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Petty: Economy 'hit us between the eyes'

RANDLEMAN, N.C. - From behind those trademark shades, Richard Petty has seen just about everything during a half-century in racing.

But even The King has been caught off guard by the severity of the recession that has caused NASCAR to tap its brakes: Automakers are entering Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, team sponsors are slashing budgets and fans are struggling to scrape up money for travel, tickets and trinkets.

'The economy, it's hit us between the eyes,' Petty said in an interview with The Associated Press at his museum in central North Carolina. '(The recession) has kind of put the clamps on our spectators coming, because you've got to figure our sport, probably moreso than any other sport, is a sport that people travel a lot of miles to go to. When the economy gets like it is, then they can afford tickets, but they can't afford to get there because of the gas mileage, the motels, the food.'

The mustachioed racing icon made cowboy hats with ostrich feathers - and, yes, those wraparound sunglasses that protect his sensitive eyes - fashion staples while winning seven championships and a NASCAR-record 200 Cup races during his 35-year racing career.

But that legacy hasn't protected him or his team from this recession.

Petty Enterprises merged with Gillett Evernham Motorsports in January in a move that kept Petty's famed No. 43 Dodge racing. And just this week, the new organization co-owned by Petty - Richard Petty Motorsports - laid off nine employees while reducing salaries throughout the company, a byproduct of Chrysler's Chapter 11 filing.

'The deal is, the strong will survive through this and will come out the other end that much stronger,' Petty said. 'If it lasts forever, we're still going to be able to set our businesses up on what it is right now. We don't have the money flow, we don't have the deal, we can't do the things we want to do, R&D, that kind of stuff. So you just tighten the belt, and then if it don't expand, then you've already tightened your belt, and you tightened it so that you can survive.

'Right now, a lot of it is more than a go-forward mode. We're more in a survival mode, so let's get through all this stuff. Then we'll start looking at going forward.'

'But now, the way the economy is, it affected everybody. It doesn't make a difference. ... It's a different kind of a recession that's over our head.'