Ernest Hemingway once said that, “Auto racing, bull fighting and mountain climbing are the only real sports… all others are games.”
All decade long, we’ve heard such age-old discussion of how NASCAR drivers stack up to the athletic performances of the stick ‘n’ ball sports: Major League Baseball, the NFL, the NHL and the NBA. You can go back and forth on that question for ages; but in the end, you’ll never be able to test athletes on the same athletic skill that makes them so great. However, there’s another area where direct comparison is readily available; it’s a mode of financial number crunching that goes far beyond physical talent laid out on a track, a football field or a baseball diamond, one that gives you an idea of just how much one man measures up against another.
It’s the checkbook.
For years, NASCAR drivers have always lagged behind when it comes to the money given to feed their wallet. It always struck me as one of the great inequities in professional sports: stick-and-ball players making more money than racecar drivers, even though the latter have a work schedule that’s longer and just as rigorous in many cases. But after a long, storied history of falling behind the curve, it seems that in recent years the pendulum of compensation has finally begun to swing in favor of stock car’s finest.
With the World Series starting in just a few hours at Fenway Park, I decided to take a look at the rosters of both the Boston Red Sox and Colorado Rockies. Now, MLB player contracts are not exactly top-secret information, and what you find out can really surprise you. Sure, Red Sox ace Josh Beckett can blow a 97-mph fastball past just about any hitter out there, doing so with JDAM-like location and accuracy. But for that, he is paid just $6.7 million annually.
Of course, there’s still the handful of exceptions, stars with Alex Rodriguez-like salaries that command far and above the discount involved with one star pitcher from Boston. But Beckett’s annual salary is not far off what today’s top drivers make over the course of a season. Tony Stewart, for example, gets a guaranteed base salary of $5 million a year, according to a 2003 USA Today article. Most drivers will get to keep 40%-50% of their winnings (Stewart collected over $8.8 million in prize money in 2006), as well as their souvenir sales and whatever other personal endorsements they land.
Of course, don’t forget those lucrative extended happy hour sessions they get to run on Saturday as well.
But on a more serious note, racecar drivers have come a long way from the early days, where many had to hold down a full-time job just to make ends meet. The old adage used to be, when a racecar driver wanted to make more money, he just raced some more. That is still true to some degree, but not as much as it once was over the last 60 years of NASCAR history.
When Lee Petty won his first title in 1954, he won $21,000 for his trouble. Just 10 years later, when son Richard Petty won his first of seven titles, his earnings had increased to a whopping $114,000. The Pettys ran their own cars – so they did not have to split their prize money with the owner per se – but they often reinvested it into their racing operation, making their profit margin rather limited. Yes, it helped that they were a factory Chrysler team, but it wasn’t as if they had a ton of sponsors plastered all over the side of Richard’s ’64 Plymouth Fury, either. Certainly, you could never call the Pettys a multi-million dollar family back in the early days.
But my, how times have changed, as the move up the financial ladder has come fast and furious for NASCAR’s top-level talent. Bill Elliott was the first driver to earn over $2 million in a single season when he won 11 races and the Winston Million bonus in 1985 by winning the Daytona 500, Winston 500 and Southern 500. Back then, a million dollars was really something; now, just 22 years later, back of the pack drivers make that with minimal effort.
When Ginn Racing folded up this year, it was reported that Sterling Marlin and Joe Nemechek were each earning a base salary of $1.2 million, plus 45% of their race winnings – and that’s despite being mired in 34th and 27th in owner points, respectively. When former Haas CNC driver Mike Bliss sued his ex-car owner after being bounced from his ride after the 2005 season, it was revealed he was making a base salary of $500,000 while recouping 40% of his winnings ($3.1 million for 2005) and 30% of souvenir sales.
Not bad for finishing 28th in points.
Even when it comes to a career, the King of NASCAR can’t compare to the money being thrown towards veteran drivers today. After 35 years of racing, seven Daytona 500 wins and seven championships, Richard Petty wound up earning a grand total of $8,541,210 in that span. While impressive, that’s $300,000 less than what Stewart earned for a winning five races and not even cracking the top 10 in points back in 2006.
But even with salaries skyrocketing, a philosophical question looms – just how great is the money? While they finally are making what their contemporaries in other professional sports bring home, many of today’s drivers feel it’s still not nearly enough. Gone now are the days when guys will race into their 50s; iron men like Dale Earnhardt, Ricky Rudd, Dale Jarrett and Mark Martin are soon to be a thing of the past, making financial success in the present all the more crucial.
In fact, Greg Biffle said last Friday at Martinsville that he’d like to put together a pair of three-year deals after his next contract with Roush Fenway Racing, allowing him to race part-time as soon as he’s monetarily secure. “To be totally honest, if I could sign a three-year deal that I ran 15 to 17 races, I’d strongly consider ending the full-time thing sooner (than after my next contract). It gives you a life,” he explained of his proposed change of pace.
That wouldn’t be much of a surprise… except Biffle is just 37. And he’s not alone in his assessments; Jeff Gordon, who is currently leading the points, foresees 2009 as the year where he may enter the final phase of his career. For him, money isn’t much of a motivator, simply because he has so much of it. He’s now out to simply win races and championships and establish some records of his own. He could possibly tie Richard Petty’s and Earnhardt’s mark of seven championships, and stands a chance at catching David Pearson for second on the all-time wins list at his current pace.
So, what’s the reason for the trend towards higher paychecks followed by early exits? The most precious, valuable commodity you can’t put a price on: time. Today’s drivers face a hectic schedule that is full of races, testing and sponsor obligations. But hey – you get what you pay for. At least today these men get a fireproof Nomex suit at the track instead of a pair of highwaters, a golf shirt and a leather helmet.
In the end, racecar drivers, just like the rest of us, are motivated by many different things, and – whether you like it or not – money is often one of them. With that in mind, it’s nice to see that success on the track will now be rewarded appropriately when it comes to the weekly paycheck. With all there is that seems to be so wrong with the state of the sport today to fans and non-fans alike, it is nice to see that the guys putting their lives on the line – both physical and personal – are finally getting paid as they truly should be, giving them the option to get out of the sport when they can.
Hemingway wouldn’t expect anything less for a real athlete.
About the author
Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.
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