By Jerry Bonkowski
The Sports Xchange
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In a year where millions of Americans have been laid-off from their jobs, there's a certain irony in the feel-good stories that emerged from Thursday's Gatorade Twin 150 qualifying races for Sunday's Daytona 500.
A month ago, Jeremy Mayfield, Tommy Baldwin, Jr. and Scott Riggs were prepared to watch the 51st Daytona 500 from the comfort of their living rooms.
All veterans of the NASCAR world, each had been laid-off or released from their previous jobs either during or after last season.
But taking a page from the entrepreneurial spirit America is known for, the trio decided that if no one wanted them, they'd go out and race for themselves.
And now, less than a month after making the decision to do just that, Mayfield, Baldwin and Riggs all find themselves in the field for Sunday's running of the Great American Race.
Riggs, driving for long-time Cup crew chief turned new team owner Baldwin, will start 17th, while Mayfield will be alongside in 18th position, driving for a team that he holds majority ownership in.
"To know where we were at and how much hard work has been done in such a short amount of time is just unbelievable," Mayfield said. "To come here and do this, it's like winning 10 races, I'll tell you that."
Millions of NASCAR fans, many victims themselves of the economy, need something to cheer about – and Mayfield, Baldwin and Riggs may become folk heroes of sorts in Sunday's race.
"That's what is kind of sad about the sport right now: there's a lot of good people that really deserve good jobs," Mayfield said.
Mayfield is doing his part: he's hired a number of laid-off crew members, including seven previously employed at Chip Ganassi Racing.
"That's something I'm very proud of, being able to at least employ 10 or 15 guys that had been laid off, at least help their family, help them out," Mayfield said. "It's just amazing right now how many that's like that."
Mayfield's team is exactly 24 days old. It's so new that he freely admits he doesn't know the full names of probably half his new employees, not to mention many others who are volunteering their time to help out.
"I don't even know half the guys on the pit crew, but I'm going to get to know them because they're going to be around for a long time," Mayfield said.
Mayfield, whose best career finish in the 500 was 3rd in 1998 (the same race that the late Dale Earnhardt finally won his first and only 500 title), has assembled his rag-tag crew in old school fashion. He's paying them a fair wage, but with built-in incentive. If he qualifies for a race, they get a bonus. If he does well in that same race, they get another bonus of as much as 30 percent of their salary.
"The guys that work on our team, everybody there wants to work on it," Mayfield said. "They're all excited. Not one time has anybody complained about anything. I'm sure the economy has a lot to do with that, too, when you've been laid off.
"From the outside looking, I'm not going to complain about anything anymore. I don't know who I can complain to anymore. The car owner? He can complain back to me. It makes you appreciate what you got when you sit out for a little bit and realize what you had is gone."
Mayfield sheepishly admitted that most of his new team's employees haven't even received their first paychecks yet, but with a minimum prize of $250,000 in Sunday's race, they'll all be getting paid in the next few days.
"Hopefully we can pay them now," Mayfield laughed. "We've got 15, maybe 20 at the most, including our pit crew. Everybody on this race team has been on winning race teams, have won races in the past.
"That experience helped us more today than anything. To be able to get our cars done in such a short amount of time, come here and race like we did with no problems is pretty cool."
Mayfield admittedly has had problems in recent years. He was forced out of Evernham Motorsports in 2006 when he publicly criticized then-team owner Ray Evernham's relationship with driver Erin Crocker. He moved to Bill Davis Racing in 2007, but sponsorship evaporated quickly.
He started last season with CNC Haas Racing (the predecessor to what is new Stewart Haas Racing), but lasted just seven races before he was released.
While he had some nibbles of interest since then, none were substantial enough to lure Mayfield back behind the wheel.
"If I ever want to retire as a driver, I want to retire on my own, not be pushed to the wayside," Mayfield said. "That's what kept me motivated to do this. I wanted to come back. I love NASCAR racing more than anything. It's what I know, what I've always done.
So, Mayfield adopted a new philosophy: if you can't join 'em, beat 'em at their own game.
"It was tough (not driving)," he said. "A lot of the things you go through in the past helps you to get where you're going in the future. It certainly was one of them today.
"If I knew I was going to get this much support from so many people, I probably would have done this better, would have been better prepared. I don't know if that's a good thing or not. We would have been better prepared for the season.
"It's been overwhelming, all the NASCAR officials, everybody at NASCAR, everybody in the garage. It's just been unbelievable as far as their support, everybody wanting to lend a hand. It makes you feel good when you come back like that. I feel welcomed back in the sport."
As for Baldwin and Riggs, both were looking for jobs when Baldwin felt he could pull together just enough money to field a 500 entry, and with Riggs behind the wheel.
"Man, we're elated," Riggs said. "I'm very happy with all the guys. This is grass roots right now for us. I mean, you go to the shop, it's a lot of guys are just volunteers, passionate about racing. They're addicted to the racing bug that we all are addicted to. They put their heart and soul into it from faith in Tommy, the whole organization.
"To be able to scrap something together from a month and a half ago to nothing, to be able to put something together, come here, run good, be pretty strong in the pack, get ourselves in the race, it speaks volumes for us."
Baldwin hopes his shoestring budget team will be able to compete in all 36 races, but is currently budgeting enough revenue to get the team through the first three races: Daytona, Fontana (Calif.) and Las Vegas.
"It came down to a point that I had to make a decision," Riggs said. "Am I going to sit at home and stay on the phone and call people and hope that something opens up to give me an opportunity to get in the car? Or am I going to go down to Daytona and start the season off with somebody, like Tommy, who in my situation has more experience than anyone I've ever worked with as a crew chief?
"What really made the decision for me is when I talked to Tommy and heard the passion in his voice, heard it just talking to him several times on the phone, how dedicated he was, how positive he was. He said, 'We're going to do this. Stick with me; we'll do it.'"
"I hope things can go further and we can continue to race. Tommy is committed to go to every single race and try to qualify for every single race. The more the sponsorship comes, the more opportunities we have to get our races paid for, the more races we're going to try to race."
Right now, Baldwin's and Rigg's No. 36 Toyota is unsponsored, other than a few minor associate sponsors. Despite that, the entire team thinks it could potentially steal away either a win or strong finish if, like Mayfield, breaks go their way.
"It's very satisfying for us, considering how fast we've come together, all the things that we've put together in one little shop, the guys there working that are volunteers, working on the cars to get them to the racetrack," Riggs said. "I don't think anyone has any high expectations of us. We want to under promise and over deliver."
"I hope we've earned some respect from other guys out there that saw how good our car drove, how good we ran. I hope we can get a little more help Sunday when it comes time to really get paid."