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Racing faces a bumpy road 

When hard times forced a stock-car team to cut costs in racing’s early days, it usually meant losing five or six grease monkeys. “Now, you’ve got to put another zero on everything,” says Humpy Wheeler, former president and general manager of Lowe’s Motor Speedway. Concord-based Chip Ganassi Racing laid off 71 last summer when it dropped a team. More than 100 followed a few months later when Ganassi merged with Dale Earnhardt Inc. in Mooresville. In December, Mooresville-based Petty Enterprises LLC laid off about three dozen employees, bringing its job cuts since the season ended in November to more than 70.

Racing, with an annual statewide economic impact of nearly $6 billion, hasn’t hit the wall yet, but it’s skidding that way. About 27,000 Tar Heels are directly or indirectly employed in motorsports. “You’re going to see teams perform at the same levels with the same successes but with less money and fewer people,” says Rep. Karen Ray, a Mooresville Republican and co-chair of the General Assembly’s Motorsports Caucus.

The sport suffers from the same downdrafts as the rest of the economy, including inflated unemployment rates and shrinking discretionary income. Racing also depends on sponsors more than most sports, and the Big Three automakers, which pump in hundreds of millions of dollars a year, face calls from Congress and shareholders to cut expenses.

Wheeler estimates that 750 people in and around Charlotte had lost racing jobs by early December. How deep it will go and how long the slump will last are unclear. Marketers say racing provides sponsors huge exposure. Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Joyce Julius & Associates figures that NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson provided nearly 60 hours of television time, worth about $510 million, this past season for his main sponsor, Lowe’s Cos. of Mooresville.

“NASCAR still delivers a lot of value for fans and sponsors,” says David Carter, director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. “What you’re seeing now is these teams trying to cut costs by joining forces. But the way motorsports has delivered on sponsorships over the years is going to keep it from bottoming out as bad as it could have.”

Bad enough, though. Some Charlotte racing executives predict that 2,000 racing employees will lose jobs in 2009. “The sport is relatively stable,” Carter says. “But the landscape certainly isn’t going to be great for the next year or two.”

Rob Peter to pay Paul

Claremont resident J.V. Huffman Jr. confessed to cheating more than 500 investors in a Ponzi scheme that lasted 17 years and raised more than $25 million, according to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Initially, he told investors that his Biltmore Financial Group Inc. operated like a mutual fund. After Sept. 11, 2001, he said it generated profit by buying and selling mortgages. But Huffman told investigators that he used money from clients to pay profits to earlier investors and himself. His attorney, Pete Anderson, wasn’t sure if he would challenge the confession. The Hickory Daily Record ran an apology from his extended family, which says, “There are no excuses for what has taken place.” In addition to a securities-fraud complaint by the SEC, he faces eight felony charges.

 

CHARLOTTEAreva, a French company that engineers and maintains nuclear plants, will nearly double the 545 employees it has here by 2012.

CONCORD — Orlando, Fla.-based Connextions has begun adding 250 call-center jobs to its 800 here. The company answers customer inquiries for other businesses.

CHARLOTTE — Blaming the economic slowdown, processor Poseidon Seafood closed, idling about 200.

CHARLOTTEThe Federal Reserve will consolidate check processing in Cleveland and cut 78 jobs at its branch here. Combined with 53 previously announced cuts, that will leave fewer than 250 employees. The Fed says more Americans are using electronic payments in- stead of checks.

GROVER — Glen Allen, Va.-based MeadWestvaco plans to close its packaging plant, idling about 120 workers in Cleveland County. It plans to move production elsewhere.

CONCORDPhilip Morris USA told 180 hourly workers at its cigarette factory that they could lose their jobs by the end of this month. The Richmond, Va.-based company plans to close the plant, which employs about 1,700, by the end of 2010.

HICKORYMerchants Distributors plans to add 200 jobs by 2014 at its distribution center, giving it more than 1,700 here. The food distributor, a subsidiary of Alex Lee, could get $2.8 million in state incentives.

CHARLOTTEDuke Energy promoted Carolinas President Ellen Ruff to president of nuclear development. She reports directly to CEO Jim Rogers. Her old job was filled by Brett Carter, senior vice president of customer service and business development.

HICKORYCorning Cable Systems, which makes optical fiber, cut some of its 1,500 workers here, part of 300 layoffs nationwide. It wouldn’t specify the number for competitive reasons.