November 16 2012

Andy Petree got his shot by calling the shots as crew chief for teams like those of Harry Gant's. He now calls things the way he sees them for ESPN. (Photos courtesy of ESPN)

Andy Petree grew up in North Carolina, the cradle of NASCAR. When he talks about “the sport,” he means stock car racing. One of those who always found a way to get into the grandstands to watch the Winston Cup races during his youth, Petree now calls the Sprint Cup races like he sees them for ESPN on Sundays.

“I’ve always loved the sport before I got involved,” he said. “I just loved it so much. I would find a way to races and watch them. Now I’ve got the best seat in the house and I get in free. And, they pay me a little bit.”

Some guys, it seems, have all the luck. Before his current gig, Petree was making the calls as the crew chief during Dale Earnhardt’s sixth and seventh championship seasons. Before that, he was the mechanical mastermind behind “Mr. September” during Harry Gant’s incomparable winning streak. Along the way, Petree’s own team won two races in NASCAR’s premier league.

On second glance, it’s not all been rosy. Petree lost a close friend and fellow Chevy team owner when Earnhardt was killed at Daytona in 2001. That same year Bobby Hamilton, who later died of cancer, and Joe Nemechek won races in Andy Petree Racing entries at Talladega and Rockingham – right before the team’s sponsorship disappeared. Petree had to pull the plug before he could ever contend for a championship as a team owner.

After he got a phone call out of the Carolina blue skies from ESPN, Petree is living the dream once again and has become one of TV’s finest analysts. Teaming with play-by-play man Alan Bestwick and former Sprint Cup champion Dale Jarrett, the former crew chief is a remarkable mixture of avid race lover and knowledgeable expert during the cablecasts. Not surprisingly, he was the first in the media to publicly question NASCAR’s decision to

Andy Petree is one of the best in the analysis business.

not call a caution last week in Phoenix before the ensuing last lap multi-car crash.

“I’m not worried about ruffling anybody’s feathers at NASCAR or in the garage,” said Petree in an interview several weeks before that incident. “I just say what I think. I try to be respectful in my opinion. At times I feel pretty strong about my opinions and I don’t mind getting it out there.”

It’s the style as well as underlying authority of Petree’s comments that distinguish him. In interviews as well as on the air, Petree speaks in a classic Carolina drawl, where the emphasis is often on quickness instead of the slow speech so often associated with southerners. Whether on the air or during an interview, he speaks in deft, cobra-quick sentences.

Petree thinks out loud in a way that fans can appreciate because of his passion about who’s doing what? But his rather ingenious methodology also fits into the ongoing conversation in the booth with his partners. His pointed enthusiasm tells any listener what’s taking place is significant – and worth watching, even if it involves the complication of machinery.

“The hard core fans who really watch the sport I try to address them as well as the people who’ve never watched it before and the technical side of it, because that’s such a big part of the sport,” said Petree. “It is about people, but the technical and mechanical parts of it have so much to do with the outcome. You have to explain it in a way that people understand it. You don’t want to dumb it down too much, because there’s a lot of people who are familiar with the sport. But you also want to make sure you’re not talking over their heads.”

Petree’s first full-time job in racing was working as a tire changer for Junior Johnson. Over the course of a cablecast, he nails situations non-stop with incisive observations like a tire changer hitting lug nuts with rapid precision on a pit stop. The comments range from explanations to humorous asides and commiseration to wondering aloud about decisions by drivers or crew chiefs – in addition to the analysis of technical issues and strategy expected in his role as a former crew chief.

Initially uncertain about moving into a role that sometimes turns one into a talking head, when the call from ESPN came Petree was building his own brand of pull-down rigs for NASCAR teams and not much else, other than restoring race cars or occasionally building new ones. He interviewed and next came the audition. “They said the next step was an audition and I almost froze up,” he recalled. “I thought, ‘Oh God. How do you do that?’”

He survived the audition but still had ESPN leave a loophole in his contract in case he wanted to quit after the first year. This weekend’s finale at Homestead will be his sixth from the booth.

One thing that keeps Petree sharp and motivated is the racing he’s watching, which in his view results from a lot of hard driving and no end of suspense. “I think it’s the best racing I’ve ever seen,” he said. Although he respects the opinions of some of the sport’s long term fans, he disagrees with those who look back with fondness about better racing days in the past. “There are so many more competitive cars and strategy seems to be such an element now.”

Seemingly fresh and energetic in whatever role he’s playing, Petree credits his maternal grandfather, a car dealer in Newton, N.C., for a successful work ethic. When he decided to ask his grandfather about getting a car once he turned 16, he was invited to sit down at the kitchen table. A businessman and a smart salesman, his grandfather, who had the rather distinctive name of Clacy Nuzum, handed Petree a blueprint for setting goals and achieving them.

“He started drawing out a plan,” said Petree. “He told me that if I could get a partime job – and he gave me one at the dealership washing cars – he said I could save up enough money to buy a car. Looking back it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I did that. I got out there and I realized I could make my own money.”

By the time he was old enough for a driver’s license, Petree could afford to buy himself a car. “I knew the car I wanted, a used ’69 Camaro sitting on the lot,” said Petree. “This was 1974. I got to the dealership and told them, ‘Get that one ready. I’ll be right back.’ I went to the bank and withdrew the money, came down there and paid cash for that car and drove it off the lot. You can’t imagine how satisfying that is. That’s kind of the way I’ve lived my life and run my businesses. I learned all that from my grandfather. He was such a great example for me. I really looked up to him, especially on a business level.”

Petree learned his lessons well. These days, he doesn’t just drive. He also pilots a Robinson R44 helicopter and a Mooney Ovation 2 private plane.

Interestingly, after the death of his grandfather, the dealership he designed and built in Newton eventually became a location for Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet. Looking back on Petree’s career as a crew chief, the championships with Earnhardt were distinctive. “Dale always told me, you build the wagon and I’ll drive it,” he said. But Petree first earned his reputation with Gant during the Taylorsville, N.C. driver’s bid to become the first to win five straight races in NASCAR’s premier series.

Petree described the “Mr. September” phenomenon as a classic case of developing the handling on what was an underpowered Skoal Bandit car for Leo Jackson’s team. In this case, that meant some innovations on the suspension that were, said Petree, entirely legal when it came to the new generation of radial Goodyear tires.

Then in the late summer of 1991, engine builder Jackson found some additional horsepower for his team by coming up with a new cylinder head design. This was just months before NASCAR mandated standardized cylinder heads for the 1992 season and a time when innovation could result in big gains.

“We had gotten to a point where we had our own little suspension geometry going and we were running pretty good,” said Petree. “But we were off on motor. At that time, when we went to Darlington, Leo had been working on some new cylinder heads. He came up with 10 maybe 20 horsepower. It was a significant jump in horsepower. We had developed the car. We had won a race at Talladega already. So we went to Darlington, which is probably one of Harry Gant’s best race tracks, with a little more power.”

Gant won the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend, then took three more victories at Richmond, Dover and Martinsville on the trot. “Harry Gant had confidence and when he thought he had a little advantage he was unbeatable,” recalled Petree. “Really and truly, I felt like he put that team on his back for about four weeks and just would not lose. It was a real special time in his career.”

The bid to become the first driver to win five straight came to an end when Gant got beat on the fifth and final week of September at North Wilkesboro – by Earnhardt. Gant ran out of brakes and got caught by the black GM Goodwrench Chevy at the finish. “That was something we did ourselves,” said Petree, who scored 25 victories as a crew chief. “We had a problem with a brake line.”

Petree, who maintains a shop near his home in Hendersonville, N.C., ended up with the original car that carried Gant to a dream September. He found the engine that had been sold to an ARCA driver and had it re-built by a former member of Jackson’s team – the same crewman who did the re-building during that September streak.

“We totally restored that car to exactly the way he raced it. It’s sitting in my shop,” said Petree. “If you want to send up some NASCAR guys to see if it’s legal, send ’em on out.”

Petree then laughed heartily, knowing that the ultimate kick in life for a crew chief was to beat everybody regularly with a car that was legal.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, November 16 2012
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