Under the Yellow Flag

NASCAR’s stalled growth and sputtering popularity are wrecking careers in the No. 1 state for motorsports.
By Doug Kalajian

 

 

The NASCAR season roared off to a storybook start Feb. 20 when an implausibly young and polite unknown won the Daytona 500 in a car gussied up to look like David Pearson’s old Mercury, down to the gold “21” on its flanks. It was an uplifting conclusion to a weekend that began in somber reflection on the death of the sport’s biggest star, Dale Earnhardt, in a crash on the last lap of the race 10 years earlier. Only a victory by Dale Jr. could have generated more emotion than Trevor Bayne’s unlikely triumph. But Earnhardt fans got plenty to cheer about as Junior, who had won the pole, stayed in contention until the closing laps.

The sporting press was quick to cite the national euphoria over Bayne, whose victory came one day after his 20th birthday, as evidence that stock-car racing had finally cleared the debris that littered its path the past several years. Stories about sagging fan interest, team mergers and shrinking sponsorships gave way to news that NASCAR’s signature race drew some 30 million television viewers — a solid increase over the previous two years, though still a few million shy of its ratings heyday in 2008.

Whether any of this signals a resurgence is as unknowable as whether Bayne will be the sport’s next Pearson. But none of it changed circumstances for Thomas Payne. After more than a decade at the pinnacle of stock-car racing, he had seen the end of his career rushing toward him at the conclusion of last season as ominously as Jimmie Johnson’s Impala closing in at 200 miles per hour. “They called me to the office about 4:15 one afternoon,” he recalls. “I said aloud, ‘That’s it. This means I’m out of here.’”

His boss at Roush Fenway Racing LLC, one of NASCAR’s premier teams, didn’t have to explain why Payne was being laid off. “So many teams were in trouble, so many people had been let go,” Payne says. “I assumed it was coming. He asked me if I needed to gather my personal things, and I said, ‘No, already got ’em.’ I knew it was time.”

If Payne’s name rings a bell, it’s more likely because it’s a homophone for patriot-pamphleteer Thomas Paine than because he was a parts manager on the championship Cup teams of Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth. Hard-core racing fans know every car number, every sponsor and maybe even the names of their favorite driver’s over-the-wall pit crew. But behind those half-dozen familiar figures toil a hundred or more men and women like Payne — mechanics, metal sculptors, accountants and even personal trainers — who remain largely anonymous.

These days, many are also unemployed, or clinging nervously to their jobs, at the dozens of NASCAR teams based in North Carolina, most of them clustered around Charlotte. Just four years ago, then-Gov. Mike Easley crowed about “our $6 billion-a-year motorsports economy. More than 14,000 people are directly employed in the motorsports field, making North Carolina the No. 1 state in the nation for this industry.” Now, the talk is different. “I just heard from two more people who were let go this week,” says Don Gemmell of Mooresville, who built cars for Dale Earnhardt Inc. until his job became redundant when the team merged with Chip Ganassi Racing after the 2008 season. “A lot of teams let people stay at reduced pay. I know guys who stayed just to keep the benefits.”

For nearly two decades, one of the biggest benefits of working in a race shop had been a first-class ticket to one of the wildest thrill rides in professional sports, NASCAR’s dizzying ascent from regional curiosity to national phenomenon. From the late 1980s on, the circuit expanded to a succession of new tracks in different parts of the country — from New Hampshire to Indiana to Kansas to California — and with each fresh venue came a wealth of rabid new fans and rich new sponsors who spent lavishly to propel their cars out front where the TV cameras would focus on their logos. Money poured into teams faster than gasoline poured into Jeff Gordon’s tank during a green-flag pit stop, and it washed away just about every vestige of the far simpler sport that had begun a half-century earlier along the fields and back roads of the rural South. The last of the old single-car teams that were run out of sheds and converted brake shops disappeared. Every team fielded at least two cars in each race, then three and then four, all of them hand-molded from bare metal in sterile shops with glistening floors and banks of electronic test equipment worthy of NASA. “This thing grew so fast that money just kept coming into the deal, and the teams kept spending it,” Gemmell says. “If there was a problem, you just threw money at it — but that turned out to be a problem, too.”

The problem became evident by the 2007 season, as track attendance and TV ratings began to flatten — or dip — and sponsors balked at the steeply rising price of underwriting a Sprint Cup team. Even big teams strained to stay competitive while replacing their entire inventory with the safer but less distinctive Car of Tomorrow design. Several teams took on outside investors to keep the cash flowing. Among the most startling developments was the merger of Roush Racing, which had won back-to-back championships in 2003 and ’04, with Boston-based Fenway Sports Group. For all the sweat NASCAR had poured out bumping past baseball as a national pastime, one of racing’s most successful teams was suddenly at least partly in the hands of the Red Sox.

Gemmell felt the tremors during the 2008 season from deep inside the team, which had passed from the elder Earnhardt to his wife, Teresa. “Everybody knew something was coming down when sponsorships started to fall away,” he says. The Mooresville team expanded to four cars, despite losing Dale Jr. to Charlotte-based Hendrick Motor Sports LLC, but it could only secure full-time sponsorship for three. That left a $20-million hole in the budget. “The four cars were all running out of one building — you’re talking almost 300 people — and all of us saw the writing on the wall,” Gemmell says. “The week before the season’s final race at Homestead, groups of us were called in and let go — 225 people in one day. It was definitely emotional.”

It was an emotional time for the whole country, as huge losses in the banking industry quickly spread to the stock market and other facets of the economy. For NASCAR, this meant more sponsor pullbacks, and more teams responded by slashing payrolls. The job losses continued even after the Daytona 500 kicked off the new season. “Nobody knows the real number, but an educated guess is 1,500 people were let go,” Gemmell says. “Whenever there’d been a contraction in NASCAR before, you just wheeled your toolbox down the road and found another job. But this was so big, there was nowhere to go.” Some of the sport’s marquee names got caught up in the escalating rounds of buyouts and sellouts, from Evernham to Yates to Petty. Each round displaced dozens or even hundreds more workers. For many, this reversal of fortune was as sudden and jarring as the hand-brake U-turns that racing’s moonshine-running pioneers used to elude revenue agents.

“There are some great kids caught up in this deal,” Payne says. “I worked with guys who had a high-school education, maybe his father owned a muffler shop, but he’s working for a NASCAR team making $100,000 a year. You’re at the top of the mountain, mortgaged up to your eyeballs. They thought the good times were going to go on forever. Now they’ve had to walk away from their homes and take their families back to Wisconsin or wherever and move in with their folks.” Many others have stayed, looking for work while looking out for each other. “I just had my car’s timing belt changed by a guy who used to work on the No. 1 team,” Gemmell says. “He’s working out of his garage now. We all try to stick together and help each other out.”

The scene may be familiar to millions of displaced workers around America, but stock- car racing just isn’t like so many smokestack industries that shuttered their factories in the last decade. NASCAR doesn’t have to worry about cheap, foreign competition — and none of its teams are moving to India anytime soon. Loud, proud and supercharged with visceral appeal, the sport is in no danger of capsizing, but its sputtering fortunes may herald a permanent downsizing of race teams. Or maybe not.

 

Andy Papathanassiou has a unique vantage point. He’s executive director of the Concord-based North Carolina Motorsports Association, which promotes and lobbies for the sport. He’s also part of the management team at Hendrick Motorsports, home of Jimmie Johnson and his unprecedented five consecutive Sprint Cup championships. His opinions sound both realistic and optimistic. “What I see right now with all the uncertainty, all the people laid off, all the troubles you see in the wider economy, you certainly can’t say it’s a good thing — it’s bad. But in the business cycle, you know things will improve, maybe sponsors that were priced out of the sport will come back in. There will be new opportunities in the future.”

Papathanassiou’s own experience has him convinced the sport’s inherent excitement will not only help it endure but grow as it draws in a new generation of fans. “I’ve been in this for 20 years, but I didn’t grow up with this.” He grew up a world away from NASCAR’s hallowed Southern ground in the New York bedroom suburb of Emerson, N.J., and went to Stanford University in California on a football scholarship. Soon after graduation, Papathanassiou attended one of NASCAR’s early races at the road course in Sonoma, Calif., in 1990. He became infatuated watching sedans slide and snake their way through the rolling hills of wine country. “I snuck into the garage area and talked my way into helping one of the teams for the weekend. I could see there was a lot going on besides working on the cars. A lot of people, a lot of sponsors. Everybody I asked that weekend said the way to get involved was to come to North Carolina. So I did. I had no job, no plan. I just decided to give it a shot.”

Armed with a bachelor’s in economics and a master’s in organizational behavior, he learned the business from the pits up. By 1992, he was working for Hendrick, where he’s been ever since. He describes his current job as “sort of an athletic director” with the title Hendrick Motorsports pit crew coordinator. He heads a department “with coaches and trainers, rehab therapists — a smaller version of a college athletic department with the same stuff.” It’s that sort of intense specialization, and the payroll to support it, that helps set Hendrick apart. In all, the team has about 500 employees to support just four drivers. That’s down from 550 at its peak, but still a high standard for competitors to match.

The Hendrick driver stable also sets the bar high. Bristling with as much star power as horsepower, it includes Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Dale Jr. in addition to perennial champ Johnson. Even Junior’s well-publicized slump the past few seasons hasn’t kept some fans and media critics from blaming the Hendrick juggernaut for stinking up the NASCAR show simply by being too good. Johnson, in particular, just can’t win for winning — his near dominance of the circuit year after year is often cited as a reason for declining TV ratings.

That may be unfair, but it may also be partly true, says Craig Depken, associate professor of economics at UNC Charlotte and member of an academic team that recently completed a paper on NASCAR fan interest. “Part of the lure of any sport is the competitiveness of the events. Not just a particular game, but the season. Football, baseball, all sports suffer from the same problem: If a dynasty is in effect, it reduces interest.” What’s unfair, he suggests, is to assume that a driver’s success is due to his team’s finances or any factor other than his skill.

Today’s stock cars aren’t remotely stock, but they’re also not terribly different from each other. Fords, Chevrolets, Dodges and even Toyotas are distinguished mostly by paint and decals, as each car is built to fit common templates that keep any team from gaining much aerodynamic advantage. Even engines from different manufacturers can’t stray far from common design parameters, and NASCAR’s inspectors are too vigilant to let anyone get away with slipping a Hemi under the hood. “Obviously, they’ve tried to make the cars as homogeneous as possible in order to ensure the drivers are the reason teams win or lose,” Depken says. “That actually can be a detriment to competition, because you can’t make the drivers equal. They may all be good, but there will always be a few who are just better than the rest.”

Depken looked at TV ratings and track attendance, finding both measures flawed. “There are a lot of factors that can reduce TV audience 15% for one race over last year,” he says, noting scheduling conflicts with football and other sports. Track attendance might be a better measure of how the sport is affected by the economy, but official figures often show a nearly full house even when there are plenty of empty seats. Still, a clear trend emerged: Overall interest has declined over several seasons, especially among casual fans. “The hard-core racing fan will always be there,” he says. But in newer venues such as Las Vegas, which first hosted a NASCAR race in 1996, “racing was something new and curious a few years ago, and people flocked to it. Now it’s old hat.”

 

No one knows how to put fans in the stands better than Howard “Humpy” Wheeler, the former president of Charlotte Motor Speedway who is considered the sport’s greatest-ever ticket hawker. It’s the reason his memoir, Growing Up NASCAR, is subtitled Racing’s Most Outrageous Promoter Tells All. Wheeler, who left the track in 2008, never depended on mere life-and-death thrills to bring in the crowds. He almost always dangled a little something extra, such as his famous All You Can Eat Grandstand Buffet. NASCAR’s growth began to stall as far back as 2002, he says, when the sport began to experience “a slow drop in attendance and ratings that accelerated dramatically when the recession came along.” He suggests that no marketing genius could have kept NAS-CAR soaring upward at its earlier rate. “All sports that get to be national sports go through a 10- or 12-year power curve and then plateau out.” What happens next depends on the “driving force” behind the sport, and perhaps a bit of luck. Some, like baseball, go through cycles of stagnation and resurgence. Others settle into a comfortable niche. “Hockey went back to its roots in Canada and some urban markets, but kind of fizzled everywhere else.”

Wheeler is among the most outspoken of those who think NASCAR foolishly strayed from its own roots. “NASCAR started in the Carolinas, in red-clay country. For a long time it was embedded in the South very strongly, and the ignition to other areas like New England — which those in the sport thought was great — might have been what hurt it.” In its bid to draw Northern and Western audiences, racing scrubbed a bit too much of that clay off its tires. “I think one of the real appealing things about NASCAR was the fact that it was a Southern culture, primarily Scotch-Irish.” The early drivers were “independent men who’d fight at the drop of a hat. They were the same guys whose ancestors went to Texas after the Civil War and acted the same way, only on horseback instead of in cars. I always wanted to keep those Southern roots. Without that, it’s like taking the banjo out of bluegrass music.”

The most thorough scrubbing came at the insistence of national sponsors who wanted drivers to resemble actors in TV commercials, with no regional inflections or bad habits. “Today’s driver almost has to be the combination of a GQ cover model, a good race driver and someone who speaks the King’s English almost perfectly,” Wheeler says. Where would that leave someone like Junior Johnson, the whiskey-running, chicken-farming Hall of Famer immortalized as “The Last American Hero” in a 1965 Esquire magazine article by Tom Wolfe? “I don’t know if he could get a ride today,” Wheeler says. “I don’t think you could change him enough for the sponsors.”

Too many people who should have known better believed one of the popular media story lines: that an increasingly affluent and professional fan base couldn’t relate to drivers like Johnson, whose Wilkes County accent remains thicker than a slab of the country hams he now sells. “People kept trying to convince us that the grandstands were being populated by doctors and lawyers and all kinds of fancy people,” Wheeler says. “I knew who was in the grandstands because I was selling tickets. They were the same people who’d been there for 40 years — working people and their sons and daughters. I think we did a lot to turn those people off.”

Even the racing itself has become too bland despite NASCAR’s relaxation of rules that discouraged aggressive behavior. “I think the races would be a whole lot better if drivers weren’t guaranteed a lot of money but instead had to run for it, as they used to,” Wheeler says. “If a guy’s making $5 million or $6 million a year and he’s running second with four laps to go, he’ll sit there and settle for second. Maybe he could pass the guy and win the race, but why risk getting into a wreck? But if his money came from the purse, he’d have an incentive and you’d have a different game. He’d pass that guy.”

All this can be fixed — and will be, Wheeler predicts. With TV ratings second only to pro football, NASCAR “still has a tremendously powerful spectator pull” that will make it attractive to forward-thinking promoters. He sees the entire sport eventually being bought up by the entertainment industry. “That’s what pro sports is: entertainment. Anybody who doesn’t realize that will be left in the dust.” In the short term, Wheeler prescribes shorter races, perhaps broken into segments, to make the sport more exciting and TV-friendly. Reducing expenses is also essential. “We need to cut the cost of the cars. Go back to basics. People in the grandstands don’t care what’s under the skin. They just want to see racing.”

Whether to reduce costs, improve design or simply gin up fan interest, race cars will most likely change sometime soon, maybe significantly. Though they’re less easily distinguished from each other than the classic stock cars of previous eras, the current vehicles have far more in common with Fireball Roberts ’64 Ford than with anything on display in a Honda showroom. Wheeler, who has seen a world of change during his nearly half-century in racing, related a cautionary tale dating to his work with Firestone’s Indy car program in the 1960s. “When I started out, they were still running the old front-engine roadsters. Within a couple of years, they switched over entirely to rear-engine cars. Every part for those roadsters was made within five minutes of the Los Angeles airport. All of a sudden, everything came from England, where the rear-engine cars originated. An entire parts industry disappeared.”

The same thing could happen to North Carolina’s race mechanics and craftsmen without serious investment in education and training to keep up with technology. For example, lightweight carbon fiber is a good bet to replace sheet metal as a body material, as it has in other forms of motorsports, but that would instantly make the skills of current body-shop workers obsolete. It’s not hard to imagine carbon-fiber body shells being shipped in from other states, even from abroad. For the first time, it’s at least possible to imagine teams packing up and moving elsewhere, a gloomy prospect for a state that is home to 20 of the 22 regular Sprint Cup teams, plus most of the lower-series Nationwide and Camping World truck-racing teams. A 2005 UNC Charlotte study estimated the impact of NASCAR teams on the state economy at more than $2.2 billion a year. That doesn’t include parts manufacturers, distributors and other related businesses.

NASCAR’s headquarters is in Florida, but the teams stay here because of tradition as well as the vestigial talent pool that predates the sport’s formal origin in the late 1940s. But even a glance at the NASCAR record books makes clear that the tradition has waned. The state was once dotted with tracks big and small that hosted Cup races, places like Wilkesboro, Fayetteville, Wilson, Hillsborough and even the Gastonia Fairgrounds. When it pulled out of Rockingham a few years ago, only Charlotte Motor Speedway was left to represent North Carolina in NASCAR’s showcase series.

These days, the intensity of North Carolina’s love affair with stock-car racing is being tested as well as questioned after a disappointing debut for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which opened in downtown Charlotte in May 2010. The city won out over other venues across the country by projecting that more than 800,000 visitors a year would flock to it. Charlotte showed its confidence by committing $46 million in loans as well as revenue from a 2% hotel-motel tax to build the place at a cost of nearly $200 million. The Hall of Fame, with its glistening centerpiece display of classic race cars and dozens of interactive exhibits, drew less than 198,000 people its first eight months. “We’re pleased with that,” says Kimberly Meesters, its external-relations manager. “I’m not going to sugarcoat it — we have room to grow attendance — but we’re working hard to build the brand.”

She notes that the attraction opened with the economy in a serious funk. The initial crowd estimate was pared to fewer than 500,000 before the budget was set, but the Hall of Fame lost about $350,000 by the end of 2010 and cut back staff hours and other expenses. Any shortfall is disappointing, Meesters concedes. “The Hall’s not designed to be a loss leader.” But, separate from the operating budget, its ballroom is attracting meetings and conventions. In the first eight months, more than 70 groups brought in 203,000 members who spent about $224 million on hotel rooms and other local expenses. That alone, she notes, exceeds the Hall of Fame’s initial cost.

Meesters and others suggest that the best yardstick for the attraction’s success may be similar hall of fames dedicated to other sports in other cities. Of the big ones, only baseball’s is outdrawing NASCAR’s. Economist Depken says that’s probably as good a measure as any and that there’s little to be gained by over-analyzing the optimistic initial crowd estimates. “If there’s anything we’ve learned from economics in the past three or four years, predicting anything is fraught with problems.” Still, even hard-core baseball fans don’t often think of Cooperstown, N.Y., at vacation time. “It’s not on the way to anywhere,” Depken says. Charlotte is on the way to just about everywhere — at least by air in the East — but it’s a mistake to expect anyone from far out of town to make repeated trips to any hall of fame, he adds. “These things are most likely a one-shot deal.” So in the long run, the fan base will have to be largely local, or at least regional, which comes back to the matter of NASCAR’s roots.

 

As a birthplace for driving talent, North Carolina was to NASCAR what Virginia was to the early presidency, spawning the Pettys, the Earnhardts, the Jarretts and many, many more — but they’re mostly names from the past. The center of NASCAR’s gravity has tilted West in recent years. Jimmie Johnson lives here now, but he was born in California. That’s where Jeff Gordon came from. Brothers Kyle and Kurt Busch hail from Las Vegas. Kasey Kahne is from Washington.

The most sobering sign that North Carolina has lost at least some of its NASCAR mojo may be the decline and fall of what was once the most successful race team on the planet, Petty Enterprises. The team founded by Lee Petty won 10 championships and 268 races, most with Lee’s boy Richard behind the wheel of the iconic No. 43. Richard retired after the 1992 season but remained the sport’s most enduring personality, particularly after the death of Earnhardt. Even while Richard remained active, however, the Level Cross-based team fell behind the competition. In 2008, nine years after the team’s last victory, he sold control of the family business to an investment group called Boston Ventures. The transaction resulted in a celebrity layoff: Son Kyle, who had been CEO as well as one of the team’s two drivers, was out of both jobs.

Richard Petty explained publicly that the transaction was the best way to rejuvenate the team, but it didn’t work out that way. Less than a year later, Boston Ventures bowed out along with Petty’s other driver, Bobby Labonte. What was left of the team merged with Gillett Evernham Motorsports, itself the product of a merger. The amalgam was named Richard Petty Motorsports to showcase The King’s famous name. Petty Enterprises ceased to exist, as the sport’s winningest driver became frontman for majority owner George Gillett Jr., whose other sports interests included a hockey team and an English soccer club. The turmoil continued, however. Gillett made his exit late last year amid mounting debts, and Petty rounded up new investors to keep him in the sport he helped build. He’s now running the RPM race shop for majority owner Andrew Murstein of Medallion Financial, whose primary business is financing New York taxicab licensing.

The new Richard Petty Motorsports LLC fields two cars rather than last year’s four. That meant more layoffs at the team as well as at Roush Fenway, which has been supplying engines, chassis and other support since the Petty operation switched to Ford for the 2010 season. Among those squeezed out was Thomas Payne. At 62, he’s not overly optimistic about finding another job, but he’s not bitter, either. He considers last season a “bonus year” because he’s sure he would have been cut loose earlier without the Petty deal. “The management at Roush was great about keeping us informed of the situation,” he says.

Payne considers his entire time in NASCAR a stroke of luck that began when his wife, Gina, spotted a classified ad in the Gainesville Times one Sunday in 1997 when they were living in Georgia. A race team, then owned by former champ Bill Elliott, was looking for a parts manager. Payne had learned the parts drill in the Navy and later worked for the Panoz sports-car operation, but he knew little about NASCAR’s technical side. Elliott gave him a chance on the strength of solid references. “It was serendipity,” he says. “That little ad changed my life.”

The job was challenging but also exciting, until Payne got his first experience with the vicissitudes of big-time racing a couple of years later when Elliott shut down his Dawsonville shop. Payne helped close the doors, went on unemployment and painted his house while he looked for another job. “It’s always been an unpredictable business. Only it’s more so now.”

After a couple more stops, Payne went to work for Roush in February 2000, joining the teams of Kenseth and Kurt Busch. “I was part of the last Winston Cup championship with Matt and then the first Nextel Cup with Kurt. I got a championship ring for each.” For someone who grew up reading about the early days of NASCAR as they unfolded in the pages of Popular Mechanics, that was “a dream I never dared to dream.” He later had a hand in overseeing the team’s conversion to the new common-template car. “I was responsible for ordering all the parts and pieces for the first Car of Tomorrow.”

These days, he’s doing fix-up projects around the family’s home north of Davidson while feeding the cat and getting his fingers reacquainted with the strings of his old guitar. “My wife’s happy to have me around after all those years of work. We’re blessed. We live a modest lifestyle, so we’re not hurting. Hopefully, I’ll find something, but I’m at an age when I can retire if I have to and if I want to.”

Since his own unplanned retirement nearly three years ago, Don Gemmell has heard from several hundred former NASCAR team members. With the help of a computer-savvy neighbor, Gemmell started a website soon after being laid off called DontCheckUp. (“Don’t check up” is racing-speak for “Keep your foot on the gas!”) The site is something of a Craigs-list for NASCAR job seekers and employers. There are about 400 résumés posted, covering just about every specialty from the front office on down. Gemmel says at least 50 people have found jobs through the site. “That’s not a lot, considering the number of people out of work, but every job helps somebody.” Gemmell figures a few more found work but didn’t tell him. Some have discovered life outside the racetrack. “Several guys are now border-patrol people. Others are sheriff’s deputies. The younger ones especially have been able to adapt.”

Like Payne, Gemmell came to NASCAR late in his working life and from well outside the box. He was in his mid-50s, working with laser beams in a science lab in California, until he joined his wife and grown children in a family decision to relocate to North Carolina. She found employment first by answering a blind ad. It turned out to be an office job at Dale Earnhardt Inc. “I had to pick myself up off the floor when she told me,” he says. He had to pick himself up again when she came home from work one day and told him his lab skills might be just what the team needed in its engine shop. “At the lab, we used to measure things very precisely, down to 20-millionths of an inch. They needed just that expertise with that equipment.”

He worked for a year in the engine department, then moved to the car-building department. He was struck by the same inefficiencies in both. “If you asked why they did things a certain way, they said, ‘Because that’s the way we’ve always done it.’ I’d worked in cost-savings and prioritizing procedures in the lab. Nobody had ever looked at things that way.” Gemmell’s suggestions were well-received by management. He bought software to diagram the entire process of building a race car, “from raw metal on the loading dock to completed car.” Just seeing each step helped move things along. “The crew chiefs were always screaming, ‘Where’s my car?’ Now we were able to give them a diagram to show them exactly what step it was in. Meetings that used to take two and a half hours were reduced to 45 minutes.”

Today, cash-strapped teams are demanding far greater efficiencies. Many have closed their engine departments altogether, buying engines from larger teams. Workers who remain employed are being asked to help fill in for their missing colleagues. “Now one person does two or three jobs,” Gemmell says. “They’re being forced to work longer hours and do more things than they were doing before.”

Gemmell and his wife work from home operating a business that deals in health products. Most of all, he misses the company of all that extraordinary talent. “The quality of the people in those shops impressed me to the core. They work their butt off all week to get ready to race on one day, knowing there’s only going to be one winner and 42 losers. Then you come back on Monday and do it again. It’s an incredible group to be part of — the sort of thing you point to when you look back on what you’ve accomplished in life.”

Doug Kalajian is a Boynton Beach, Fla., freelance writer.