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NASCAR layoffs create soul searching, opportunity

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Scott Ward displaying the three rings he’s earned while a NASCAR Sprint Cup tire changer, including his 2004 championship

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NASCAR once again comes home to Lowe's Motor Speedway this weekend. But the homecoming is bittersweet for the many team members who've lost their jobs in the last year. WFAE's Scott Graf has more on the stories of people like Scott Ward. "I've done pit stops as fast as 10.8 seconds, to change both front tires," says Scott Ward. As a kid in California, Ward dreamed of coming here and working in the world's premier motorsports league. And in 2000, he realized that dream. He's been in the sport ever since. And he's done well for himself. His best year came in 2007. "I made probably right around $124,000 that year," Ward says. Pay like that has helped Ward buy some nice toys. His garage has two motorcycles, one, a slick-looking crotch rocket and the other a dirt bike fit for Motocross. But his pride and joy is a ring he earned when he helped Kurt Busch win NASCAR's top-level championship in 2004. It was a dream come true. "It's about team work, and being with the right team at the right time, in the right place," he says. "I was very lucky, very fortunate." But Ward's luck ran out. He lost his job after a motorcycle accident. He broke a rib and after a poor pit stop, he got fired from Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. But he wasn't worried. Once he healed, he figured he could get back in quickly. That was a year ago. Now he's changing tires part time in the lower-level Nationwide series. He makes $400 a race. "I never would have really thought I would be counting on a Nationwide team to keep my head above water and pay my bills. I did Nationwide races for play money." But at least he's got a part time gig. Many others can't find any racing related work. That's because, as the economy started heading south, sponsors pulled out of NASCAR. Some estimate 2,000 racing jobs have disappeared as a result. UNC Charlotte economist John Connoughton says much has been made about pain in the banking industry in Charlotte. But he says it's been worse in motorsports. "I mean there's more consolidations, and there's more retrenchment in the NASCAR business - race care production - than there is in the banking industry here," Connaughton says. "More people have lost their jobs [in racing]." But not at Penske Racing in Mooresville. It's one of the exceptions. It has about the same number of employees today as it did a year ago. And human resources manager Terry Taylor says he's getting flooded with resumes, upwards of 4 times as many as he used to get. And he hears a lot of the same stories. "'How do I pay for this house that I bought when my salary was much higher now that I'm unemployed? How do I continue to make these house payments and pay for these other things that I have, whether it be cars or boats or whatever?' We've seen a fair amount of that," he says. NASCAR salaries overheated as the sport gained popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s. John Dodson says too many people got used to making too much money. When he began his racing career in the mid 1980s, the thought of a crew member earning six figures was crazy. "If you made $30,000 that was good," Dodson recalls. "$40,000 was unheard of. I remember when one fabricator was wanting $40,000 back in '85-'86. And it was like man, pay a man $40,000 a year? And now I know some guys making $600,000 a year and $400,000 a year." But the loss of millions of dollars in sponsorship has changed things. " Race teams start looking at that," Dodson says. "They're just like banks. You know? They got to look to where they trim the fat, cut the cost and be as lean as possible, yet not give up any performance." Which is actually sort of good for Dodson. He left the NASCAR shop in 2002 to run NASCAR Technical Institute in Mooresville. The school trains hundreds of young men and women who want to someday work in NASCAR. Dodson says he's helping place graduates in entry-level racing jobs that pay $30,000 to $40,000 a year. Dodson's most recent class graduated two weeks ago. One of the graduates was 21-year-old Corey Szalay. Standing in a black gown, he chomps on his gum as he describes what it is he wants to do in NASCAR. "Anything really. I'll sweep the floors for free," Szalay says. "It don't matter. That's what I came here to do, that's what I want. It's really not about money right now, I just want to get in." There's a lot of people like Szalay. And people like Ward realize that. He says more experienced NASCAR workers now must accept a new reality. "The salaries are gonna change," Ward says. "Am I okay with it? I'm okay with it. These other guys that went and got used to making that money? They're probably not gonna be okay with it. And I think a lot of those guys, unfortunately, they're gonna struggle." Ward says he knows of at least 30 men and women who've given up and moved back to their home states. At 32 he's single, and doesn't have kids. That, he says, allows him to keep his NASCAR dream alive.