Earnhardt's crew chief fits in fine AUTO RACING

June 07, 1993|By Tom Higgins | Tom Higgins,Charlotte Observer

DOVER, Del. -- Andy Petree was nervous last fall when he arrived at the Richard Childress Racing Shop in Welcome, where the Chevrolets driven by Dale Earnhardt are maintained.

Petree was there to interview for the crew chief's job, looking to succeed Kirk Shelmerdine, who retired to pursue a driving career of his own.

Walking into the expansive building did nothing to calm Petree's nerves.

"It was total intimidation," Petree recalled. "All those Winston Cup championship banners were hanging there. ... In its way, I guess, it was like a coaching candidate for the Celtics walking into Boston Garden."

After talking with Childress, the team owner, and Earnhardt, a five-time points title winner, Petree was hired.

These days, Petree is doing some intimidating of his own.

Today, after yesterday's victory in the Budweiser 500 at Dover Downs, the 13th of this season's 30 races, Earnhardt holds a slim lead over Rusty Wallace toward the 1993 championship.

Earnhardt has won four of the spring's most important events -- the TranSouth 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, The Winston all-star race, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and now the Budweiser -- in the Luminas prepared by Petree and his crew.

That's a tremendous turnaround from 1992, when Earnhardt won but once all year and finished 12th in the point standings.

"I figured we'd be good, but not until later on," said Petree, 34, who had been to victory lanes once with Phil Parsons and nine times with Harry Gant during seven years with a team owned by Leo Jackson. "We're at the point now we'd hoped to be sometime after the middle of the season."

Childress agrees.

"When you make a major personnel change, you accept that it's going to take time for things to mesh," Childress said. "The 'fit' between Andy and the crew guys, who have been with me a long time, has come about quicker and smoother than any of us imagined."

Earnhardt said: "Not taking any thing away from Kirk, who was tops [preparing cars that took 46 victories and four titles]. But Andy has been every bit the influence we thought he'd be, and sooner."

Petree is a native of Newton, N.C., where high school sports are immensely popular. However, he was never tempted to touch a baseball, basketball or football.

"My grandfather, Clacy Nuzum, owned the Chevy dealership in Newton, and from the time I started going there with him -- I was about 5 -- all I wanted to do was tinker with cars," Petree said. "I guess one of the most thrilling days of my life came the summer I was 10 and my uncle Eddie took me to Hickory Speedway for the first time."

Petree's vision was to become a driver. In high school he began building a Limited Sportsman car with buddy Jimmy Newson to race at Hickory.

"We called our deal AJ Racing, using our first initials," Petree said. "Our car came right along. But when we got it finished, we made a startling discovery. We didn't have enough money left to put a motor in it. ... You might say me and Jimmy had made a small fortune out of a big one.

"Dale Jarrett was looking to get started driving, and he offered to put a motor in the car in exchange for getting to run it. That wasn't an option I wanted, but we had to go for the deal. Our team became DAJ Racing. We went broke, but it was a good education."

Ned Jarrett, Dale's dad and a two-time Winston Cup champion, saw Petree's potential. He recommended the youngster to team owner Junior Johnson, and Andy was hired as a crewman.

He joined Jackson in 1987, and a special bond developed.

"Leo and I had very close to a father/son relationship," Petree said. "I hated to leave his team. I agonized. We talked a lot. I felt I had to make the move, and he agreed. For a crew chief, this was an opportunity that comes about very rarely."

Still, Petree was apprehensive. He didn't know the close-knit Childress/Earnhardt crewmen very well, a group nicknamed "The Flying Aces." He never had socialized with them. They mostly were free spirits, Petree more serious.

For all his apprehension, however, Petree has been welcomed in Welcome.

"I didn't go in trying to change a bunch of things," he said, "and what I did want to change they accepted."

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