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Wheeler just wants to help

At 3:30 in the morning, H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler woke up like he'd been hit with a bolt of electricity, his mind occupied by only one thought:

"There has to be something we can do to help these people out."

"These people" are the ever-growing number of unemployed racers who are finding themselves out on the street as NASCAR teams and the companies that depend on racing slash payroll to survive during these tough economic times.

Since the end of the 2008 NASCAR season, an estimated 700 to 1,000 motorsports workers have lost their jobs. A second wave of layoffs is expected after Daytona Speedweeks, when teams that are merely hanging on for a sponsorship miracle likely will be forced to make cuts.

As president of the Lowe's Motor Speedway, Wheeler's daily mission was to convince people to fall in love with his sport. These days, the retiree's goal is to help save the people who helped build that sport.

"I sat up that night and thought about all the stories I was reading and the calls I'd been getting about so many good people, including a lot of my friends, who were suddenly out of work," said Wheeler, who resigned from his post at LMS in May. "Ninety-five percent of those folks have never lost a job before. What do you do? How do find another job? How do you pay the bills in the meantime? How do you write a good résumé? There had to be a way to help them out."

So Humpy did what Humpy does best -- he got on the phone and went to work. The result was the founding of the Motorsports Employment Task Force, a rally point for those suddenly in need of one.

PAST IS PROLOGUE

NASCAR has actually been here before, but the numbers weren't as dramatic because the sport didn't employ as many people. In 1970 a tremendous percentage of NASCAR workers received pink slips when Detroit auto manufacturers -- the primary source of income before the current sponsor-driven business model -- pulled their factory support of teams.

"Yeah, I was one of those people," said Wheeler, who lost his longtime position as the racing director for Firestone Tires in the '70s. "It's hard on anyone when they lose a job, but it is particularly hard when you lose a job that you took with your heart. We all got into racing because we are passionate about it. Which makes it hard to realize that you may have to go do something else for a while until there is a racing job to come back to."

For Wheeler that meant nearly four years of working for the Charlotte mayor's office, running a local dirt track and selling commercial real estate. Eventually the sport bounced back and he landed the job at Charlotte Motor Speedway that he would keep for more than three decades.

"Not everyone was willing to do that back then, and they packed up and left North Carolina for jobs in the Midwest and out in California," he said. "When the upswing came, they weren't here to come back with it. We need to make sure that doesn't happen again this time. How? By educating them on how to weather the storm during these hard times."

A PIT CREW FOR PIT CREWS

Wheeler's first call was to Andy Papathanassiou, director of the North Carolina Motorsports Association, a chamber of commerce-type organization formed to further the interests of the racing industry in the Tar Heel state.

Humpy and Andy Papa started steering the recently unemployed to counseling services such as Charlotte-based United Family Services. Wheeler also started researching and contacting North Carolina-based industries that needed employees with NASCAR-style skill sets, such as military contractors and airplane manufacturing firms.

As the resources began to come together, Wheeler started looking at opening an office where the NASCAR needy could stop by to make sense of it all.

"Then I ran across this Web site," he said. "And in an instant, I knew we had found the ultimate tool for what we were trying to do."

DON'T CHECK UP

The beginning of this current era of cutbacks can be traced to a pair of large layoffs at one place -- Dale Earnhardt Inc. One of those who was handed his pink slip was DEI production scheduler Don Gemmell.

While many of his former co-workers sat in stunned silence, Gemmell, like Wheeler, scrambled to figure out how he could help. As production scheduler at DEI, he'd been responsible for tracking the construction of race cars and engines from the time they began as a rack of metal to the time they took the green flag. Now he wanted to devise a way to help his fellow DEI refugees steer their way from being unemployed to landing new jobs.

"The big thing was to give them hope," Gemmell said. "None of us had ever been in this position before. We needed a place to find information and a place to remind them that we were all in this together."

He went to neighbor Jeff Jones, owner of JMJ Consulting in Mooresville, N.C., and a man who knew plenty about how to build a Web site. Gemmell settled on the name www.dontcheckup.com as a reminder to keep the hammer down and keep pushing toward the future. If they let out of the gas for even an instant, the situation would run them over from behind. In December the site went live -- one part sounding board, one part bulletin board and one part help-wanted ad.

Former DEI employees could go to the site to post a résumé, find links to unemployment resources, information on how to get health insurance, how to land help with mortgage foreclosures, and even receive special discounts from local merchants in the Mooresville, Concord, Huntersville, N.C., area where the vast majority of NASCAR teams are located.

"When I saw that site it was like a light came on," said Wheeler, who tracked down Gemmell to tell him about the NCMA's efforts and figure out a way the two could join forces. "The guys who built that site understood where I was coming from and I understood where they were coming from. And they were gracious enough to open their site to include not just former DEI employees but every NASCAR worker in search of a new job. They are true heroes in this community."

"You wouldn't believe some of the résumés I've gotten," said Gemmell, who is putting in 16-hour days for no pay while he searches for a new job himself. "One of them is from a guy who has been in this sport for 24 years and all it says is, 'a lifetime of racing experience.' It's amazing that he's looking for a job now."

As of early January the site had roughly 300 résumés posted and had placed six people into jobs, each receiving a prominent "EMPLOYED!" stamp. Late Sunday night he was sorting through a new batch of potential listings that had poured in after a recent story about the site aired on a local news station.

"I know six of 300 might not sound like much, but it's progress," Gemmell said. "It's proof that this idea can work and that there is reason to stay positive and hope."

HIGH TIDE'S A-COMIN'

The same Humpy Wheeler who used to walk nonstop over every inch of his speedway until he was satisfied that every customer in the house was happy now devotes his time working to revive some happiness in the racing community.

It's not that he doesn't have plenty else to do. He's working on a book of his legendary stories, his advice is actively sought by nearly every corner of the NASCAR world and well, there's really too much to keep track of.

But all of that has been put aside for now. Right now he's worried about the racing people … his people.

"Our sport isn't taking a step backward like so many people are trying to say," he said. "We've simply hit a plateau at the end of a historically steep growth curve. Now everyone is being forced to perform a makeover to handle that. Every sport has dealt with this before and every sport has experienced a second boom behind it.
"Somewhere out there is a kid, some driver we don't even know about yet, and he's going to show up and breathe new life into this sport and we'll be booming again. Until then we all need to work together to protect one another. We'll be fine."

Humpy's going to make sure of it.

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.