Most people know that the National Football League (NFL) is the most popular sport on TV, but it may raise a few eyebrows to hear that the second highest-rated sport is NASCAR –the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. No longer just a heartland sport, NASCAR is broadcast in over 150 countries. With all this television coverage come the big money and high annual salaries. Unlike NFL salaries, however, NASCAR drivers salaries are closely-guarded secrets.
That said, we do have some info on NASCAR drivers salaries, thanks to SportsIllustrated.cnn.com. SI says the highest-paid driver in 2005 was Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose annual salary and earnings totaled $5,761,830, but that’s not all. His endorsements earned $20,000,000, bringing his sub-total compensation to $25,761,830. That number doesn’t include sales of Dale Earnhardt Jr. merchandise and earnings from the racing company that he owns. SI says his total take in ’05 would approach $50 million!
The second $25 million is really for his role as a business owner, not directly for Dale Jr.’s work as a race car driver. While there are substantial risks to racing (Dale Sr. died on the race track), the pay is still impressive.
Can your salary compete with NASCAR’s drivers salaries? Give it a spin with our salary calculator.
History of NASCAR
Today’s enormous NASCAR drivers salaries are mostly due to television coverage, but it wasn’t always so. In the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s auto racing was a low draw with an occasional broadcast on ABC-TV’s Wide World of Sports. If we look back at the history of NASCAR, according to sportingnews.com, there were 54 races were run by NASCAR in 1969, and the winners were often paid as little as $1,000. Believe it or not, back then, racecar drivers were insured for only $15,000.
Richard Petty, who started driving for NASCAR in the late ’60s, told sportingnews.com, “When you go back to me and Allison and Pearson and all of them, we (were) just making a living. I drove 35 years and didn’t take in but $7.5 million dollars. It took me 15 years to win the first million. These guys today start out with $2 or $3 million dollars in their hand before they ever get in the race car. Then they go out and win another $2 or $3 million dollars or whatever.”
NASCAR Television Schedule
Old number 43 is not exaggerating. Today, NASCAR drivers can take home big earnings in the beginning of their careers. With only one Nextel Cup win under his belt, Jamie McMurray reportedly signed a $10 million dollar, multi-year contract with the Roush Racing Team. And you don’t have to win at the Cup level to draw big bucks; Casey Mears and Brian Vickers, were in high demand (sans a Cup win) when their contracts expired. NASCAR is clearly gearing towards younger racers, while older drivers find themselves in the Craftsman Truck Series.
In NASCAR, drivers are essentially free agents who sign with “teams” that have an owner. The owner makes money via corporations which pay big bucks for those stickers (sponsorships) that are plastered all over race cars. The size and location of the sticker determines how much a corporation pays the team owner. The most expensive location is on the hood of a race car, most prominent during TV broadcasts. It is sponsorships (and the NASCAR television schedule), not prize winnings, that mostly fuel NASCAR.
When it comes to NASCAR jobs, where does all that fuel, er, money go? Msn.foxsports.com crunched the numbers for a mid-level standard two-car team. For big name driving teams, multiply these numbers by one and a half or more:
- Drivers’ salaries: see above
- Team salaries: $2.5-3.5 million, or an average salary of ~$30,000/year for ~100 employees
- Travel: $1 million per team
- Tires: $1 million per team ($20,000 per race weekend plus testing)
- In-house engine program: $3.5 million+
- Cars: $1-3 million per team
Toyota NASCAR Engine = Higher Annual Salary
Those numbers climbed even higher when the Toyota NASCAR Engine entered the race. According to, nascar.com, “In a Jan. 17 New York Times report, Ford Racing head Dan Davis called Toyota ‘predators,’ claiming he had heard (Michael) Waltrip signed (Dale) Jarrett for $20 million, and that another Toyota team, Red Bull, lured engineer John Probst from Ford by doubling or tripling his salary.”
“A lot of them are cracking the six-figure mark for certain teams, and with Toyota swooping in with offers, team salaries are going to keep rising. Deals that were once done on a handshake will now be penned via a three-year contract by a professional human resources coordinator.”
The drivers are paid, like entertainers or other athletes, for performance. I am glad to hear the support staff, which is critical to the success of a racing team, is starting to receive better wages as well.
How does your salary place among these racers? Find out with our salary survey.
Dr. Al Lee