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Tension lurking in NASCAR garages

11/22/2011 - NASCAR

"I honestly don't know …"

The text message came in late at night, on the eve of NASCAR's greatest-ever season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It was from a Sprint Cup Series crew member.

"They haven't determined my future yet …"

As the focus of millions of American motorsports fans centered on a garage in South Florida, anxious to witness the showdown between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards for the Cup title, far too many corners of that garage felt anything but celebratory.

"It's disconcerting, especially as we near the holidays …"

Throughout the garage all weekend, across all three of stock car racing's national touring series, the focus for dozens of those working within the sport was on how much longer they would be able to do so. The routine had been the same for weeks. They paced, lost sleep, and tried to keep doing their jobs while bracing for news about their futures. Like so many others during this economic downturn, no matter what their line of work, it hasn't been a question of whether the news would be bad, but rather when that bad news would finally come.

"There are a lot of good people who are working very hard to retain current sponsorship and recruit new corporations to come onboard," team owner Jack Roush said Saturday afternoon. "But the economic realities are what they are right now. And as long as our business model is structured as it is, with a dependency on corporate sponsorship, we will be subject to the status of the market."

On Monday, the congressional supercommittee appointed to cut $1.2 trillion from the federal deficit essentially surrendered. As a result, the Dow Jones industrial average, whose 30 corporations are a practical who's who of NASCAR sponsorship, fell nearly 250 points.

Even before that bad news, Roush, the normally stoic, cerebral 69-year-old engineer, paused and tightened his lip as he continued to talk. "I know that talk about our dependence on the market is no consolation to the people whose jobs hang in the balance. I hope they know we're doing everything we can to keep them with our team."

On Friday night, only two weeks removed from some testy postrace tension at Martinsville, the Truck series teams of Germain Racing hugged out their emotions. One year earlier they were celebrating Todd Bodine's series championship. This year they quietly packed and left home for North Carolina not knowing whether the two-truck operation would still be in business in 2012.

"What we need just isn't there," Bodine said a few hours before his 16th-place finish. "The corporate sponsorship, the dollars, they just aren't there. You don't want to say goodbye to these guys, but you do have to say, well, maybe this is goodbye."

On Saturday and Sunday nights, the scene was very much the same. A few teams, such as Kevin Harvick Inc., had known for a while that the end was coming.

"I give Kevin a lot of credit," said KHI's outgoing Truck series driver Ron Hornaday Jr. "He was up front with his employees that it was coming and has helped a lot of those people find new jobs."

The majority, however, weren't that fortunate, and they turned all three Homestead-Miami prerace grids into impromptu job fairs. Each night, as the final checkered flags flew, they ended their seasons by stepping out of the speedway's lights and into a literal and figurative darkness.

"It's just always hanging out there," driver David Ragan admitted.

On Feb. 20, Ragan nearly won the Daytona 500. Nine months later, to the day, he made his 182nd and final Cup start for Roush Fenway Racing, a demoralizing 38th-place finish after an engine failure. Due to significant cutbacks by primary sponsor UPS, his team is expected to vanish, along with perhaps many of the people working on it. As of Tuesday morning, no decision had been made.

"You hope against hope that something will come together at the last minute to save the team. And I don't worry about me so much. I've been very fortunate. I worry about my guys, the guys who have to do the real work."

To those workers, the greatest frustration of it all has been in not knowing. Drivers likely have been given a heads-up that it's time to make phone calls and send out résumés, such as the "feel free to look around" notice that Ragan received from RFR in late summer. Even if a driver is blindsided, they likely will have enough money stashed away to endure a winter job search. For the crews and shop personnel, that fallback cash isn't there. Neither is the certainty.

Germain Racing told its employees in September that they might be laid off at season's end. Or maybe not. The two-car operation of Red Bull Racing, which employs more than 150 people, was informed in late June that Red Bull, both sponsor and team owner, would be departing when the year was done. General manager Jay Frye has spent the months since searching for an outside investor to save the operation. To its credit, the team won the next-to-last race of the season, despite operating under the cloud of no guaranteed jobs past November. As of Homestead weekend, no such deal had been reached.

"Still digging," Frye said Sunday morning. "I know I sound like a broken record, but we're still working on it."

Frye knows all too well the uncertainty and treachery of the roller-coaster economy. After the 2007 NASCAR season, he left Ginn Racing for Red Bull. In '06 he helped broker the deal that brought resort mogul Bobby Ginn into the sport. In mid-2007 he was with Ginn with it merged with Dale Earnhardt Inc. The resulting outfit ended up becoming one of the teams hardest hit on Nov. 17, 2008, the day after that year's Homestead finale. At the tail of the summer when the current recession started, more than 1,200 workers across the industry lost their jobs on what is now referred to as Black Monday.

This year everyone spent early autumn bracing for a similar post-Homestead ax to fall. It didn't. But in some ways, the situation that accompanies this Thanksgiving feels worse. "I would almost rather it be like '08 and just drop the hammer. Get it over with, one way or the other," said a Red Bull crew member shortly after Sunday's checkered flag. "This feels more like some sort of sick, slow torture."

As the three Toyota Camrys of Joe Gibbs Racing were pushed out onto pit road Sunday morning, it was easy to spot the members of JGR's engine department. Many looked gaunt, having lost sleep and their appetites since mid-August. That's when the team announced that it was forging a new partnership with Toyota Racing Development that would build its engines at the TRD facility in California instead of inside JGR's North Carolina race shop. The move makes financial sense, saving millions from the bottom line annually. But it didn't take an economist to decipher what it would likely mean for the existing department.

What we need just isn't there. The corporate sponsorship, the dollars, they just aren't there. You don't want to say goodbye to these guys, but you do have to say, well, maybe this is goodbye.

-- Todd Bodine

JGR president J.D. Gibbs has continually said that the department would not be closed. Initially he said there would be no layoffs at all. There has been a concerted effort to find places for all of its existing engine department employees, primarily as a supplier for lower-level NASCAR teams. But 13 JGR engine shop employees were let go earlier this fall. The ones who remain have been told by their immediate supervisors that it wouldn't hurt to look around. Just in case.

Again, uncertainty.

"I talk to the guys who are worried about their jobs and I tell them that there's almost always a chance to turn the negatives into positives," said Stewart, barely one day before winning his first Cup series championship as a driver/owner. "As terrible as that day in 2008 was for the sport, it also allowed me to hire some very talented people that wouldn't have been available otherwise. I was just getting this team started and those people helped build this team into a team that's now contending for championships."

"These are tough times," team owner Richard Childress said as he walked the grid Sunday afternoon. His team, Richard Childress Racing, is one of the few that is hiring. RCR is contracting from four to three Sprint Cup cars in 2012, but is also absorbing Harvick's shuttered operation, adding three Nationwide teams and expanding its Truck series operation. RCR recently hired some of the former JGR engine staffers. "In the end, those of us who work in the sport need to do all we can to look for each other. We'll all keep weathering the storm and just hope we get out on the other side OK, whenever that other side finally comes."

When that will be and who will survive until then is anything but certain. In the meantime, far too many racers will spend their Thanksgiving just as they have spent the weeks leading into it. Hoping for the best, but waiting for the worst.

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.