What Smithfield should have said

In a Tuesday afternoon statement, Richard Petty Motorsports said longtime sponsor Smithfield Foods left the team hanging for 2018 by backing out of a handshake deal to stay.

The statement painted Smithfield in a bad light and sparked fan outrage, which obviously upset executives at the company. So within a few hours, Smithfield retaliated with a strongly worded response that was, quite frankly, unbecoming of a major, multinational corporation.

I totally get that Smithfield felt attacked and wanted to respond. The company has made a major investment in NASCAR and it felt like it was treated unfairly. Understandable.

But I don’t agree with how Smithfield reacted publicly to the situation. Going to war with one of NASCAR’s most beloved figures is a bad idea — even if executives felt it was justified — and it just makes Smithfield look amateurish.

I have ZERO experience in public relations except what I see from a media standpoint, so take this for what it’s worth. But here’s a statement Smithfield should have released instead of the one it did. (NOTE: THESE ARE MY PROPOSED WORDS, NOT THOSE OF SMITHFIELD.)

It has been an honor and privilege to be associated with Richard Petty, the King of NASCAR, who is a true American legend. As we said earlier today, Smithfield Foods made an extremely difficult decision to go in a different direction with its sponsorship for next season, and we recognize not everyone will agree with our choice.

However, we would like to clarify that Smithfield never had a handshake deal to return to Richard Petty Motorsports in 2018. We regret this obvious misunderstanding, but Richard Petty was mistaken when he said we backed out on our word. While it is true we wanted a reason to remain at RPM and held out hope for any sign of the team’s performance turning around, we ultimately did not see that at this time.

We share the goal of every NASCAR sponsor: To reach victory lane in the most prestigious series in American motorsports and contend for the championship. We truly wished that would happen at RPM, but we did not see a path to winning. That is why we decided to join Stewart-Haas Racing next season.

That said, we again want to thank Richard Petty and RPM for being such a great partner over the years. We are rooting for the team to succeed well into the future and hope another sponsor decides to support this iconic car and team owner in the great sport of NASCAR.

In the meantime, we will continue to invest in NASCAR. We love all race fans and are so appreciative of the support they have shown us while we have poured tens of millions of dollars into this great sport. We hope to see you all at the track soon and are looking forward to the future at Stewart-Haas Racing.

News Analysis: Smithfield leaves Richard Petty Motorsports for Stewart-Haas Racing

What happened: In a Tuesday morning Facebook post, Smithfield said it will leave Richard Petty Motorsports and join Stewart-Haas Racing next season. On Sunday, Lee Spencer of Motorsport.com reported Smithfield backed out of a handshake deal to return to RPM’s No. 43 car next season after the team proposed it hire Bubba Wallace to replace Aric Almirola. Richard Petty later confirmed the sponsor broke its handshake agreement. A desire for increased competitiveness resulted in Smithfield moving to SHR, which said in a statement the move will come with a “driver who will be added to SHR’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series lineup.” EDIT: In a statement later Tuesday afternoon, RPM said Almirola will not return to the team.

What it means: While it’s nice SHR found a high-paying sponsor for one of its cars to go along with a new driver, the immediate focus will be on RPM’s future. This is a devastating loss for the No. 43, as the team thought Smithfield was set to return next season. It’s mid-September and RPM doesn’t have a sponsor for most of its 2018 races — and likely hasn’t been looking for one if it believed Smithfield would be back. This could put RPM in serious jeopardy as an organization, since it now must scramble to find funding in order to compete next season. As for SHR, it’s unclear which driver could end up with the team — but we now know the lineup will indeed change for next season. Danica Patrick has said her return to the No. 10 car is based on sponsorship, while SHR previously said it intends to retain free agent Kurt Busch in 2018.

News value (scale of 1-10): Seven. Spencer’s reporting took the surprise out of this news, but it’s still very significant in terms of RPM’s future. If Smithfield’s move results in the No. 43 car not being on the track in some form next season, it’s a pretty major story for NASCAR. In addition, the SHR piece of this will play into Silly Season news with an unspecified driver movement.

Three questions: Will Almirola be able to go with Smithfield to SHR, or does this mean a free agent like Matt Kenseth will get that seat? Can RPM find enough sponsorship to run a full schedule in 2018? Will there be Subway-like backlash toward Smithfield, or will fans view this as a business decision and be OK with it?