Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Mayfield Gets Ready To Come Back His Way

By Jerry Bonkowski
The Sports Xchange

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In these trying economic times, initiative and thinking out of the box become critical.

One of the best ways to do that if you've been laid-off and can't find a job is to consider the entrepreneurial route and go into business for yourself.

That even applies to stock car racing. Several new teams have come together in recent weeks to see if they can make inroads back into the sport after they were previously shown the exit door.

Jeremy Mayfield is among the most well-known of that genre. After losing his gig last April at the then-Haas/CNC Racing, after just seven races into the season, Mayfield began looking for a new driving job.

Unfortunately, other than a one-off shot with Chip Ganassi's team in June, a quality ride and opportunity never materialized for Mayfield.

Once 2009 began and job prospects were gloomier than they were last year, Mayfield decided that if he was ever going to race in the Sprint Cup series again, he'd have to do it his way, on his own terms and with his own money.

In less than one month, Mayfield has put together a credible team that will attempt to race its way in to the 51st Daytona 500 this Sunday in Thursday's Gatorade Twin 150 qualifying races.

The odds are tough: only four spots remain open for the 500, while 17 drivers are vying to be one of those four. Still, Mayfield thinks he and his crew of just 15 employees has a bonafide chance to see the No. 41 Mayfield-owned Toyota Camry on the starting grid for Sunday's Great American Race.

He was 43rd fastest in this past Sunday's front pole qualifying session and will start 21st of 28 drivers in Thursday's second and last Twin 150.

"If we didn't think we couldn't make this race, we wouldn't be here," Mayfield said. "But we fully believe we have the cars, the people and the organization to get us in the 500. Everything after that will be a bonus."

The global economic downturn would seem to be the worst time to start a new team from the ground up, but 15 new teams have sent cars through NASCAR's Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C., over the last two months to become certified for either the Cup, Nationwide or Camping World Trucks series.

Mayfield is joined in first-time efforts by other teams fronted by long-time crew chief Tommy Baldwin Jr., Geoff Bodine, Norm Benning, Phil Parsons, Joe Nemechek and Bob Jenkins, among others.

"I've had opportunities and I didn't want to come back in and say that I was the driver again and was just driving around," Mayfield said. "If the car runs good, fine, then everybody will be happy. And if it don't, then the driver gets the blame and then there you go again. I didn't want to do that and I wasn't going to do that.

"The thing that a lot of people really didn't understand is I went through a lot in the last few years, more than everybody knew. When I lost my dad, I lost a lot. Along the way I'm running bad, I lost my way. The biggest thing I lost was my spirit to want to do this again. There's a lot of reasons why -- because of my dad's deal and the way it all went down."

But Mayfield has worked through his issues and running his own team has given him a renewed enthusiasm and spirit to get back into the game and become competitive once more.

"I've got all that behind me now and I realize that I love racing and I want to get back into doing what I love to do," he said. "Running bad every week wasn't what I wanted to do and so I wasn't going to get myself back in that situation again. Meanwhile, I've become a better person and realized that I do love the sport more than anything. This is what I love doing and rather than go drive for somebody and just be part of it, I want to be here and try to make a difference in other people's lives and myself and build something.

"I love coming here today and starting with nothing. We're sitting here on the ground floor and already have a sponsor, a great sponsor that could potentially be even better. We have no where to go but up."

That is the team's philosophy. Mayfield has pulled together some outstanding talent from a pool of over 1,000 team members that were laid-off after last season due to the economy. They're eager to prove themselves.

"We're hungry," Mayfield said. "We're not looking to finish last in every race. This isn't just some throw together deal of not paying this guy or that guy -- we have good, quality people and that is something that I'm proud of. Hopefully when it's all said and done we'll really be proud.

"I don't know why it wouldn't work. We've got five cars already built and ready to go. Our budget is set, we can work with it and not go over it. A lot of teams, if they miss five races in a row, they're going to be in trouble. If we miss five races in a row, we're not in trouble."

The team is working under a rather austere budget by typical NASCAR standards, planning on doing all 36 Cup races for about $3.5 million. By comparison, the top teams in the Cup series typically spend $15 to $20 million – or more – per season to race.

But at the same time, any sponsorship money that comes in will be plowed right back into the operating budget, allowing the team to buy more equipment and eventually hire more employees.

To that end, not only are the just 15 current employees drawing a good salary, they'll all receive bonuses for each race the No. 41 qualifies for.

It's a hell of an incentive package for everyone, Mayfield avows.

"At this time, we've been able to hire guys when other teams are laying people off," Mayfield said. "That's a good sign. Their salaries are good, we're paying them good money and we only have 15 or 20 guys, rather than 300, and we realize that."

Doing business is a bit different than he's used to, but Mayfield understands that saving money will ultimately allow the team to spend more when it needs to.

"We don't have any airplanes and we try to get as low of airfares as we can on regular flights," said Mayfield, who sold his own personal plane two years ago and has no plans of purchasing another. "When we fly to the West Coast for Fontana and Las Vegas, we're flying out for $238 apiece. Other teams, the owners and drivers fly in their own planes and it can run them up to $40,000. We don't need to spend that much.

"The big problem most of the big teams have is overhead. They have these huge shops, the best of everything. We don't need all that, just enough place to build our cars, work on our cars and prepare our cars for each race. If we don't get too big, too quick, we're not going to have that problem. That's what I'm going to make sure doesn't happen."

But Mayfield, who turns 40 in May, is also a realist. The Owensboro, Ky., native knows there's a chance he'll miss the 500 for only the second time in his 16-year Cup career.

"We've worked extremely hard to get here, but you can't come into it being unrealistic and thinking this is going to be easy, because it's not going to be easy," Mayfield said. "When and if we do make it, I'm telling you that you are probably going to see the happiest group of guys in the world because that's what we've all worked for.

"But if we don't make it, we're not going to say that the ship is sinking. We're not going back Monday morning and the owner be on us about what we didn't do because we're all in this together. Our goal is that we have as good of a shot as anybody to get in this thing, but we all know anything can happen and that's what I keep saying. We're hoping we get in for Sunday … (and) just to let everybody know, its not the end of the world, its not like we're a one-shot-wonder. We're in it for the long haul and that's how we set up to do this thing and Daytona will not make us or break us. If we make it, it will be like winning three or four races in a row."

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