By Peter Schwartz
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The sports landscape in the New York/New Jersey area is loaded with choices. There are nine major professional teams to go along with a plethora of minor league and college teams. With all of those choices, it’s hard to tell just how popular NASCAR might be in the Big Apple.

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For those in our area who are fans of NASCAR, seeing it in person requires a bit of a hike.

The closest NASCAR venue to New York City is a few hours away at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania, and there’s also Watkins Glen International Raceway in the Finger Lakes region of New York state. But there is more of a connection to NASCAR in our area than you might think because there is local ownership of a racing team.

In 2010, Andrew Murstein, the founder of New York City-based Medallion Financial Corp., became co-owner of Richard Petty Motorsports. Murstein and his group were looking to acquire a sports team and evaluated available clubs in all sports and raised more than $200 million for a sports fund.

“We looked at a lot of deals but saw the most upside in NASCAR,” said Sean P. Downes, CEO of Medallion Sports Properties. “When we focused on NASCAR in the midst of the recession, the sport was struggling with a drop in attendance. We saw this as opportunity.”

Medallion has built a number of successful businesses over the years as a result of taking advantage of opportunistic investments. Not knowing much about NASCAR, the purchase of the racing team still made sense because the company was partnering with “The King,” who remains a co-owner of the team that bears his name.

“If you’re going to dive into a sport without an intimate knowledge of it, then there’s no better partner to have than the iconic Richard Petty,” said Downes. “It means everything. He is an icon in every sense of the word. Personally, he transcends the sport and is beloved by NASCAR Nation.”

Petty is a NASCAR Hall of Famer and is the most decorated driver in the history of NASCAR racing with a record 200 wins and seven cup championships.

The Richard Petty team is comprised of three drivers, including two of them in the Sprint Cup series. Aric Almirola mans the No. 43 car while Brian Scott drives the No. 44 automobile. The team also has a car in the XFINITY Series, as Jeb Burton drives the No. 43 vehicle.

Aric Almirola practices for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway on July 7, 2016, in Sparta, Kentucky. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Aric Almirola practices for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway on July 7, 2016, in Sparta, Kentucky. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Since purchasing the team, Medallion has tasted victory a few times, but it hopes the best is yet to come.

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“We feel great about the progress we have made,” said Downes. “Sure, we have won a few races, but would like to celebrate in victory lane on a more frequent basis. We are laying the foundation for sustainable success into the future.”

Medallion Sports Properties is no stranger to success, as it also owns the reigning Major League Lacrosse champion New York Lizards. The Lizards are one of the favorites to win it all again this season and the plan is for Richard Petty Motorsports to follow in the Lizards’ footsteps and become a consistent winner in NASCAR.

A few reasons to be optimistic about the future is the racing team’s relationship with Ford, the progress of their current drivers as well as discussions with several blue chip prospects.

“These are all critical components that will help us achieve our goal of becoming a championship caliber race team for many years,” said Downes.

Brian Scott practices for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway on July 1, 2016 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Brian Scott practices for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway on July 1, 2016 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Now the question is will local NASCAR fans ever get to see the drivers and cars of Richard Petty Motorsports closer to home? There always seems to be talk about a NASCAR track in our area and there was some discussion about a track on Staten Island about a decade ago but that wasn’t received well by the community.

NASCAR has been growing in popularity nationwide over the years, but a track was every built in the NY/NJ area, there could be an even bigger boost for the sport.

“NASCAR is a sensory sport that needs to be experienced in person,” said Downes. “Every fan remembers their first NASCAR race and how it changed their perception. It did for me. It’s fast, intense, and competitive just like New Yorkers. Until people in this area have that experience, it just won’t achieve the level of interest we need.”

Personally, I’ve always had an open mind about new sports and leagues. When it comes to auto racing, I’ve never been to an event in person but it’s on my bucket list and perhaps there will be a day when the opportunity will come about right here in our area.

It’s nice to know that we can get a jumpstart on that fandom by rooting for the home team. That is the NASCAR racing team with New York ownership. Andrew Murstein has hoisted a championship trophy as the New York Lizards owner so perhaps he’ll get used to doing that on a regular basis with Richard Petty Motorsports.

Follow Pete on Twitter at @pschwartzcbsfan.

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